Georgia, South Carolina matchup to feature evolution of the college football tight end

Beamer doesn't want to hear about shocking the world (1:11)

Ahead of its conference home opener, Shane Beamer explains that he doesn't need to rally his South Carolina team to have belief when facing No. 1 Georgia. (1:11)

Stetson Bennett took a sip of coffee and grinned.

What's it like having tight ends Brock Bowers, Darnell Washington and Arik Gilbert to throw to?

"It's a safety net," Bennett told ESPN in July.

But Georgia's veteran quarterback was underselling it. He went on to reveal a phrase they use around the football facility when talking about that trio: "Open by birth." As in, their size and talent leave them always open.

When No. 1 Georgia travels to South Carolina on Saturday (noon ET, ESPN), the evolution of the tight end position will be on full display. They're no longer glorified offensive linemen with their hands stuck in the dirt. They're more skilled and more versatile -- and there are more of them -- than ever before.

Take Bowers. He's 6-foot-4, 230 pounds and moves like a running back after the catch -- which is no wonder because he played some running back and triple-option quarterback in high school. He caught 13 touchdowns and averaged 19 yards per catch last season, earning SEC Freshman of the Year honors and a spot on The Associated Press All-America team.

Washington, on the other hand, is 6-foot-7, 270 pounds and has the kind of quick-twitch burst typically associated with forwards in the NBA. He was hampered by injuries for much of last season -- which paved the way for Bowers' emergence -- but he left an impression late. In the SEC championship game he made 6-foot-2 Alabama linebacker Henry To'oTo'o look like a child when he easily snatched a jump pass out of air for a touchdown. Washington set the internet abuzz in Week 1 of this season when he caught a short pass in the flat and single-handedly destroyed Oregon's defense.

Darnell Washington hurdles a defender

Georgia tight end Darnell Washington goes up and over the defender for an impressive 25-yard gain.

Then there's the 6-foot-5, 255-pound Gilbert, whom the casual fan might not be aware of but is worth paying attention to. While the LSU transfer hasn't caught a pass since December 2020, there's a reason former Tigers coach Ed Orgeron once compared his skill set to that of Hall of Fame receiver Calvin Johnson. And there's a reason Gilbert made the SEC All-Freshman Team in 2020, when he caught 35 passes for 368 yards and two touchdowns. His two-touchdown performance in the spring game -- including one catch in double-coverage -- had Georgia fans salivating.

And because Georgia is Georgia, there's one more talented tight end waiting in the wings: freshman Oscar Delp, a top-100 prospect who checks in at 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds.

When Bowers was asked by reporters in the preseason to describe the tight end group in a single word, he answered, "I guess elite."

Washington said simply, "Mismatch."

"We're all unique," Washington added. "If you put a speedster like Brock in, he does his work. Then you put a guy like me in, I'm oversized. There's no linebacker that I feel like personally that can trouble me. Then you've got Arik, he's a hybrid. He can do everything -- like, he can do it all. And then, just keep rotating, break down the defense and create a mismatch around the field."

Gamecocks coach Shane Beamer told ESPN that it is unusual to see the number of tight ends the Bulldogs have at their disposal.

"But I'll be honest," he added. "I feel pretty dang good about the guys that we have, too. And I'd say it's very similar. We've got multiple skill sets."

He's not wrong. Jaheim Bell is one of the best all-purpose players in college football, regardless of position. Against UNC in the Duke's Mayo Bowl, he had 159 yards receiving and 21 yards rushing. The first line in his official team bio says it all: "Swiss Army Knife."

And he's not alone. This offseason, Austin Stogner transferred in from Oklahoma, where he caught three touchdowns last year.

Faced with multiple tight ends like that, what's a defensive coordinator to do? An SEC assistant described the matchup nightmare they represent.

"You want to go big?" the assistant said. "Because if you do, we'll spread you out. You want to go small? We're going to pound you."

THE LONG ARC of football history moves along two variables: size and speed.

Size -- and therefore strength -- mattered most in the sepia-toned bygone era of ground-and-pound offenses. So defenses gathered as many big linemen and linebackers as they could in order to shrink the space between the hashes. Then, after some fits and starts, offenses got wise and countered with speed, spreading the field with three to five receivers. So heavy-footed linebackers who couldn't cover in space were out, replaced by smaller, faster defensive backs.

College football essentially turned from tug-of-war into track. And while that's admittedly a far too simplistic interpretation of the 153-year history of the sport, it gets us up to date and sets up the position that is not only bridging eras but is the next link in the evolutionary chain: the modern tight end, a hybrid who's just as capable of lining up between the hashes and blocking as he is splitting out wide and playing receiver.

The way Smart sees it, the change was inevitable.

He pointed out how those old-school, run-oriented offenses really only featured one guy: the tailback. No one ever talked about the great block a tight end had, he said.

And now that spread offenses are everywhere and everything is geared toward the passing game, it's no wonder that tight ends are getting in on the action.

"It's becoming basketball," Smart said. "Because in basketball, the center is gone. Everybody's a guard. Well, in football the evolution is everybody's a pass-catcher. So if you're big and you're a pass-catcher, what does everybody draft in the NBA? The 6-10 guy that can play guard. So we're looking for the 6-6 guy that can play receiver and tight end."

