Building the perfect tight end

SEATTLE - If you add up the combined catches of Mike Gottlieb, Rob Lewis and Johnie Kirton in 2006, you would come up with 22 - good enough for third on the Washington Huskies' receiving list. If you added up their yards, you would come up with 233 yards - also good for third on the team. But those three aren't satisfied one bit with being part of a 'trio of one'.

But in the end, it just might make the Huskies that much stronger.

"I like the chemistry of the group," Washington Head Coach Tyrone Willingham said Tuesday. "I think the group is working very well together. I like the competition. But I would like one guy to separate themselves, because if that happens, that means he's pretty special. And who would turn down a special player?"

But if the group - which includes Gottlieb, Lewis, Kirton, Walt Winter, Tim Harris - as well as freshmen Chris Izbicki and Romeo Savant - doesn't identify a lead playmaker in it's own competition? What if they do like they did last year? What if it ends up being tight end by committee?

"The coaches are saying it's a competition, and I think they are looking for a guy that can be a complete tight end," Lewis said. "I think all three of us (including Gottlieb and Kirton) are going to play."

"The way Coach Lappano has talked about it - even if one of us starts, the next play could us two tight ends, or three," added Kirton. "A lot of coaches wish they had what our staff has and what our team has. In most cases, teams might have one or maybe two if they are lucky, to back them up. We have four guys that are strong and know what they are doing. In a whole, we have a strong core."

No question having everyone back healthy and together makes for a strong core. "I love the flexibility," Willingham said. "It puts the defense on defense. You want them reacting to what you're during. If we can come at them with a lot of personnel groups, a lot of variety - it makes it difficult on them."

But the burning question remains - who is going to be the starter?

After missing some time last year with an injury, Gottlieb feels he's ready to show people what he's capable of given a full, healthy season. "I know what I'm capable of and I know what my ceiling is, and I'm just trying to reach that every day," he said. "And if I do that, then I'll be going where I need to go."

Lewis, the only fifth-year senior of the group, knows his time has to be now - or else. "All three of us want to start, but the purpose of the competition is to make all of us better," he said.

Kirton, who arguably has the greatest physical upside of the three, even brings the threat of the run to the table - which only expands his versatility. "I think it helps that I moved from running back," he said of the switch to tight end in college. "My whole life playing football, I've had to stay on my toes, staying quick. My lateral movement is good and my hands are good."

But don't discount Gottlieb's energy and Lewis' wisdom. All three bring valuable pieces to the table - in essence creating a 'super tight end'. "The strength is the position as a whole," Lewis said. "If one goes down, we're still set at the position."

Kirton, for his part, tried to do as much as he could in the off-season - fitting in time to lift in the mornings and afternoons from his busy schedule of being a mentor, bus boy at the RAM and security at places like the White River Amphitheater and Qwest Field. And as Willingham alluded to at the beginning, it's the chemistry the group brings that will allow them to keep their eye on the ultimate prize.

"We keep it on the field," Lewis said. "Whenever we're on the field, we go 100 percent. Team before self. We're all hungry for a bowl game. If we're starting, that's a plus, but we're hungry for that bowl game."

Kirton, who also carried the ball five times last year - is putting aside personal goals to make his team the best it can be. "I would love to have more carries, but I have to give them a lot more at the tight end position," he said. "And if I do that, I get rewarded with more carries - and that feeds my hunger.

"Coach (Tim) Lappano knows that I'm there, and it's their decision. Just given the little taste last year, I think that's enough for teams to think about it, stay on their toes for that option." Top Stories