Richard Owens knows what a professional tight end looks like.
As a player, he spent five NFL seasons with the Rams, Vikings and Jets. As a coach, he helped send D.J. Williams and Chris Gragg to the NFL. Williams won the Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end before being drafted by Green Bay in the fifth round in 2011.
For Owens, Alabama-Birmingham’s Kennard Backman, a sixth-round pick by the Green Bay Packers last week, is primed to have an excellent career.
“No doubt (in my mind) at all,” said Owens, who landed at South Alabama after UAB shuttered its football program following the 2014 season. “I’ve talked to numerous coaches over this whole (draft) process with Kennard. Every one of them said, ‘He’s going to get drafted.’ He’s going to play. The thing with him, he’s going to be able to fit the roster. You know as well as I do the value that you bring to the team plays a big role in it. He’s able to be that multifaceted athlete, so he can be a guy at the point of attack, be a guy that can detach and play in space. Plus, he started in a pro-style punt team and he was also on kickoff return. He already has experience doing all of that. It’s just at a different level now.”
For the Packers, the term “tight end” is a bit generic. Look at how the team used Andrew Quarless and, before him, Jermichael Finley. On one play, he might be lined up as a traditional, on-the-line tight end. On the next, he might be lined as a fullback/H-back to serve as a lead blocker or extra blocker in pass protection. On the next, he might be lined up in the slot or as a wide receiver.
Backman did the same with the Blazers, especially during his first three seasons. The four-year starter caught 12 passes as a sophomore and 28 as a junior.
“He played in two different systems,” Owens said. “I spent three years with Kennard. With the older head coach, we were a pro-style system very similar to what you guys run now. We were motioning him. We’d run ‘iso’ and he’d be the lead blocker and was probably the best lead blocker we had by far. He could move guys out of the hole or cover up guys in space. He’s very agile on his feet. He brings some punch to him when he makes contact. At the line of scrimmage, he was able to hold the point. He was great in the run game. Even in a play-action pass game, he was able to pass pro the end one-on-one. In that system, how we utilized him was a pro-style system.”
A coaching change following Backman’s junior season meant changes for Backman, as well. He responded with a team-high 39 receptions to earn second-team all-Conference USA honors.
“This season — and this is a real testament to how hard of a worker he is — Coach (Bill) Clark came in and we went to more of a spread system,” Owens said. “We’d split him out a lot, detach him from the line of scrimmage and we’d make him block in space like a receiver. He basically took the offseason and transformed his body. ‘Coach, I’ve got to lose 20 pounds so I can move and I can do some other things,’ and he did. Hat’s off to him and what kind of work ethic he has. He was able to run routes and was our leading receiver. He did all of the things that we asked him to do — and beyond.”
Backman had a solid pro day. At 6-foot-3 and 243 pounds, he ran his 40-yard dash in 4.66 seconds with a 35.5-inch vertical. He finished his career with 96 receptions for 979 yards and 10 touchdowns. As long as Aaron Rodgers is slinging the passes, the tight ends are going to have to be viable options in the passing game.
“Kennard’s got very strong hands,” Owens said. “When he gets his hands on the ball, he’s going to squeeze it and he’s going to catch it. He’s not going to struggle with it at all. I think he’s developed that over the years of really taking pride in catching a lot of balls. Kind of a funny story, Kennard’s background is he was that basketball guy growing up in high school and junior high. I think he’s just now starting to come into his own and I think the best years of football are ahead of him.”
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