It might be strange to discuss Texas tight ends so much since there’s a decent chance that Texas will spend half or more of their offensive snaps next season without one on the field. That said, Herman clearly wants to make them a priority within the offense and some of the targets on the board for this next recruiting class (Mustapha Muhammad and Malcolm Epps for instance) are potential game-changers.
Scipio had a nice piece the other day detailing the art of tight end deployment, essentially explaining how an offense is built partly around the matchup advantages created by the tight end. I’ve devoted a lot of words to the topic myself, what a team does at the inside receiver positions is typically indicative of their identity as an offense.
Tom Herman has utilized a lot of different tight ends in his time as an offensive coordinator/head coach and I’ve compiled their stats, specs, and backgrounds in this handy table:
You can see it’s a pretty versatile bunch with a few standout receivers mixed in with a parade of sturdy blockers. Herman tends towards a type but he’s clearly flexible with how he uses the position.
The three types of tight end
There’s a few different ways to define the main types of tight end you see in the modern game but the simplest and best way to look at it is akin to the way we look at quarterbacks. You have tight ends that specialize in blocking, tight ends that specialize in providing a matchup advantage in the passing game, and tight ends that can do both.
The NFL tends to like flex TEs because the easiest way to beat good, pro defenses is with precise passing to reliable targets. College teams like to recruit TEs that the NFL will be attracted to but they really develop them more as blockers. OJ Howard at Alabama is the perfect example, the dude was not a feature of the Alabama passing game by any stretch of the imagination. Instead they utilized his speedy, 6-foot-6 242 pound frame primarily for opening holes for their runners to dart through and then threw him the ball on sucker plays in the postseason.
The best way to beat college defenses from year to year if you’re a blueblood college program is by flexing your muscle in the trenches with the run game and Hermans’ tight end deployment over the last decade has tended to reflect that whether he’s been at blueblood program or not.
James Casey was the rare Herman “dual-threat TE” who was the main feature of the 2008 Rice Owls, getting 168 touches that produced 1570 total yards and 19 TDs. The Owls would use him as a wildcat QB, move him around, and often use him as a chain-moving target on the hash marks as Texas discovered:
He’s stuck in the NFL largely because he’s also strong as a blocker, even mixing it up some at fullback. For a college offense a guy like James Casey is more or less the gold standard in terms of all the things he brings to the offense.
Most of Herman’s tight ends over the years have been more like Kurt Hammerschmidt, who’s pretty far towards the “blocking TE” end of the spectrum. The Cyclones would flex him out some, because that’s how Herman’s offense works, but he was primarily a “hammer-back” that served to help create angles in the run game:
Here’s how you might plot them as players in terms of their skill sets.
The “extra blocking surfaces” and “flex tight ends” still need to be able to block well enough to justify their presence on the field over a more dangerous skill player. However, if a guy is a good enough receiver it reduces how good a blocker he needs to be, and vice versa.
Many of the guys on the list above are going to plot more within the “extra blocking surface” quadrant then “dual-threats” because they were fielded to block. Part of this was dictated by their own skill sets, part of that was because the Buckeyes were built to run the football (particularly at QB) and even if Jeff Heuerman or Nick Vannett were monstrous matchups running down the seams there was still more mileage to be gained from using them to punish nickel fronts in the run game and set the stage for Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett, Carlos Hyde, or Ezekiel Elliott running with the ball.
Creating explosive plays
The tight end is traditionally a servant of ball control, he’s used a lot on chain moving tactics because his size and strength is useful mostly either for knocking guys out of the path of the running back or else boxing out smaller defenders on short tosses over the middle.
However, the way TEs were used in the Veer and Shoot offense that Texas ran last year made them very useful for creating explosive passing plays, but in an indirect fashion. A undoubtedly costly factor in the recruitment of Major Tennison was the fact that for Gilbert, the tight end creates explosive plays by facilitating two-back running plays that necessitate safety run support.
The wide splits of the receivers made it harder for the safeties to get into the box without being obvious and revealing to the QB where his targets were going to be isolated on DBs in open grass down the field.
