Tight End: Employed or Ignored?

As another season approaches, talk has turned once again to UT's use of its tight ends. It will be an emphasis this season, say the coaches in a familiar refrain. Many Orangebloods, though, will believe it when they see it. Others point to '03 as proof that Texas does indeed utilize the position. A look back at last season's numbers, broken down by opponent, is instructive in assessing how effectively the coaches used the talented duo of David Thomas and Bo Scaife, and what that may mean in '04.

It’s understood in an offense with super-talents such as Vince Young, Cedric Benson and Roy Williams, as last year's arsenal included, not everyone will be fully content with his number of touches every game. It also would be particularly peculiar for a coach to dislike having such a "problem." [Unfortunately, per Dave Campbell’s Texas Football, Mack Brown and Greg Davis considered it a curse of sorts. On page 75, we read: "But, improbable as it may sound, there is a perceived silver lining to (Roy) Williams' departure. Brown said offensive coordinator Greg Davis had difficulty in balancing Young's running talent and the need to control the clock against the temptation to utilize weapons like Williams and company...' The pressure on Greg last year was tremendous,' Brown said."]

Therefore, you may not see each offensive skill player’s name accompanied by loads of numbers in your Sunday morning newspaper every week. Having said that, you would expect, presumably, to see at least a reasonable disbursement in most games of pigskin to player, especially, of course, the stud athletes that warrant the opportunities. To ignore any such options throughout a game against a good defense spells trouble at some point. Why allow a defensive coordinator the luxury of effectively playing his eleven on just ten (or less)?

Yet that’s exactly what seems to be the case based on trends of the 2003 season. It’s of little relevance that Texas threw to the tight end a comparable number of times as most other programs in the nation over the course of the season. After all, the same principle can apply in terms of scoring average. Is it particularly exhilarating to average 40 points a game by producing 60 against Baylor and New Mexico State, yet hang ten against OU in defeat? You don’t need to throw 10 times to David Thomas and Scaife against, say, Iowa State and then dismiss them from the gameplan against a team like Oklahoma, which certainly needs no additional advantage of an opponent ignoring particular skill guys.

So, is that what essentially happened this past year? Let’s check out the numbers, per mackbrown-texasfootball.com:

For the regular season, against the top four rated defenses Greg Davis’ offense faced (#36 Arkansas , #6 Kansas State, #3 OU, and #11 Nebraska), the tight ends Thomas and Scaife combined for a grand total of four catches for 36 yards and zero touchdowns. That’s an average of one half a catch and less than five yards per man per contest.

Among those opponents, Scaife produced the "big" game: a whopping two catches for 16 yards against Oklahoma. The drive chart for that 'contest' shows that he wasn’t thrown to until an incomplete pass came his way with Texas down 44-13 with four minutes left in the third quarter. His two snags came on back-to-back plays late in the fourth, down 58-13. David Thomas’ most meaningful action came on kickoff coverage, when he forced a fumble that Brett Robin recovered with the ‘Horns down only 7-0 at that point. There’s no mention of even one pass being thrown to him during the game.

It can be argued that utilizing the tight end wouldn’t have mattered squat considering the record humiliation that day, and that’d probably be right. The point here, though, is to show that seasonal numbers don’t always tell the story.

The total tight end numbers versus the top four defenses are: David Thomas -- zero catches, zero yards; Bo Scaife -- four catches, 36 yards, zero touchdowns. Against all other teams: Thomas 9-186, 3 TDs; Scaife 11-165, 2 TDs.

To summarize UT's '03 tight end production: Average per TE against top four defenses: one-half a catch for 4.5 yards, zero points; Average against other eight opponents: 2.5 catches for 44 yards, almost four points. Included in those opponents were Rice (98th rated defense), Tulane (112), Iowa State (102), Baylor (105), Texas Tech (106), and A&M (96). In contrast, the four wideouts -- Roy Williams, B.J. Johnson, Sloan Thomas, and Tony Jeffery -- made 73% of the team’s receptions against the strongest four, while dipping a bit to just 69% against the remaining eight.

As far as the Wazzu loss, the tight ends did actually catch six passes. Aha! You say. Alas, they went for a moribund 24 yards -- four yards per reception. No touchdowns. The ‘Horns may have been better off running the ball, especially with the ground game ignored in the second half. It’s hard to justify putting the ball in the air while still eking out such minimal gains. But at least the position wasn’t invisible for once against the better defenses UT faced.

Others may reach different conclusions regarding why the utilization of the tight end so dramatically shrunk against the stouter defenses. My own belief is the offensive minds felt tremendously more comfortable with Roy Williams and Ced Benson than the tight ends, so they ignored Thomas and Scaife when pressed against better defensive units. When playing a defense you know you can shred many different ways, things flow more freely and you show things you’re otherwise extremely hesitant to show.

I believe this year, whether discussing the tight ends, the wideouts, or the running backs, Texas must push defenders to account for all its weaponry, whether the ball gets distributed evenly or not. The threat must be there, at minimum. We didn’t see that last season versus the stronger defenses.

Mack Brown may well have the teeth behind the continual public edict of throwing more to the tight end this year, especially with Roy, Sloan, and B.J. off to the NFL. He did, after all, make good last season on the run-first emphasis. And the tight end has been a consistent target throughout spring and August camp. But that's happened in previous years. The true test will be whether Thomas and Scaife are consistent threats throughout the season, not just in practice and against the defensive weaklings on the schedule.

Bert Hancock has owned two college football-related web sites and was designated "Lead Writer" of one of the first independent web sites dedicated strictly to UT sports. At The University of Texas, where he received a Bachelor of Business degree, his area of specialty was in statistics and probabilities. His "Strength In Numbers" and "Old School" columns have appeared on InsideTexas.com and in the Inside Texas magazine.

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