|Joe Kerridge||Sr.*||Khalid Hill||So.*||AJ Williams||Sr.||Jake Butt||Jr.|
|Sione Houma||Sr.||Chase Winovich||So.*||Henry Poggi||So.*||Ian Bunting||Fr.*|
|Nick Volk||Fr.*||Ty Isaac||So.*||TJ Wheatley||Fr.||Jabrill Peppers||Fr.*|
"Tight End and Friends" debuted as a separate post in the preview a couple years ago when Al Borges started packing his roster with tons of slightly different blocky/catchy types; last year I went with it despite the OC changeover because there were a lot of dudes here anyway, and hooooo boy did that bet pay off when Harbaugh came into town.
Here is your now-annual reminder of what I mean by these various positions. (I've replaced the Borges-specific "U-back" terminology with the standard "H-back," FWIW.)
- FULLBACK: a man with a steel plated head who runs into linebackers, gets two carries in his career, and has six catches. See: Kevin Dudley.
- H-BACK: A "move" tight end who motions all about, rarely lines up on the actual line of scrimmage, often goes from fullback to a flared spot or vice versa, and operates as more of a receiver than the fullback. Must be a credible threat to LBs; ends career with 40 catches. See: Aaron Shea.
- TIGHT END: Larger than the H-back, the tight end is a tight end who is actually tight to the end of the line. He comes out, lines up next to a tackle, helps him win blocks, and clobberates linebackers at the second level. He goes out into patterns as well, and may end his career with 40 catches himself. See: Tyler Ecker, Kevin Koger.
- FLEX: Big enough to play on the end of the line credibly. Agile enough to play H-back credibly. Not great at either. Capable of splitting out wide and threatening the secondary. Sacrifices some blocking for explosiveness. Can be a prime receiving threat. See: Tyler Eifert, Devin Funchess if he could block.
And of course many of these people bleed into other categories. Think of these position designations as Gaussian distributions in close proximity to each other.
TIGHT END AND FLEX
"Jake is as good a prospect as we've coached at the college level," Harbaugh said. "We've produced a lot of great players in college at the spot and it's vital to our success."
Not only did Jim Harbaugh bring out a Ross-Perot-sized chart that said "BUTT == ERTZ == FLEENER," he talked the like the gotdanged queen of England while doing so. And then emphasized that if you, kid, if you are not Ertz/Fleener Voltron that the whole gotdanged enterprise is liable to collapse 'pon itself.
JAKE BUTT is like… okay.
Butt recovered from an ACL tear suffered in 2014 spring practice to play in ten games and make 21 catches as a true sophomore. Now fully healthy in an offense without Devin Funchess and with Jim Harbaugh, every Michigan fan expects him to blow up.
This preview concurs. Butt is the kind of player Harbaugh has used to befuddle opposing defenses for years: the flex tight end. Michigan hasn't really had one since I've been paying attention. They tried to make Funchess one but gave up and made him a receiver. Michigan fans will be most familiar with the endless parade of Notre Dame flex TEs who were equally comfortable lining up in-line, outside, or in the slot. They were all named "Tyler" or "Chad" or "Austin" or something and they posed tough questions for cornerbacks they dwarfed and safeties and linebackers they could outrun.
That's Butt. He is a huge-radius target with a number of one-handed stabs to his credit already and the athleticism to blaze for 70 yards on a screen against Ohio State as a freshman. After his freshman year, Mike Spath got this quote from an anonymous opponent:
"We played them late in the year, and [Butt] was someone that was really tough to defend. He's incredibly athletic. He made a catch against us that not that many receivers even make, so he has great hands. There weren't a lot of great tight ends in our league last year, so he could be the best this season."
Sometimes he just hangs out on the ground catching footballs one handed and oh hey there ma'am I did not see you why yes I have been working out how nice of you to notice
A little work from today.. pic.twitter.com/jOmzgujgmg
— jake butt (@JBooty_88) July 9, 2015
Perhaps we could get some gelato.
[After THE JUMP: High expectations, lower expectations, and an endless parade of blocky/catchy.]
