Thursday, August 27, 2009

2009 Opponent Position Preview: Tight End | by Kevin

Tight ends are entry number 5 in pre-season positional preview (following quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and offensive lines).

Pat raised a good point in an email -- the quality of the opponents' tight ends will be particularly important this year, given the uncertainty and youth among Notre Dame's 2009 linebacking corp. Linebackers often find themselves matched up against the tight end: in pass coverage, against the run, and in pass rushes off the ends. For this reason, news that Michigan may use Steve Brown as a strong-side linebacker gave me visions of poor Kyle Rudolph taking oxygen after yet another 40-yard dash.

As always, number in parenthesis after a player's name, if there is one, corresponds to that player's ranking in Phil Steele's draft-eligible position preview. Steele ranked 44 tight ends.


Virgil Green.
Junior. Returning Starter.
2008 Stats: 10 receptions, 164 yards, 1 TD.

A returning starter and a senior backup sounds like a pretty deep tight end group for the Wolfpack. The 6'5" 240 pound Green played in all thirteen games as a redshirt freshman in 2007, then became the starter last season, where he finished fifth on the team in yards and receptions. The Sporting News named him the First Team WAC tight end in its 2009 preview. Depth: Senior Kevin Bohr, who missed part of last season with an injury, should also see some playing time.


Kevin Koger.
Sophomore. Returning Starter.
2008 Stats: 6 receptions, 93 yards, 1 TD.

In the Michigan preview, I undersold Michigan's 2008 statistics, noting only Carson Butler's 17 yards receiving. While true, I gave short shrift to Mr. Koger's 93 yards. This is a fact of life for Michigan fans: tight ends are not prominent receiving threats in Rodriguez's offense. Tight ends rarely figured in the West Virginia attack. If anything, I think Rodriguez might prefer to find an Owen Schmitt-type player, a fullback who can catch out of the backfield. Schmitt was a heck of a player for them. I did not realize until today that WVU backup QB Adam Bednarik is Chuck Bednarik's great-nephew. OK, that's enough on the Michigan tight ends.


Charlie Gantt. (#11) Junior. Returning Starter.
2008 stats: 19 receptions, 302 yards, 4 TDs.

Another preview, another Michigan State player I like. Tight ends can be nice safety valves for inexperienced quarterbacks; they often draw linebacker coverage or find soft spots in intermediate areas. For that reason, and because Gantt is good, expect Keith Nichol a/or Kirk Cousins to rely heavily on the big (6'5", 250 pound) target from Farmington Hills. Last season, Gantt, Phil Steele's 2009 pre-season All-Big Ten tight end, did not record any catches in the Notre Dame game, but bounced back the following week with 92 yards and a touchdown against Indiana. In that game, he had an 82-yard scoring strike. In addition to his receiving abilities, Gantt is an able blocker -- he was a key part of Javon Ringer's 200-yard game against the Irish. He's a tough player who helps the Spartan offense in multiple ways. Behind or opposite Gantt are sophomore Garrett Celek, who will likely again join Gantt in two-TE formations, and sophomore Clemson transfer Brian Linthicum. Highly touted freshman Dion Sims might also join the mix, as fall practice reports out of East Lansing indicate that Sims is impressing his new coaches and teammates. MSU is well-stocked at this position.


Kyle Adams.
Junior. Returning from Injury.
2008 stats: N/A

Obviously, that's not Kyle Adams. Adams disgusts Purdue fans with his hairless face. Rather, this is a picture of Irv Smith, the great Notre Dame TE of the Holtz Era. Irv was one of my favorites as a kid, and I felt he deserved mention at some point in this entry. Returning to the topic of Purdue, Kyle Adams should be a productive player this season. His 2008 campaign ended early, with a knee injury against Colorado on September 6th. He played as both a Freshman and Sophomore for the Boilers, though, hauling in 106 yards and a couple touchdowns in 2007. Purdue's high hopes for Adams in 2008 carry over to 2009, and given the relative inexperience of their receivers, he could be an important cog in their offense. Behind Adams are junior Jeff Lindsay and sophomore Colton McKey. Lindsay was a well-regarded recruit out of high school, as was freshman Gabe Holmes.


