Preview 2017: Tight End And Friends

Submitted by Brian on August 29th, 2017 at 1:58 PM

Previously: Podcast 9.0A. Podcast 9.0B. Podcast 9.0C. The Story. Quarterback. Running Back. Wide Receiver.

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assembly line, er, assemble [Eric Upchurch]

Depth Chart


Fullback Yr. H-back Yr. Tight End Yr. Flex Yr.
Khalid Hill Sr.* Khalid Hill Sr.* Ian Bunting Jr.* Zach Gentry So.*
Henry Poggi Sr.* Nick Eubanks Fr.* Tyrone Wheatley Jr So.* Nick Eubanks Fr.*
Ben Mason Fr. Ben Mason Fr. Sean McKeon Fr.* Ian Bunting Jr.*

Jake Butt's gone. In his place are tight end Constructicons.

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If you throw Khalid Hill in—he can be "Bonecrusher"—Michigan has a variety six-pack of tight end sorts, all of whom have a shot at the field. When insiders bring the tight ends up it's usually as a group. 247: "have a solid core of 5-6 guys that can play at any time." And so forth and so on. Chances are a subset emerges, but maybe they'll all have slightly different uses. Maybe they'll combine into the living manifestation of Tacopants.

But probably a subset.

ANNUAL EXPLANATION OF THE FINE GRADATIONS OF BLOCKY/CATCHY

A few years ago we split tight ends from the WR post and fullbacks from the RB post, figuring that under Brady Hoke there would be enough of them to warrant it. We even split guys into various categories because a tight end is not just a tight end. Then Jim Harbaugh came in. After an internal struggle this site has decided not to split each one of these columns into its own post, but it was a near thing. Those columns are:

  • FULLBACK: a man with a steel plated head who runs into linebackers, gets two 50 carries in his career, and has six catches. See: Kevin Dudley, Sione Houma.
  • 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, Khalid Hill.
  • 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: AJ Williams, Jerame Tuman.
  • 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: Jake Butt.

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: GET ON UP

RATING: 3.5

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[Bryan Fuller]

IAN "Ol' Skillet Hands" BUNTING [recruiting profile] was stuck behind Jake Butt for years. Once Butt went down with an ACL tear in the bowl game he wasted no time demonstrating he was Also Jake Butt:

He followed that up with a very very bad attempt at a pass block, further confirming our comparisons. Bad pass blocking was something of a theme for Bunting, whether it was the above or getting run over by Malik McDowell. "Why leave that guy in to block?" is a valid question, and the answer was usually "because Jake Butt is in a pattern." Now he's the Butt, as it were, and pass blocking instances will be measured in the low single digits per game. Butt was under 3, for what it's worth.

Bunting's receiving chops are currently the very definition of small sample size. While he's still perfect in the UFR receiving charts it's on extremely limited opportunities. He's 12/12 with one non-routine catch, that embedded above. He had two catches for six yards on the season before the bowl game. The semi-breakout several predicted did not happen. Jay Harbaugh at last year's media day:

“He’s going to be a star. He’s going to be a very great player. He’s going to help our team a lot cause he is a tight end that can do both jobs. He can run, catch, block and he has the size... Maybe 6-foot-6 or 6-foot-7, 250 or 250-plus, and he works hard and he’s a smart football player. He has everything you need to do to be successful.”

Bunting was named Michigan's #2 TE there and then; he proceeded to accumulate fewer snaps than not only Butt but (sigh) Devin Asiasi and Tyrone Wheatley Jr. If that's because both those guys are inline sorts and Bunting is a flex, fine. The bowl game snaps certainly suggest that Bunting was blocked, not untalented. Bunting's near-total lack of targets does give some pause.

[After THE JUMP: i could have called them dinobots but sledge is so dumb]

Run blocking also projects as Butt-like, i.e. middling. Butt was never a mauler. He managed to get up to about zero in our reckoning and PFFs because he was able to get in the way. Here's a McDoom jet sweep with Butt and Bunting lined up next to each other; Butt is the furthest outside and Bunting just inside of him:

That's the same guy, at least as far as run blocking goes. Bunting's more prone to big mistakes, but he wasn't a senior last year. Here's another Butt/Bunting combo with the same setup. Butt whoops his guy; Bunting loses his, should definitely get hit with a holding call, and eventually makes good:

Bunting's blocking goal is to get to where Butt was last year: a net zero. Bunting's always going to die against the Chris Wormleys of the world and will have to make his receiving chops work for him. Butt often drew DB opposition he could blow out.

Bunting did flash an ability to chip-and-release against dubiously motivated Gators in the Citrus Bowl a couple years back:

As long as he's not tasked with one-on-one blocks against DL he'll be able to cope. That's easier said than done.

