"That's just totally false," junior tight end Michael Villagrana said forcefully of the perception that his position is a mere afterthought. "We are a big part of this offense. We don't get the ball as much as in other offenses, but when we are called upon we are going to take advantage of that opportunity. This year, and so far during this camp, we are taking advantage of the passes that come to us. This summer, we worked a lot with Pat [White] and all the quarterbacks getting us the ball. It's really working right now."
Of course, it's no surprise that Villagrana and his teammates at tight end would vigorously defend their position. They see signs, however, that the ball might be coming more their way this fall.
"I firmly believe we will be a bigger part of the offense," he said. "More than ever, I think we will be involved in the offense. We're getting two or three balls every day. I just shrug my shoulders when people say we aren't a big part of this."
Of course, the overlooked part of the tight end position is the blocking it provides. While the offensive line routine gets accolades for the running room it clears for White, Steve Slaton and Owen Schmitt, the tight end spot, for some reason, doesn't get included in the group. Much of that is due to the perception of the tight end more as another receiver than as another offensive lineman – a glaring oversight that should be corrected by many Mountaineer fans.
Villagrana jokes about that, but also makes clear that his contributions as a blocker are important as well.
"Sometimes when I see the linemen getting all the accolades, I think ‘Hey, we're part of that, too,'" he said with a laugh. "But we are a part of the offensive line. We have to have really good communication skills with the tackles, and we have to work well with them. So far, it's been working really well."
While the tight ends work with coach Herb Hand during individual work, they also occasionally merge with the offensive linemen to hone their group performance.
"Sometimes we will take a period and work with the offensive linemen, but really all the blocking things we do are the things that Coach Trickett tells his players," Villagrana explained. "We're doing the same blocks, the same zone steps, the same out steps – everything is the same. We just have to make sure we communicate well with them."
Villagrana honed his blocking last year as part of West Virginia's double tight end set, which he often manned in tandem with graduated senior Josh Bailey. It was out of just such a set that he made the biggest play for the tight ends in 2005, as he snared s short touchdown pass against Virginia Tech for WVU's first score of that game.
"Last year I was part of the double tight set," Villagrana noted "When you get down on the goal line and in short yardage situations, there are a lot of opportunities for us to play. [That pass] was the best feeling so far. It's in the past now, though, and I'm looking to get a bunch more and change the outlook for us. I am very confident with the plays, and I think the coaches are confident with me right now."
Earning the trust of the coaching staff is a big part of making the tight end a bigger part of the passing game, and as Villagrana notes, he and his teammates have been working hard to make each chance count. If the coaches don't feel confident that a player will make a catch or perform correctly, it's much less likely that he'll be called upon in a game. WVU's tight ends have, in the past, missed some chances for big plays, and as a result the tight ends weren't called upon in crunch time. Last year, however, that began to change a bit, and Villagrana believes that his performance this summer and fall will make him a viable target during games.
Of course, WVU's tight ends aren't going to pile up big receiving numbers. Mark Raugh's single season record of 64 receptions is certainly not in jeopardy in 2006. The big thing, however, is for the tight ends to take advantage of the chances they do get –in other words, make the catch and pick up yardage. Also, as noted previously, they have other, just-as-important jobs in blocking and helping the running game go.
Therefore, it might be wise to think a bit, and take a little deeper look, before dismissing the tight end position as a weapon in the WVU offense. Not only will you be overlooking the contributions it makes in West Virginia's potent running game, but you also might have to explain yourself to a pretty big member of the Mountaineer team -- one that would be happy to demonstrate everything he brings to the field.