Kavario Middleton. Sophomore. New Starter.
2008 stats: 12 receptions, 82 yards.
Chris Izbicki. Sophomore.
2008 stats: Suspended.

Washington fans might see it as a good sign that one of their tight ends is getting in trouble. I don't mean to compare Chris Izbicki to the reprehensible Jerramy Stevens, but at least he got himself booted from the team last year. Somebody had to try something. Middleton and Izbicki were both big recruiting "gets," athletic receiving threats who should flourish if Steve Sarkisian is able to implement much of his offense this year or next. Though Kavario Middleton had only 12 catches and no touchdowns last season, he was a top-five tight end coming out of high school. He's a big target, at 6'5" and more than 250 pounds. With a healthy quarterback and a coach who presumably wants to provide coaching services in exchange for his paychecks, Kavario could make a big leap this season.


Anthony McCoy. (#15) Senior. Returning Starter.
2008 stats: 22 receptions, 256 yards, 1 TDs
Blake Ayles. Sophomore.
2008 stats: 6 receptions, 41 yards, 1 TD.

USC fields two highly recruited tight ends, but neither provide the Fred Davis track record that helped fuel the Trojan offense in 2006 and 2007. McCoy was the fifth-leading receiver on last year's team, and Ayles saw action in nine games. Ayles had a scare this summer, when he was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. He recently had a procedure to address this problem, and reports out of USC camp indicate he is doing better and should be able to play in 2009. Sophomore Rhett Ellison, who played in a couple games as a Redshirt Freshman last year and caught four passes for 58 yards, will likely battle Ayles for the other TE spot. SC did not recruit any tight ends in the 2009 recruiting class.


Lars Anderson. Sophomore. New Starter.
2008 stats: 9 receptions, 84 yards, 1 TD.

This is fitting: when I went to do my research on Anderson, I found that the Red Sox also have a Lars Anderson. Lars, who was not sired by either Arn or Oly, played in six games last season, and tallied 53 of his 84 receiving yards in an Eagle win at NC State. He is not as tall as the ideal tight end (he's 6'3"), but I presume him to be lumberjack strong. A much taller Junior, Jordan McMichael (6'6, 260 pounds) will play with or behind Anderson. McMichael missed substantially all of last season after requiring surgery to repair a hip injury. BC must replace Ryan Purvis, who was a productive three-year player. Third-year Sophomores Chris Pantale and Michael Stone (BC always seems to use redshirting as effectively as any opponent) may also figure into the mix.


Tony Thompson.
Senior. New Starter.
2008 stats: 4 receptions, 30 yards.

Now does not seem to be a good time to be a WSU fan. Tight end is just the latest example. In addition to losing one of their all-time best receivers, the Cougars also lost their top two tight ends from 2008, Devin Frischknecht and Ben Woodard. Both had over 200 yards receiving last year. New starter Thompson should be joined by Redshirt Freshmen Skylar Stormo (look, interesting names are part of college sports, but Washington State seems to be missing the point) and Andrei Lintz, as well as Senior Zach Talman. On the bright side for the Cougar faithful, San Antonio is a beautiful city, and it must have some connection to Washington State that I just haven't yet figured out.


Navy does not use a tight end, or at least not one in the sense we use the term. I'm going to move on, rather than try to fit their personnel into a square peg. At some point, we have to do justice to our favorite rival. Is Navy in Michael's college football database? Is Michael in a National Security Agency database? Both are questions worth asking. (Ed note: for a discourse on the Navy offense, take a look at this old post from -- gulp -- 2007).


