Dissecting the TE with Cameron Cleeland

Several years have passed since a Sports Illustrated article hailed Washington as "Tight End U." Those were the days when the Huskies produced great tight ends in the same manner USC always cranks out All-American running backs. One of those former Husky standouts is Cameron Cleeland, who played at Washington from 1993-1997.

At 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds, he's part of a lineage that includes Aaron Pierce, Mark Bruener and Ernie Conwell. After being drafted by New Orleans in the second round of the ‘98 NFL Draft, Cleeland went on to a productive seven-year career. This included time spent with the New England Patriots and St. Louis Rams, led by quarterbacks Tom Brady and Marc Bulger, respectively.

Since Cleeland left Washington, the Huskies have been mostly bereft of great play from their tight ends. A commonly anguished cry from fans has been; WHY DON'T THEY THROW TO THE TIGHT END MORE? Of course, sometimes there's more to it than meets the eye. Cleeland was asked to discuss the public's biggest misunderstanding about the tight end position.

"That it's not important," he said. "In the NFL, it's one of the lowest-paid positions. It's not an emphasis. A lot people think that you can get an inside receiver that can handle everything inside. Or you can get an extra big tackle in there to block. The tight end will never be viewed like a quarterback. He will always be viewed as the blue collar guy. It's the workhorse position of the offense. You're always unsung. However, after the quarterback, I consider it the hardest position. You've got to block the strongest and biggest guys and you've also got to run with the fastest guys—the safeties and linebackers. You've got to be able to do both, and if you can't, you won't be successful." Cleeland went into detail about the value of tight ends.

"The tight end's job is to run the `20-yard box' which is everything from hash-to-hash," he said. "If you have really good outside receivers (who command the defense's attention), you're going to have a tight end in 1-on-1 situations versus safeties or linebackers. The big advantage is that you can have a tight end run down the middle and keep pressure off the outside receivers by saving them from being double-teamed.

"On the other hand, some teams will use a tight end to block," he said. "If their offensive line is not strong enough they will want an extra blocker in there to protect the quarterback. It was just like what Washington was doing last year to protect Jake Locker and letting him roll out. They weren't sending the tight end down the middle because the line wasn't strong enough to protect on blitzes or from pass rushers. There's a fine line in these things. But I think the tight end is such a value especially in short yardage and 3rd down situations. Because you're going to get a lot of 1-on-1 coverage in those situations. If you have a guy who can beat his man, it's an advantage. It's a shorter throw for the quarterback, it's a bigger target. The QB doesn't have to roll out of the pocket to throw. It's a huge advantage. In the red zone, usually around the 15 or 20 yard line, guys are about equal in quickness. Tight ends can make their money in the 10-12 yard routes. A guy like Jeremy Shockey or Kellen Winslow has a great ability in that area." In Cleeland's analysis, a great tight end would have made an enormous difference for Washington's offense last season.

He also singled out the imminent arrival of Kavario Middleton, a heralded tight end recruit from Lakes High School. "The tight end is the most important part of an outside running game," Cleeland said. "He's got to control the outside shoulder of the defensive end, and he has to outrun and block the linebackers that are usually there (on the edge). In last year's Husky games, most of Jake's passes were boots and rollouts to the outside. There weren't a lot of middle throws. That put a lot of pressure on the receivers and the outside of his line, just to keep him from taking shots and being hit. It makes a big difference when you have an outlet in the middle of the field. The Huskies didn't have a middle of the field passing game and that hurt them. That's what is great about Middleton coming in this year."

It is well-known that a quarterback's cardinal sin is throwing into double coverage, and a fullback's is to whiff on blocking a blitzing linebacker. So that begs the question: what's the cardinal sin for tight ends?

"A tight end can never hold," said Cleeland. "You're on the outside so you're always being scrutinized. You're always in view. You can never hold. You also never want to fade downfield on a route. You always come back to the ball. You've got to make it easy for the quarterback to throw to you. Rule #1 is to protect the ball. Football is about eleven different 1-on-1 battles going on at the same time. The goal of the team is for each man to beat his individual opponent. It only takes one breakdown from one guy that can cause a total breakdown of the play."

Heading into the 2008 season, the Huskies yearn to see better production from their tight ends. Cleeland was asked his thoughts on what separates a great tight end from a mediocre one.

"The only way I can answer that is from my own experience," he said. "It's confidence. While at Washington, I had a confidence that I learned from the guys I was under - the Breuners and Conwells — that you were better than everyone else right away. You have to have that attitude. It's not cocky, it's just confidence. You knew you were better, and you played with confidence. You can't have fear in football. Even if an opponent is faster, it doesn't matter. Within 10 yards, I always felt like I could outrun everybody. I was never scared to block anybody. I was stronger than our offensive line. It's a confidence thing. When tight ends aren't involved in the offense, they don't develop that confidence in either games or practices. Then it's up to the coaches to take that on. This is why the great players stand out, because they know they can make any play, and they know that they're better than the player they're lining up against."
Derek Johnson can be reached at derekjohnsonbooks@comcast.net

His website is www.derekjohnsonbooks.com

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