The offenses at Oklahoma State and West Virginia have a similar design, with the tight end’s blocking serving as a trigger that lures in safeties and linebackers to create passing windows to throw down the field. The blocking TE may also serve to help create max protections that can buy time for the QB to sit and wait for double moves and deep routes to develop.
If the tight end is a good blocker and paired with a strong-armed QB and vertical passing threats, this is actually a much simpler path to creating explosive plays than a strategy that involves using the tight end to run routes.
A flex or dual-threat TE is ironically not as easy to utilize in creating explosive plays. You can send them down the field but their lack of speed often makes it harder for them to elude tacklers or reach the end zone. Where the tight is often more valuable is in attacking linebackers with underneath routes and becoming a chain-moving machine that can lure in safeties and open up vertical passing windows in a similar fashion that is accomplished by RPOs or play-action. Here’s a play that upcoming Texas opponent USC used that would involve shallow routes by their tight end to help open a window for a curl route downfield.
Now you’re talking about a passing game that can protect without using the tight to help block and that features a QB who can hit windows over the middle and advance to his second and third read when teams clamp down on the tight end. That’s more difficult to execute year in and year out at the college level and consequently is not something we’ve seen as often from Tom Herman offenses, which are hanging their hat on the run game to provide consistency from year to year.
Tight ends in the Herman offense
James Casey is good evidence that Tom Herman will regularly throw the ball to his tight if the skill is there, but the offense is designed in such a way that what the tight end offers as a receiver is gravy after what they offer as a blocker.
The goal is to hammer teams in the middle of the field with inside zone and power and a tight end that can pick off a defensive end or lead on a linebacker in the hole is invaluable towards that purpose.
The spread offense is great for creating options that make for steady gains down the field but when the team needs to convert third and two do you want your main tight end to be a guy that’s at his best dragging a linebacker away from the action on a quick route? Or a guy that can combo with Connor Williams and turn the left side of the DL into a crater?
However, Herman asks a ton from this position and he likes to move his TEs all over the place to create opportunities for other skill players even if they don’t get the ball a ton themselves. They line up attached on the line, off the ball as an H-back, flexed out in the backfield, and flexed out on the line. The goal is to create angles and matchups with the tight end as a supplementary component. Tyler McCloskey’s last two years at Houston is evidence that the position doesn’t have to be great at anything but they do need to be competent in many different regards.
As a result of all that, they’re often left open on sucker play-action plays or other instances where opponents seem to forget that they’re eligible to receive passes:
If you know what you’re getting from a defense there’s a lot to be gained from sending a tight end vertically on a pass pattern, even if he can’t beat coverage all he needs to do to bring value is catch the ball if he’s left wide open. Jim Harbaugh has won a lot of games and made some fringe NFL QBs look really good by flexing out fullbacks, tight ends, and running backs that need only catch the ball if open but otherwise are serving to create space or matchups for the intended targets.
For instance on the clip above, that was the same “smash combinations with a post up the seam” passing play that Shane Buechele was executing in the spring game when he threw a pick to Chris Brown and then later a post to Heard. The goal of this play is to overstress the deep coverage, create a little confusion with the switch between the receiver and the tight end and get the wideout a free release up the seam against the safety, and make for a simple read and toss for the QB.
A half-decent throw to the seam route is probably the better bet here and also a TD but the switch really crosses the wires of the coverage and allows Heuerman to get wide open. The Buckeyes mixed in play-action here, which holds the corner, and that combined with the initial inside release by the outside receiver “helps” the CB forget that he needs to help the safety deep.
This offense has lots of useful helps in it to create opportunities for tight ends to get their shot catching the ball, but they have to know how to run the routes and they need to be able to block up front.
Future Texas offenses under Herman are going to thrive from landing traditional tight ends that will block and help do the dirty work up front yet are skilled enough to move out in space and catch some balls here and there. However if Texas is able to land a true “dual-threat” prospect that can be a featured target in the passing game, he’ll get a well rounded education on the finer points of tight end play at Herman’s academy.