Anyway. Blocking has not been a strength thus far, but neither has it been a flashing danger sign as it was in Funchess's case. Butt generally gets to a location he should be in and obstructs a defender. He isn't going to move defensive ends much but he can do so given the right opposition playcall, and his versatility is a problem for defenses. The fact that he will in all likelihood be a terrific receiver gives him so much leeway with his blocking. Adequate is great when you can do this:
Butt has done that whenever the situation has called for it, and now he's the most established receiver an Iowa quarterback has. If he doesn't catch two different first downs on one play this year it'll be an upset.
He should run away and hide with the Big Ten's tight end receiving race this year, be first team All Big Ten, and a Mackey finalist. Michigan is going to rely on him heavily.
Williams is a senior but his job is under threat [Bryan Fuller]
While Butt will play plenty as a tight end proper Michigan projects to have a lot of 2 or even 3 TE sets so they will need another inline guy. The two main contenders for that slot are senior AJ WILLIAMS and redshirt sophomore HENRY POGGI [recruiting profile], this year's Best MGoBlue Mug Shot winner.
Anyone who's read this site for longer than ten minutes knows that I have been very frustrated with Williams's play and general deployment. For years under Brady Hoke, Michigan chose to play a blocking tight end who could not block. This was frustrating enough when Williams was a freshman thrown into the meat grinder; two years later it really ground the gears.
Williams did improve, don't get me wrong. He was coming from so far behind that that only got him to meh, and caused long defensive sections in UFR where I explained why I kept focusing on an obscure blocking tight end:
Every week I find a bunch of plays on which AJ Williams is unable to do easy stuff I saw Mike Kwiatkowski consistently execute when Williams was a sophomore and Kwiatkowksi the walk-on senior. On this successful pin and pull he almost gets it blown up by comprehensively losing what should be a simple block:
Or here, where he doesn't realize a slant from the line means the end is Braden's, gets confused, whiffs, lunges, and then gets run over by a linebacker:
That thing where a guy 30 pounds lighter than Williams rocks him back with one hand and then disconnects to tackle is so common it feels like a trademark.
Williams did get a number of blocks last year that younger versions of him probably would not have, but he can't get away the kind of stuff that Jake Butt can because he's not Jake Butt in the passing game.
With five career catches he's such a non-entity ther that Michigan went ¯\_(?)_/¯ last year and started deploying converted OL Erik Magnuson as a TE. It's not like there was any difference to opposing secondaries. This only compounded the issues with Michigan's ground game. This summer Seth took a look at two similar plays on which Michigan got nothing and Stanford got lots, and this was one of the key differences:
Virginia Tech's playside CB and S are 5 and 7 yards off the ball; UConn's are 3 and 5. Michigan got the blocks basically right but because the guy responsible for covering Williams had no respect for him as a pass threat they got stoned. VT blew their run fit, but even if they'd gotten it right Stanford was going to grind out a chunk.
Unless Williams develops into a viable—not great or even good, just viable—receiver he's just another OL and to justify the lack of flexibility that gives your offense he'd have to be an elite blocker. That is highly unlikely.
Poggi certainly looks the part [Bryan Fuller]
So the alternative then: Poggi. A consensus four-star recruit with a pile of eyepopping offers including 'Bama and Ohio State, Poggi started his career as a defensive end. His upside there didn't seem great. Despite the recruiting accolades the overall impression left by the scouting reports was as guy who could be a reliable run-stopper and solid starter, but not a star. I compared him to Ryan Van Bergen and got yelled at by commenters who 1) do not understand my appreciation for RVB's game and 2) thought that was selling him short. That take seemed to be coming to fruition, and then Harbaugh swept in and flipped him to the other side of the ball.
This is a highly plausible idea. Poggi is a thick dude at 6'4", 273. And if Poggi didn't have great upside as a DE there was another option:
Offensively, … where he really excelled is as a run blocker. Poggi did a great job stalemating his man at the point of attack before driving him off the ball. He showed the ability to chip, gain leverage and readjust to quick edge rushers. Right now, the only question is how much bulk he can pack onto his frame and what position he'll fit best at.
Multiple scouting reports mentioned his ability on offense, with ESPN asserting that he was better on that side of the ball. All praised his tenacious blocking; Tim Sullivan noted that 'Bama was recruiting him on that side of the ball. As far as position switches go this one makes a ton of sense.
We haven't gotten much data on Poggi after the move. He was held out of the spring game with a minor injury and practice reports are generally light on low-wattage positions like blocking TE. Sam Webb did note that Poggi had "earned a reputation as a fearsome blocker" in a message board post; Steve Lorenz heard that Poggi is "a Jim Harbaugh guy" who showed up with his hard hat and lunch pail every day.