Nate Byham (#10). Senior. Returning Starter.
2008 stats: 20 receptions, 260 yards, 1 TD.

Again, Pitt enters one of these previews looking pretty strong. Joining Jonathan Baldwin and friends in the Panther passing attack is Nate Byham, last season's First Team All-Big East tight end. Byham was recently added to this season's Mackey Award watch list. Byham isn't alone: Senior Dorin Dickerson had two starts, 13 catches, 174 receiving yards, and 2 touchdowns in 2008. Dickerson is listed as a tight end, but he's smaller than Baldwin and has receiver-level speed. He could be quite a weapon for the Panthers. John Pelusi, who saw considerable playing time last season and had 83 receiving yards, will also figure into the attack.


John Delahunt. RS Freshman, New Starter.
2008 stats: N/A

John Delahunt and/or fellow redshirt freshman Ryan Griffin will likely start for the Huskies this season. As their class year indicates, they've never played college football before. Delahunt is Canadian. Their third guy, Corey Manning is also a redshirt freshman. An idea: if UConn beats Notre Dame this year, hire Randy Edsall before NBC goes off the air that afternoon.


Jim Dray. Senior. New Starter.
2008 stats: 2 receptions, 12 yards, 2 TDs.

Finally, the Cardinal. Jim Dray made the most of his 12 yards last year, scoring more touchdowns than USC's Anthony McCoy. Sophomore Coby Fleener, 6'7" blue-chip recruit Levine Toilolo, and some Nordic-looking transfer will all fight for time -- and likely receive it. While the Cardinal do not have a clear-cut #1 guy or much playing experience, this could be a pretty talented group. They might surprise a few teams this season.

2009 Opponent Tight End Analysis and Rankings

What really matters when looking at this position is the matchup of their tight ends vs. our safeties and linebackers. How will our various Smiths, McCarthys, Flemings, and Te'os handle Anthony McCoy, Kavario Middleton, and Kyle Adams? On one hand, none of these tight ends is the mold-breaker that Rudolph is. In fact, none of the listed starters matched freshman Rudolph's receiving output last season. Only two TE starters caught more than one touchdown all season long. On the other hand, McCoy and Ayles, Middleton, Adams, Gantt, and others are still threats in the passing game, and ND's linebackers' competency may tilt more towards the pass rush than pass coverage.

Darius Fleming appears to have secured the starting spot at strongside linebacker, which should lead to encounters with tight ends. I like Darius's odds against the tight ends-as-blockers, both in the running and passing game. I do think ND's linebackers will need considerable safety help in covering the tight ends and all other intermediate routes. Fortunately, ND has some sure tacklers among its safeties, especially Kyle McCarthy and Harrison Smith.

Also, I think two-tight packages will be common against ND. I think we will see a lot of that from Stanford, Pitt, and MSU in particular. Most of the tight ends on this list are more towards the receiver side of tight end than blocker side, but there are still some very aggressive blockers who will only make ND's job of stopping the run more difficult.Here's a quick take on ranking the tight ends for 2009.

1. Michigan State. Gantt can catch and block; they can play any of three or four players.
2. Pitt. Again: if McCoy had stayed, this would be a very, very dangerous team.
3. USC. Three solid players to choose from. I'm sure they'll survive.
4. Purdue. Does anyone know if Ross-Ade now has permanent bleachers? I heard they did.
5. Washington. This is one position Willingham did not completely fail to recruit.
6. Nevada. They'll need Green, as they're replacing 2 of their top 3 wide receivers from 2008.
7. Stanford. Not very old, but any one or two of this group could emerge in 2009.
8. Michigan. Koger looks like a pretty solid player, and he may take a big step this year.
9. Boston College. Not as experienced as the Eagles always seem to be.
10. (tie) UConn. Freshman starters may not provide the relief their passing game needs.
10. (tie) Washington State. I considered ranking Navy ahead of these last two teams.
12. Navy. No tight end on the roster.