The tight end position is essentially the fulcrum of an offense and how a team utilizes this position generally says a lot about their philosophy and intended identity.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the kinds of players a team uses in the H & Y slot positions is the ultimate test of whether they are pro-style or spread in philosophy. A spread team will use true receivers there, flexed out, in order to create more horizontal space across the field. The pro-style team will use bigger players, lined up closer to the ball, and rely on their size rather than spacing.
Within the realms of spread teams, the tight end or fullback still has a prominent role both amongst teams that only play with three receivers or amongst teams that flex out the TE as the fourth receiver.
In the Spring game, Texas used its tight ends in every offensive set and used all three of the major philosophies for tight end utilization in the spread offense. We can’t talk about the current UT tight ends without talking about how they’ll be used.
The three types of tight end
The most familiar one that Texas fans all remember fondly from the days when players like Bo Scaife, David Thomas, and JerMichael Finley roamed the 40 acres; the single-back offense:
In this offense the TE needs to be long and sturdy enough to grapple with defensive ends some but his primary role is as a seam-stretching receiver who uses his size to be a match-up problem and to give the QB a large enough target to risk throwing the ball in the middle of the field.
This is the role that Devonaire Clarington was born for and a crucial one in the west coast offense, which relies on flooding zones with timing routes, and in spread passing attacks.
Next we have the flex tight end, who is basically the same player as the singleback tight end except he needn’t be as big or strong since his blocking assignments will consist of crack blocking linebackers, stalking safeties, or blasting corners and nickels on screens. He does need to be a good receiver though or else there’s little point in not simply using a real WR that is also a good blocker.
The reason teams today often flex out the tight end is that if this player is primarily a pass-catcher who’s stretching the field, why make it easier for opponents to disrupt his routes by checking him at the line with a defensive end or linebacker?
If you flex him out you force defenses to beat him with coverage, which is obviously more difficult to do. On the downside, you lose him as a blocker in the run game or in pass protection.
Finally we have the H-back/fullback player, who stays in the backfield and is often found in the Spread-I school of spread offense that combines the power run game and vertical passing.
As you can see, the main difference in these three formations is that in this one, the tight end is lined up in the backfield where he’s not very helpful in attacking the seam and presenting a big receiving target unless he motions wide before the snap.
Indeed, this type of player is used in the passing game mostly running to the flats, running wheel routes, or staying home to help in pass protection. He’s a blocker by trade and doesn’t have to be as big or long a target as a single-back or flex TE although it’s hardly a bad thing if he is.
Sometimes this player is a straight-up fullback, other times it’s a tweener tight end who’s “only” 6-foot-2 or so but a good blocker, and sometimes it’s a limited tight end who has traditional size but lacks good hands, like Geoff Swaim.
Jeff Traylor’s Gilmer teams mainly used the H-back/fullback type of tight end, who generally only lines up as an in-line blocker in situations where he’s strictly tasked with run-blocking.
Joe Wickline’s zone running game and Traylor’s preferred gap schemes all make great use of having this extra player in the backfield to be a kick out or lead blocker that works angles and traps and helps set the edge.
Meanwhile, Watson’s passing game thrives with a flex or in-line tight end that can help flood zones and attack the seams on passing concepts like “levels” and “y-stick.” Without a receiving tight end on the field, it’s harder to create formations that can utilize the full range of quick passing concepts Watson uses to attack defenses.
In the Texas spring game, we saw the Longhorns ask their three tight ends Alex De La Torre, Andrew Beck, and Blake Whiteley to fill all of these roles. It is unlikely that Texas’ eventual identity in 2015 will include all of these philosophies on deploying the tight end.
None of the players on campus are good at all three roles (backfield blocker, flex TE, in-line TE) and indeed none of them are currently particularly good at even one of the three.
Alex De La Torre was the starter in the Spring game for the simple reason that he’s the most reliable blocker of the three and Texas has a lot of spread-I influence on the new offense that requires having good blocking at the position.
DLT has solid hands to catch the ball out of the backfield, but at 6-foot-1, 243 pounds, and without great speed or length, he’s not a guy that is going to threaten opponents in the passing game. You can expect opponents to usually let him run free and count on running him down after the catch before he does any real damage.
So as a receiver, DLT can stretch the flat defender some but not in a particularly challenging way. The New England Patriots just demonstrated over the course of 2015 how flat concepts thrown to waterbugs can be dangerous, but if Texas wants to use a tight end in that role DLT isn’t going to offer as much.
In a run-heavy scheme or 3rd generation spread offense this isn’t really a problem.