Chances are good this is at least a platoon. I would not be surprised to see Poggi eventually phase out much of Williams's playing time, if only because the narrative of spring practice goes something like "Harbaugh surveys his available tight ends, calls Jake Butt a Fleener/Ertz Voltron, and moves half the team to that position." That is not a good sign for incumbents not named Butt.
Bunting and Wheatley [Fuller]
The primary backup at flex should be IAN BUNTING [recruiting profile], the 6'7" gentleman I am rather excited about. It's gotten to the point that whenever I mention him in Ace's presence he sighs "skillet hands" because he knows that's the next thing out of my mouth. Well, am I wrong, Ace? AM I?
Ian Bunting has skillet-sized hands and spent his high school career as a hilariously oversized high school wide receiver; Michigan has embarked on a five-year project to turn him into Ertz or Fleener. So far so good, as Bunting has worked his way up from 227 on last year's fall roster to 252, which is on the edge of plausibility. With little practice buzz so far it's probably going to be a season of scattered snaps, a few promising catches, and hard work as he looks for a breakout 2016. And then?
Bunting shows a good burst after the catch and has enough speed to take it the distance. Similar to Michigan’s Devin Funchess, … shows strong hands with the ability to extend and pluck the ball out of the air. He does a great job of catching the football in traffic. … I really like Bunting’s burst in and out of his breaks for as tall and long as he is.
Expect this space to be fanning itself about a Butt/Bunting combo next year.
Blocking TE snaps that don't go to Williams or Poggi are likely to be handled by guys listed at H-back. There is one other true tight end on the roster: freshman TY WHEATLEY JR [recruiting profile]. The younger Wheatley did something unfortunate but not necessarily season-ending to his knee during fall camp. Before that he was garnering some praise for his blocking ability. He also weighed in at a whopping 291 pounds, which is more OL territory than TE territory. If Wheatley can drop the weight he projects as a mean inline TE with enough receiving upside to be a major problem for defenses; with the injury and Michigan's depth a redshirt seems likely.
If he stays around 300 pounds he'll get moved to OT or the defensive line.
Kerridge hits his ceiling, also linebackers [Maize and Blue News]
JOE KERRIDGE has seen some stuff, man. This year's Brooks Bollinger Eighth-Year Memorial Senior, Kerridge is the kind of mobile brick you like to see at fullback.
That is unless you don't have much use for fullbacks in general. Doug Nussmeier did not. Nussmeier came from a one-back coaching tree and played a lot of three-wide-one-TE spread last year out of necessity, so Kerridge's role was limited. While he popped up from time to time as an H-back or even a surprise flanker, the dropoff in his usage was clear in UFR. While he played in every game, he did not register a single chart-worthy event against Utah, Rutgers, and MSU and managed only a single plus against PSU and Minnesota. Compare that to his 2013 deployment:
|CMU||4.5||-||4.5||FBs did well.|
|Notre Dame||7.5||1||6.5||Isos were a high point.|
|Akron||2||-||2||Blocks got cut away from.|
|UConn||1.5||2||-0.5||Not heavily involved.|
|Minnesota||6||3.5||2.5||Let some guys under him.|
|Penn State||1||0.5||0.5||Blocks couldn't even become relevant.|
|Nebraska||6.5||3.5||3||Got good movement.|
|NW||3||1.5||1.5||Soon to be a WR.|
|Iowa||4.5||1||3.5||Good game, quasi third-down back.|
If 1.5-2 is "not heavily involved," Kerridge's 2014 was virtually invisible when he was not inexplicably chugging for 52 yards on a fake punt against Maryland. That changed somewhat later as Khalid Hill's injury and AJ Williams's lack of progress cleared the way for Kerridge to have a major role against Ohio State.
That promises to continue under Harbaugh. He was voted a captain. Two-way bowling ball Owen Marecic was not exactly an unsung hero at Stanford. He was a major driver of both media coverage and the Stanford offense because he was a fullback worth drafting in the fourth round. Kerridge probably won't end up that highly regarded, but when he's gotten run the results have been good:
Kerridge won't be mistaken for a tight end any time soon, but when he's been asked to run routes and catch balls he's done well for his position. It says somethin' about somethin' that after one conversion against OSU last year the announcers said he "may be Michigan's MVP of this first half," but they weren't wrong. He's got some skill.
