The old-school tight ends were inline types whose primary function was to block. They’d break off and lumber wildly into the intermediate and deep zones like stray animals that had lost their way from the herd. As the game got faster, the tight ends got faster - they became actual skill players. They would split away from the offensive line, using their size and athleticism to create mis-matches for linebackers and smaller secondary players.
Then the tight end athletes became supreme beings, capable of playing inside as extra blockers or outside as bigger receivers. We saw that in action a couple years ago with Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who won the 2013 Mackey Award for college football’s best tight end, and ASJ has become the blueprint for what every team desires; a huge athlete that can run like a deer, has soft hands, and can block like an extra tackle. In days well gone by that would be akin to a Sasquatch search, but with exercise and position training now at greater levels than we’ve ever seen before, young players are showing up to college with those traits in record numbers. Like the evolution of video games, big athletic athletes are now plug-and-play.
With John Ross out for spring and Receivers Coach Brent Pease relying on more walk-ons than scholarship players in his room, we saw the tight ends pick up the slack and then some.
- Josh Perkins (6-4, 226, Sr.)
- James Boker (6-5, 224, Sr.)*
- Darrell Daniels (6-4, 230, Jr.)
- David Ajamu (6-5, 251, So.)
- Drew Sample (6-4, 249, RFr.)
- Mike Neal (6-4, 219)
Where does the receiver position find itself after spring: Many years teams are lucky to have three tight ends that know the playbook; after this spring Washington has three tight ends that have the potential to change the way the offense runs. While there were questions as to the receiver group heading into April, there are no doubts about the tight end room in May.
Here’s what we did find out about each tight end during the 15 spring practices held at Husky Stadium:
NotesThe lone senior scholarship tight end has worked his way up through the ranks to become one of the more reliable offensive performers the Huskies have had the last couple of seasons. Perkins had the second-most receptions of anyone last year behind Jaydon Mickens, and I fully expect that order to be the same in 2015 based on how he performed during the spring. He didn’t go nuts, but he didn’t have to. He’s a known quantity now and didn’t need the spring to shock and awe.
NotesIt’s doubtful the senior walk-on will get any playing time in 2015, but he showed in spring that an extra tight end is a valuable asset to possess when you may be short on bodies in other areas. Boker didn’t have any catches in the Spring Preview, but did splash a few times during the earlier practices.
NotesIf it appeared Daniels was starting to ‘get it’ at tight end when he took a short pass nearly 70 yards for a touchdown against Oregon State, there’s no question the junior receiver convert has made the full transition after his effort this spring. And he did it by showing off the athleticism that initially pegged him as one of Washington’s best receivers when he came to UW three years ago. Expect to see more of Daniels split out wide, as he did this April, to create mismatches with his size.
NotesIf Daniels impressed this spring, Ajamu was a revelation - perhaps the offensive performer of Washington’s spring campaign. At 250 pounds, Ajamu fits the mold of a true inline tight end that can also go out and find those creases in the defense and exploit them. He had three catches for 53 yards, and I think he should average a couple of catches a game in 2015 to take that next step in his development.
NotesSample was starting to have a breakout spring - his first in the purple and gold - before injury sidelined him. Sample is physically in the same mold as Ajamu, a player that is built as a traditional, inline tight end that can also split out and demonstrate enough athleticism to create opportunities against smaller defenders in space.
Sample should be fully healed by the time this is written, giving him a full summer and fall to catch up on his playbook and turns on the field. That will give Washington four legitimate tight ends that can do damage. Perkins and Daniels make up the first iteration of the tight end revolution - the smaller, faster tight ends that can spread the field and create all kinds of havoc down the field. Ajamu and Sample represent the body type closer to that of Seferian-Jenkins, the Swiss Army knife of tight ends.
Should Mike Neal play this fall?: If you are UW Tight Ends Coach Jordan Paopao and you have a stable of three legitimate tight end threats and a walk-on in James Boker and redshirt frosh in Drew Sample that can provide scout work to give those top three more turns in the depth, you are in dreamland. That’s the exact scenario you’d like to see as players naturally develop and earn their stripes without the unnecessary messiness of playing before their time.
In that exact scenario, you keep incoming frosh Mike Neal packed in cotton wool and bubble-wrap, allowing him to come up for air only when Tim Socha doesn’t need him in the weight room. By locking him up and attaching the right kind of muscle on Neal’s 6-foot-4, 219-pound frame, the evolution of UW’s tight end room remains right on schedule. That way, when Perkins graduates after the 2015 season, Sample comes in to bump the others up and Neal is now pushed along for his first spring a year from now. And then whoever the Huskies sign for 2016 follows Neal’s path.
It’s the way team-building and player development is supposed to work - a rarity these days. One of the reasons you don’t see it much anymore is due to injury, and realistically that’s the only obstacle in the way. If Washington’s tight ends can avoid the injury bug, Neal’s redshirt will become a permanent fixture. Right now they are telling him to get ready to play and be in the best shape of his life, because you always hope for the best but plan for the worst.
And if Mike Neal had to play in 2015, that would be Washington’s worst-case scenario.