Where DLT is strong is in executing gap schemes as a fullback since he has some talent for kicking out a defensive end or finding the linebacker when working as a lead blocker. He’s not exceptional in this regard but he’s solid.
This play goes awry because the backside tackle fails to secure the B-gap and Malik blasts through it to kill the play but DLT did a great job adjusting to the pulling guard’s block and driving the linebacker off the ball.
When he’s put in position in pass protection to handle a good pass-rusher alone or with the help of a running back, he can be a liability. If Texas is just looking for a blocker to offer different angles and variety in the run game, DLT is the man, but he will limit Watson’s pass game options when he’s on the field due to his lack of protection and receiving skills.
Andrew Beck is probably the most talented athlete at the position but his ceiling will be realized in a future beyond 2015. Despite his high school experience as a plugging linebacker, Beck lacks power at the point of attack at his current size of 6-foot-3, 239.
On this outside zone play he gets rocked backwards (he regularly was nearly knocked off his feet when blocking as an in-line tight end). On outside zone the running back’s job is to choose whether to bounce outside or cut inside of the tight end’s block. If the tight end is getting driven straight back in the backfield, it’s bad news for the play.
Of course that doesn’t matter here as it’s an RPO (run/pass option play), and Heard chooses the backside screen option.
When blocking from the H-back spot, Beck is more at home as it’s closer to what he did as a linebacker, building up momentum before impact, drawing power from playing with good knee bend, and finding targets on the move.
He’s a better receiver than DLT but fumbled one of his receptions and currently lacks the blocking abilities to explore his potential as a single-back tight end. If restricted to serving as a backfield blocker that could move around from H-back or fullback and flex out wide, Beck has some potential that could start to be realized in 2015.
Blake Whiteley got the fewest snaps of the three and this sequence in slide protection against Naashon Hughes was pretty revelatory in why that’d be the case:
Maybe Whiteley expected more help from the running back but even in that event, this would have been a poor performance. As it happens, imagining any of these three players being put in a position where they are primarily responsible for blocking the likes of Eric Striker, Emmanuel Ogbah, Shawn Oakman, or Pete Robertson quickly becomes a nightmare for a Longhorn.
Whiteley’s game as a receiver seems to be stronger than DLT but he’s not a guy that is a huge threat in the seam because he doesn’t move all that fast. His highest upside would come from growing into a strong enough blocker to open up opportunities for himself in the passing game off play-action. Currently he’s comparable to Beck as a blocker and his current skill set offers little over the other two players on campus.
DeAndre McNeal has even greater potential than Beck to be a difference maker as an H-back and flexed out receiver but it’s highly unlikely that this potential is realized as a freshman given that he hasn’t been dedicated to that position yet and hasn’t learned how to block.
Clarington’s ultimate upside is as a single-back tight end that isn’t asked to lead block out of the backfield with his wiry frame but instead alternates between grappling with defensive ends on the edge and using his size and speed to run routes. He’ll probably need a couple of years in college S&C and learning blocking techniques before he can be a reliable contributor there.
Of course, he may never even make it to campus.
A team’s identity always comes down to what the players are actually good at, or at least it does if the offensive staff didn’t spend the previous offseason planning on using different players.
The re-occurring theme with each of the candidates for Texas at tight end is that they are at their best when utilized as blockers out of the backfield.
In any other role on offense they’ll be limited. This means that if Watson intends to make the dropback passing game a big part of the offense, Texas’ best bet is to be an even more pure spread team and play four receivers with a single running back.
If Texas keeps DLT or one of the others on the field regularly then the emphasis will have to be on the run game, RPOs, and play-action bombs rather than drop back passing because these players are too limited to offer much as receivers or blockers.
The Orange-White scrimmage revealed a vision to have versatile “B” back tight ends that could move all over the field and allow the team to play up-tempo while using multiple formations and concepts. It’s a nice dream but one that’s best left to pro teams or college units with pro-caliber tight ends. Texas still doesn’t have that.
What this tells us is that how much these guys see the field will depend largely on whether Heard or Swoopes seizes control of the offense. With Swoopes at the helm, there’s little need to put an extra blocker on the field most of the time since Gray and Catalon are good in pass protection and there becomes an onus on getting receivers on the field who can run west coast patterns.
With Heard at the helm these guys would offer more value in creating a more multiple run-game and helping in max protection when Texas wants to take deep shots.
The worry here is how effective Texas’ tight ends (or indeed any of the players) can become if the team is drilling multiple concepts and identities that may not even come into play this season. One thing is clear, there are no talents on campus currently at the tight end position that would dictate a clear course of action on offense for Texas in 2015.