Role of college tight end evolving

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- When the New England Patriots line up in Sunday's Super Bowl, watch the offense. See what offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien and quarterback Tom Brady are doing with tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, how they get the ball in space and how they make plays.

And understand this: That type of offense could be on the verge of making a return to the college game.

Yes, O'Brien is leaving after the game to be Penn State's head coach. But more and more, college teams that run pro-style offenses -- including Michigan -- could incorporate pass-catching tight ends as more than blockers or move-the-chains guys.

They are becoming playmakers.

"If you have two tight ends like that, they are so beneficial for different matchups," said Indiana offensive coordinator Seth Littrell, one of Gronkowski's coaches at Arizona. "The hardest thing is to find two great tight ends like that. But those two complement each other very well, and the offensive coordinator uses them in a great way and kind of moves them around in different positions."

At Arizona, Gronkowski rarely left the field because he was that versatile -- he could block as well as a lineman and run routes as well as a wide receiver.

In college, where matchup issues and talent disparity are more likely than the NFL, it becomes even more of a defensive headache.

"It's huge," Littrell said. "You don't have to take them off the field. You don't have to adjust to what a defense is doing. You force them to adjust."

When teams played nickel and dime packages, Gronkowski went on the line to try and seal the edge for a running back. When an opponent ran a base personnel grouping, Gronkowski would be able to outmaneuver the linebacker assigned to him.

Tight ends like Gronkowski and Hernandez -- the two Patriots who are the latest evolution of the tight end position -- are doing many of the things Michigan eventually would like to do.

As the Wolverines continue their transition from spread to pro style under offensive coordinator Al Borges and head coach Brady Hoke, one of their stated goals is to incorporate the tight end more into the offense than the previous staff.

It makes sense, too, because the tight end is fast becoming the most dangerous position in football. Don't be surprised to see more college programs mimic what has been happening in the NFL.

"Absolutely. You'll see more tight ends featured in the college game," said former Michigan tight end Tony McGee, who played 11 years in the NFL. "It's simple when you really think about it. It's the shortest distance outside of the screen pass to throw the ball downfield. If you get the ball 3 yards and the guy falls another 2 or 3 yards, you're looking at second-and-3. That's manageable.

"Why wouldn't you just throw the dink-and-dunk passes all the way down the field until somebody stops you. Then you have guys like Hernandez, you throw him a 3-yard pass and he'll make guys miss and it'll turn into a 15-yard gain. It's just a nightmare all across the defense."

The lineage is there at Michigan. The Wolverines had four tight ends -- Tyler Ecker, Tim Massaquoi, Bennie Joppru and Aaron Shea -- drafted from 2000 to 2010. The Wolverines also had four drafted from 1990-1999 -- Derrick Walker, McGee, Jay Riemersma and Jerame Tuman.

Expect that trend to continue this season, as Kevin Koger has a chance to go in April's draft.

Michigan also has a history of throwing to its tight ends -- dating all the way to Jim Mandich, but resurrecting itself when Steve Smith and Jim Harbaugh were Michigan's quarterbacks throwing to Sim Nelson in 1983 and 1984 and then Eric Kattus in 1985.

Tight end use has carried through Harbaugh's career -- both playing and coaching.

"I did see some similarities. Jim Harbaugh, he used the tight end and it was a big part of the Michigan offense," Kattus said. "He had success at Michigan, and then he went to the Bears and they used the tight end, and Indianapolis has always used tight ends and had success with the tight end being a big part of the offense.

"He carried it with him to Stanford and his other journeys in the college ranks. You could even see it now, the tight end in San Francisco [Vernon Davis] is a big part of the offense."

For all the successes tight ends had catching the ball at Michigan over the past 30 years, it was still a position viewed nationally -- and even with the Wolverines -- as primarily a blocking one.

Over the past decade that has changed. As Ben Coates started catching passes for the New England Patriots and Shannon Sharpe became so versatile with the Denver Broncos he was viewed almost as a wide receiver, the position evolved.

More NFL coaches found ways to incorporate the athletic tight end, from using former college basketball players such as Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham to seeing which colleges would adapt and find tall, athletic guys and put them on offense at tight end instead of at linebacker or on the defensive line.

In some ways, it traces back to Joe Gibbs in Washington, who created the "H-Back," a hybrid fullback-tight end who gave offenses more flexibility. At the time he couldn't know he was beginning an evolution that took tight ends from being a sixth offensive lineman into a true threat.

Maryland's coaches saw what Gibbs was doing and swung by the practice facilities to see if they could use it. They had a player, a freshman fullback, they thought could benefit.

"That position fit perfectly for my skill set and gave me an opportunity to thrive in a sport where most skill positions, you have got to fly," said Frank Wycheck, that Maryland freshman fullback who ended up with a 11-year NFL career as a tight end and made three Pro Bowls. "You have to run, run a good 40, and this is a kind of a between position that really benefited me for sure."

All of that has translated to the college game -- although the biggest challenge isn't running a system with versatile tight ends. It is finding players to fit it.

In the past, it hasn't been a major problem at Michigan due to the aforementioned history. But next season the Wolverines will go into the year with two scholarship tight ends on the roster -- redshirt senior Brandon Moore and redshirt sophomore Ricardo Miller -- who have a combined two career catches.

Michigan's three-year switch from a pro-style offense to the spread made the tight end less important. It is why Joppru and Wycheck said if they were coming out now, they'd make sure they went to a school that ran a tight end-friendly offense.

"That's a no-brainer," Wycheck said. "I understand that college coaches are doing the best they can to win football games for themselves and their universities. It's not a farm system for the pros, it's for themselves and their programs.

"But if you're a tight end like that, you definitely want to go to a school where a coach utilizes you as a tight end and guys have sent them to the pros so they get that experience. For sure, I'd recommend picking those schools that do use the tight end a lot."

Michigan has started to sell that in recruiting again. It nabbed Devin Funchess (Farmington Hills, Mich./Harrison) and A.J. Williams (Cincinnati/Sycamore) in this year's recruiting class.

Funchess has an intriguing, hybrid-like skill set. He can run routes well, has athleticism and good size. He needs to fill out his frame but has the potential to be the next in line of Michigan's good tight ends, especially in the system Borges plans to implement when quarterback Denard Robinson leaves after next season.

"It's definitely coming back to colleges because the recruits love it," Joppru said. "If you're going to run that pro-style offense and you want the new latest-and-greatest athletes, you're going to have to run that offense and include the tight end in the offense like that."

And if you want to see the potential of it, all you have to do is one thing: Watch the New England Patriots.

Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at michaelrothsteinespn@gmail.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.