Judging by the depth they've accumulated at the position in Athens, Smart and his staff are searching in the right places.

And by doing so, they've created a multiple-tight-end offense that doesn't have to sacrifice anything in terms of run vs. pass.

"It's a great X-and-O scheme advantage because you can flex guys out," Smart said. "I mean, teams are trying to figure out whether we're gonna run it down their throat or we're gonna open it up and throw it."

No. 14 Utah makes opposing defenses wonder the same thing. The Utes were the only team in the country last season to feature two tight ends in the top 20 in receiving yards: Bryant Kuithe (611) and Dalton Kincaid (510).

Kyle Whittingham's squad led the Pac-12 in both yards per play and rushing yards per game.

"When you've got tight ends that can block -- as well as our outstanding receivers -- then it opens up a bunch of opportunities in the run game as well as to get mismatches in the passing game," Whittingham said. "Defenses, how are they gonna play? Are they gonna put a fifth DB out there in a nickel? Are they gonna play 4-3 personnel? And whatever they choose to do, we should have an answer for that.

"To be able to move [tight ends] around -- shift them, motion them, try to create a situation where you can out-flank the defense -- it opens up so many possibilities."

In some ways, it feels like a trickle-down from the early 2010s New England Patriots offense that featured both Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez at tight end. Or maybe it's more like the 2006 Indianapolis Colts who won the Super Bowl thanks to the trio of Ben Utecht, Dallas Clark and Bryan Fletcher. Coaches interviewed for this story cited both as potential origins.

Whatever starting line you choose, the tight end revolution has officially arrived in college football.

Consider the 2011 so-called "Game of the Century" between Alabama and LSU. The Crimson Tide's tight end at the time was 270-pound Michael Williams, ostensibly an extra blocker who wound up transitioning to offensive tackle in the NFL. Ten years later, Williams' successor was 230-pound Jahleel Billingsley, who had such good hands and ability to run after the catch that Alabama used him as its primary kick returner.

Let that sink in for a moment: a tight end returned kicks for the No. 1 team in the country. That's how far we've come in only a decade.

BEAMER LISTED ALL the ways in which Bell is utilized within the Gamecocks' offense.

"He's kind of a hybrid of three different positions," he said. "He's a receiver, he's a tight end and he's a running back."

Darn it -- hold on a second. Beamer also remembers the season opener, when they lined up in the wishbone and handed the ball to Bell from the fullback spot. So make that four positions and counting.

You'll have to forgive Beamer if he feels some whiplash these days. Only four years ago, he left a job coaching tight ends at Georgia for the same role at Oklahoma. And once he got to Norman, he inherited a player neither he nor Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart would have considered recruiting out of high school. The freshman was 6-foot-4 and versatile, but he weighed only 220 pounds, not big enough to help in the run game.

Sooners coach Lincoln Riley found a role for him on offense, though. The player's name was Grant Calcaterra, and he made all-conference teams three times in college -- twice in the Big 12, once in the AAC -- before he was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in April.

"Then I fast-forward two to three years later and basically Calcaterra is what Brock Bowers is now," Beamer said. "Brock is maaaaybe a little bit bigger than Grant, but as far as what Georgia is doing with Brock, it's a lot of the same stuff we're doing with Jaheim."

Bell took that handoff at fullback against Georgia State, which is basically what Bowers did last year against Vanderbilt when he motioned across the formation, for a mini jet sweep that resulted in a touchdown.

"It all goes back to getting your best players on the field," Beamer said, "and so many players nowadays are more and more comfortable with this stuff."

Beamer believes it's because today's players grew up watching Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis in the NFL. Those guys used to be unicorns on the recruiting trail, but not anymore. Beamer said he rarely sees a high school tight end get in a three-point stance. "You just never see them block anymore," he said.

Go look at the Mackey Award, Beamer said, which is given out to the top tight end in college football.

"Very rarely do they play a true tight end," he said. "They're basically glorified, flexed out receivers, and that's the name of the game right now."

The ESPN 300 -- a ranking of the top prospects coming out of high school -- averaged 10 tight ends per class from 2018 to '22. But the 2023 class shows that more difference-makers are on the way, with 17 tight ends featured on the list.

Teaching them the finer points of blocking may be a chore for college coaches, but even a below-average blocking tight end -- by virtue of his size -- can be an effective weapon.

Put two hybrid tight ends on the field together, along with two receivers and a running back, and an offensive coordinator has the entire playbook at his disposal. If the defense fields four defensive backs, the OC can put the tight ends along the line of scrimmage and run the football, utilizing their size advantage. But if the defense wants to sub DBs for linebackers, the OC can motion the tight ends into space and use their speed advantage.

And in either scenario, an OC can choose to go no-huddle and make substituting basically impossible for the defense.

Arkansas coach Sam Pittman said size and speed have always been the name of the game, especially in the SEC. Blend the two, he explained, and you have a "weapon."

So during the course of last season, Pittman and his staff tried to reverse engineer their own hybrid, moving Trey Knox from receiver to tight end.

One offseason and 40 pounds of muscle later, Pittman likes what he sees from Knox.

"Hopefully we can get some mismatches," Pittman said earlier this summer.

So far, so good, as Knox leads the team with two touchdowns through Arkansas' first two games.

"You may think, 'Well, the tight end has to be an extended tackle,'" Pittman said. "Those days are over."