How tight ends have changed offenses in CFB

During his first practice at Penn State, tight end Mike Gesicki was told by his coach to get into a three-point stance. His reaction was one of confusion.

"I was kind of like, 'Uh, what?'" Gesicki recalled.

Twenty years ago, such an answer would have been absurd and likely met with a coach's profanity-filled order to run laps. But in the current era of college football, it's not unusual for an incoming tight end to be somewhat unfamiliar with the concept of blocking on the line of scrimmage. As offenses have evolved, so have tight ends.

It's an ever-changing position, which used to be largely considered an extension of the offensive line and now is among the most useful receiving threats in the game, even for spread offenses that once favored the four-wide-receiver formations.

Ask coaches what they recall from the tight ends of yesteryear and the answers are pretty common.

"It was a tackle, an extra tackle that you put in the game," SMU coach Chad Morris said.

Said Baylor co-offensive coordinator Jeff Nixon: "A typical tight end back then was a 6-5, 260-pound guy who was probably mainly a blocker."

That has changed. While their sizes are similar, perhaps slightly smaller, what today's tight ends are asked to do is dramatically different.

"Really, people are playing where their tight end is a big high school receiver," Penn State coach James Franklin said, referring to recruiting the position. "You're recruiting tight ends based on their size, their dimensions, their measurables and their skill set. You have to feel like you're going to be able to teach that aspect [blocking]."

The ideal size is still the same as it was a decade ago. The average tight end drafted into the NFL in 2007 was 6 feet 4, 256 pounds. In the 2017 draft, it was 6-4, 252 pounds, a sign that tight ends are still big but getting lighter.

James Casey, a former college and NFL tight end who is now coaching the position for the University of Houston, said it's difficult to find players who are big enough, fast enough and strong enough to do everything coaches ask of tight ends.

"You have to be able to block at the line of scrimmage," Casey said. "You have to know all the run game calls, some pass protection stuff, all the route concepts and have that mindset that's like an offensive lineman. You have to be that meathead, aggressive type guy, that kind of 'punk' almost, like a lot of really good offensive linemen are, but then you also have to be able to go out there and split out be in the slot and run all the routes."

The scarce nature of the perfect player for the position is why Washington State coach Mike Leach, one of the pioneers of the air raid offense that relies largely on four-wide-receiver sets, doesn't use tight ends. Over the past five years, no school in a Power 5 conference has used a tight end on fewer plays than the Cougars, who have employed one on only 2.5 percent of their offensive snaps since 2012.

"Tight ends are a blast if you have them," Leach said. "If you have a true tight end -- and I mean a true tight end -- then life is good. God didn't make very many true tight ends. Just go to the mall and the big long-armed guys you see at the mall -- you'll see a couple, but most of them can't run fast and those that can probably can't catch. So there's not very many of them."

Other coaches agree; bodies that make quality tight ends often make good defensive ends, too. Leach said he needs those defensive ends, thus, the players on his roster who fit the perfect tight end profile often end up on defense. The problem for others, Leach says, is some coaches want one so much that they're willing to compromise in order to work one into their offense.

"You desperately want that big-body guy that can block but also catch balls and is big enough that he's a mismatch on the strong safety but nifty enough that he's a better athlete than the linebacker," Leach said. "So you're constantly looking for those guys and the trouble is, as you're sitting there pushing it too far, pretty soon you end up playing the third-team guard that can sort of catch, but all he is the third-team guard. Well if he's the third-team guard, what business does he have playing tight end? In my opinion, none."

As Leach had success in his time at Texas Tech, it sprouted a generation of coaches who ran a similar offense and who eschew tight ends for the small, fast receiver. Now that trend seems to be changing.

Take Oklahoma State. According to ESPN Stats & Information, as the Cowboys developed what Mike Gundy calls their "Cowboy Backs" (a tight end/fullback hybrid), that use has increased dramatically. In 2015, they used a tight end on 43.2 percent of their offensive snaps. In 2016, they employed one 35.7 percent of the time.

"It's turned a full circle," Gundy said. "Years ago, you never saw an offense without one. Then, nobody was using one. You couldn't even find [high] schools in Texas [where you could] evaluate a tight end because they weren't even using them. And for us, now it's worked its way back in. We started using them in different ways."

The benefit, Gundy says, is "you have the ability to run a seven-man running play and a five-man passing play," with those players in the game. The Cowboys, like many others, use a tight end in the backfield where a fullback -- a position that has gone the way of the dodo bird -- used to be.

Texas A&M and West Virginia are also teams that, like Oklahoma State, rarely used tight ends five years ago but do so frequently now (the Aggies used one less than 10 percent of snaps in 2012 and 2013, but that rose to 32.8 percent of the time in 2016, while West Virginia has increased its rate tenfold in that span). The reason, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said, is simply change.

"Because everybody was doing the same stuff religiously," he said. "I like the idea of having some of those guys to be able to scheme and change some things up a little bit."

It's a national trend, too. In 2012, Power 5 teams averaged 491 offensive snaps per season using at least one tight end. In 2016, that number was up to 500, per ESPN Stats & Information.

The result, in some offenses, is that the tight end has become basically a big receiver who plays in the slot and doesn't block as often as 20th century tight ends did. Speed is now more in demand at the position. In 2007, the average NFL scouting combine 40-yard dash times for drafted tight ends was 4.75 seconds. In 2017, that time was all the way down to 4.62 seconds.

Gesicki, who said he initially wanted to be recruited as a receiver out of high school, was advised by a recruiter to embrace tight end because "receivers come a dime a dozen, but if you can be a big, fast, athletic tight end, they don't come around as often so you can be extremely valuable." Last season, Gesicki led all Big Ten tight ends in receiving yards (679).

"It seems to me, in the last four or five years, that they're looking for that hybrid guy that they can flex out and get into different personnel looks," Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said. If they're big and athletic, then the guys that they're running up the field on -- which are normally safeties -- they can get into them and create separation or they can just box them out and that becomes a pain in the butt."

If a coach finds the right guy -- basically someone like former Alabama tight end O.J. Howard or the New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski, few of which exist -- it's a headache. But even lacking that kind of ability, players at the position can still create issues for defenses. A versatile tight end can allow an up-tempo offense to change formations without switching personnel, creating communication problems for defenses that aren't ready for it.

"There's different things we would call vs. four-receiver sets than we would three-receiver sets, Orlando said. "So when you make it either/or [with a tight end], it's kind of a crapshoot for us. That's why I think offenses do it all the time."

Nebraska coach Mike Riley noted that increased run-pass option plays have created another useful way to use tight ends.

"The old 'pop pass,' from years ago has become a new thing for the tight end because of the zone-read stuff that's going on," Riley said.

While the old-school blocking tight ends may seem like a relic of the past, they do exist. Take Kansas State's Dayton Valentine, who had the lowest reception-to-snap ratio of any tight end nationally (he started all 13 games but had only two receptions, catching the ball on 0.4 percent of his snaps).

Valentine joked that his friends ask why he doesn't request the ball more often, and he responds "because we're averaging 6 yards a carry." While receiving tight ends are en vogue, Valentine is happy to put get in a three-point stance and hit someone.

"It's an attitude," Valentine said. "I personally take a lot of pride in being one of those guys who as a tight end is willing to put my hand down and get in the trenches and block for my guys."