AUSTIN, Texas -- Believe it or not, there was a time not long ago when tight end was a position of strength for the Longhorns.
David Thomas caught everything thrown his way while acting as Vince Young's security blanket during Texas’ run to the 2005 BCS national championship. When he left for the NFL, the Longhorns made a seamless transition to Jermichael Finley, a better athlete who produced at such a rate that he only stayed for two years before being picked 91st overall by the Green Bay Packers.
The evolution of the position was supposed to continue upward with the arrival of Californian Blaine Irby, and his wavy surfer-boy hair, in 2007. But injuries decimated his career, which he finished on a high note during his senior season in 2011, by playing in all 13 games.
Not only did Irby miss all of 2009 and 2010 with a knee injury but his backup, current Longhorns senior D.J. Grant, was also relegated to the sideline over that span with a knee injury of his own.
That left Texas with little wiggle room at a position that seems to still be recovering from seasons devoid of a certifiable pass threat. It’s a recovery process that seems to be lingering as the 2012 season rapidly approaches.
Texas head coach Mack Brown listed tight ends as one of his two main concerns when he met with the media on Wednesday. In the Longhorns’ first scrimmage of fall camp, Brown said that they dropped at least five passes and that they “did not get done what we want to get done.”
What they want to get done varies. The position has always been an essential part of co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin’s offensive philosophy.
Whether it’s putting them in a three-point stance and asking them to seal the edge, motioning them to H-back or out wide to create mismatches with slower linebackers and smaller defensive backs, Harsin, who coached Boise State's tight ends from 2002-05, has always made tight ends a vital part of his game plan.
In his time as the Broncos’ offensive coordinator from 2006-10, Boise State’s top tight end for each season cumulatively totaled 1,385 yards and 14 touchdowns.
In that same span, Texas’ top tight end for each season totaled 1,137 yards and eight touchdowns, with 947 yards and five touchdowns belonging to Finley, who was far more talented than any of the players Harsin had at has disposal in Idaho.
The Longhorns would like those numbers to sway in their favor with Harsin on their side. In order to do so, though, they’ll have to rely on a patchwork group of returnees, inexperienced players recruited to play the position or players making a position switch to help out.
One of the holdovers from 2011 is Grant, who led Texas' tight ends with 16 receptions for 180 yards and three touchdowns last season. All three of his scores came at UCLA. The Longhorns are hoping that another year removed from his knee injury will produce more confidence and results for a player listed as a co-first-team tight end on the depth chart.
The other co-starter is Greg Daniels, a converted defensive end who has really impressed Texas’ coaches with his blocking abilities throughout fall camp.
“Greg Daniels is making a push because he's a 256-pound tight end, and we've really been pushing our tight ends because we know that's an area that's got to pick it up and play better, and he's pushing Barrett [Matthews] and D.J. Grant, and he's pushing them on a daily basis, which is a good and positive,” Brown said.
What’s positive news for Daniels isn’t necessarily a good sign for the state of the position, though. For those with a glass-half-empty mentality, it would be easy to ask how good a situation could it be when a player that has never played the position in college is listed as a co-starter after two weeks of camp.
Much was expected out of redshirt freshman M.J. McFarland heading into fall camp. But he didn’t even crack the depth chart because of blocking deficiencies.
“I talked to him a long time yesterday when we were deciding on these positions and told them that he's a wide receiver that has gained a whole lot of weight and moved into tight end, and sometimes it takes you longer to get your pads low and learn how to block in there,” Brown said.
Matthews, the other tight end listed on the depth chart caught just two passes for nine yards a season ago. Then there is Miles Onyegbule, who was recruited as a wide receiver but has since moved to H-back. It’s not yet clear how he will be used.
Texas is going to have to have some combination of these players step up if it wants to even out its ratio of run-to-pass.
It doesn’t appear that the position will be a position of strength anytime soon. But serviceable could suffice.