The main issue with Kerridge is a lack of familiarity with what he's supposed to do. He's on this third offensive coordinator in three years and he's been hurt as badly as the offensive line has by the constant scheme switching. One of Marecic's super powers was identifying what the defense was trying to do to stymie Stanford's power game and putting himself in the right gap; on certain plays it looks like he checks three separate gaps before bouncing to the outside and paving the guy who was supposed to be the free hitter. Kerridge has not had the benefit of four years of Harbaugh and probably can't be that consistent.
He should still be pretty good. He has the physical traits you want in a fullback, if you want one. Harbaugh certainly does.
There's not much past Kerridge in terms of true fullbacks. There one: SIONE HOUMA is also a senior. With the move away from fullbacks played very little last year, and then he missed spring with a foot injury. Chatter has not mentioned him since. He'll be available in case Kerridge is not; Michigan can also look at guys slotted for H-back and even Wyatt Shallman as options should the necessity arise.
Hill and Winovich [Upchurch/Fuller]
As a recruit, KHALID HILL [recruiting profile] was touted as a slot receiver in a fullback's body:
The first thing that really jumps off the tape about Hill is his catching radius. He can scoop a pass up off of his shoelaces or go up and make a tough catch well over his head. Hill also has good arm extension when making a catch, not allowing the ball to get close to his body. Hill is quarterback friendly and really makes an inaccurate pass look easy to catch with his natural adjustments.
This was intriguing since excellent receivers who come in weird squat packages are often highly valuable in the redzone. We just didn't know if Hill was much of a blocker.
This is not a verdict, but it ain't a bad start:
Hill hadn't gotten much playing time before and tore his ACL in practice shortly after that, so we never got to see if he could follow up on that and another thumping block against the Scarlet Knights.
Prior to that he did obliterate a Notre Dame defensive lineman on one of those unfair blindside blocks. He made a couple catches. The overall feeling from his freshman year was one of promise hinted at and then removed by injury.
That injury happened in the middle of the season last year. While ACLs are generally regarded as six-month problems these days, that did put Hill behind the eight ball because a new coach was presiding over spring practice. Harbaugh did not start getting to know Hill, the player, until a week or two into this fall camp. By that point he'd already jammed the roster full of anything blocky/catchy shaped he could lay his hands on. Chatter has been limited as a result.
This preview still thinks that Hill's combination of receiving skills and squat, 260-pound punishment will see him into Harbaugh's good graces sooner or later. The goal is for Hill to develop into a reliable redzone/short yardage option, with upside set aside for his upperclass years.
Hill's absence this spring provided converted linebacker CHASE WINOVICH [recruiting profile] an opportunity. Winovich's move was pretty weird, as Michigan has a 2016 linebacker depth chart that reads "Ben Gedeon" and "???". Winovich was a four-star linebacker Michigan beat OSU for head to head who hadn't played anything approximating tight end or fullback before—he was in fact a high school quarterback. Recruiting sites loved his short-range burst and compared him to Jake Ryan; so did I.
Flipping him to tight end speaks to Harbaugh's obsession about the position. Maize and Blue News caught up with him about the move at Media Day:
“The first thing that came out was that ‘I like your speed,’ and then he just started naming these guys before he even said anything about playing tight end, naming guys in the NFL,” Winovich recalled. “He was like ‘I really think – I really recommend’ was the word he used, ‘that you make the switch to tight end and fullback,’ which would be an H-back.
Winovich burst his way open in the spring game with that speed, and then dropped Alex Malzone's best downfield attempt of the game. The promise and the peril all in one play, right there.
Winovich will get some opportunities, especially early as Hill works out the last kinks with his knee. He's got excellent upside if he can get all the technicalities of playing his position down, something that seems doubtful in year one.
And we would remiss if we didn't mention TY ISAAC here. Michigan may run out some two RB sets with Isaac moving from the backfield to H-back spots or to the outside. He poses questions not many players do.
WYATT SHALLMAN [recruiting profile] was addressed in the RB section; it seems likely he'll end up being a FB/H-back sooner or later. With his injury it will be a while before he sees the field, especially if he's shifting positions.