There wasn't much talk about Bunting early in fall camp, apparently because he was dealing with some sort of injury. Reports about tight ends in general have been scarce, and as mentioned tend to address them en masse. That alone means Bunting's going to have to fight for snaps and will thus have less individual impact than Butt. He should still lead this position group with catches—but with around 20.

Pasted image at 2016_08_23 10_12 PM

[via Seth]

Our second designated starter is TYRONE WHEATLEY JR [recruiting profile]. Wheatley entered last year a man in between. His sheer size and mobility suggested a thrilling upside but it was a bit much to expect a redshirt freshman to cut a swathe through the Big Ten even if he did score a totally rad 70-yard touchdown at last year's open practice. This space was of two minds, hyping him and (sigh) Devin Asiasi up as kaiju to the point where folks said Wheatley was "like two Norfleets stuck together" for me, but eventually predicting he'd get around 15 catches and be merely a "plus blocker."

Even that turned out to be optimistic. Wheatley did flash massive potential, whether it was beating a cornerback and outrunning a safety for a touchdown…

…or mauling Indiana's suddenly-good defense:

Or straight up whoopin' some dudes:

There's a lot of there in there. When Wheatley got ahold of you, you went places. He still looks very comfortable out in routes for such a huge person. He flashed that upside.

Unfortunately, too often Wheatley's blocking was amateurish. He had a tendency to lunge at folks and miss, like Ben Braden early in his career:

He was a "work in progress" per this site after the Illinois game.

Wheatley thus had a UFR pattern characteristic of high-upside, low-floor youngsters: a lot of +2 blocks and a lot of –2 blocks. These about balanced out. Wheatley finished the season dead even as a run blocker, 0.0 in PFF and 62% in UFR. That latter is just a hair short of our 2/3rds Mendoza line. That's not bad for a freshman in his first real playing time. And since he barely pass blocked (no minuses on about a dozen snaps) and caught just three passes, that was about all the data we got from year one.

The stage is now set for an inflection point in Wheatley's career. He clearly has the potential to bust out; there's hasn't been much talk that he will. Weight has always been an issue. Two years ago he was listed at 291; last year he was down 15 pounds but still at a very jumbo 276. There were rumors after 2016 that Michigan was still thinking about moving him to the OL. Harbaugh told the press that Wheatley had lost 20 pounds, but from what? Did he bounce back up? Probably, right?

Wheatley's the "most physical" of the tight ends per the head man as well, but that's about all we've heard about him. Insiders have been all but silent, occasionally mentioning Wheatley in lists of all the tight ends. There's been little that's not generic.

Wheatley's unlikely to be much more of a factor in the passing game this year, what with a cast of thousands clamoring for targets. Michigan will keep defenses honest by hitting him up on occasion. His main contribution will be as an inline tight end who can flip you for real. As long as he's not the one hitting the ground.

BACKUPS

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Gentry is in need of one sumo suit [Bryan Fuller]

The extremely depressing Devin Asiasi transfer leaves Michigan without a second Kaiju. They do have an assembly line of athletic pass catchers who might be a year away from blocking competency. Don't sleep on converted quarterback ZACH GENTRY [recruiting profile], who is not at all a tight end even a year after he moved but may be some kind of weapon in passing spread situations. Gentry is a legit 6'7" and was both Michigan's fastest and most agile tight end in the spring combine. Given the athletic bonafides of the two gentlemen discussed below, that's a thing there.

He still looks like a jumbo wide receiver and projects to be a Mike Gesicki-level blocker, but if he's also a Mike Gesicki-level pass catcher there will be snaps for him. We have little evidence of either so far other than whatever you can draw from a massive coverage bust in the spring game:

We are going strictly on look and feel here; that looks and feels like the kind of size and athleticism combo that will demand something or other. Yours truly after the spring game: "just look at the guy and his long loping strides and ability to shake enough to put not-Kovacs on his butt."

Gentry's name popped up with some frequency in the spring. One insider report I fielded projected Gentry as the starting FLEX since both Bunting and Wheatley will be needed for in-line duties. Another said Gentry was making a "ton of catches," something that Nick Baumgardner confirmed from Rome:

Zach Gentry continues to see a lot of reps as a receiver/tight end hybrid. If they can find a true home for him, he can be a weapon. He's still a really solid athlete, he's so much better with his hands now and he seems much more comfortable as a route-runner.

A year of polish and protein will bring Gentry closer to the field, and there is a meaningful chance he busts out as a weird hybrid receiver guy. Jay Harbaugh zeroed in on his upside last year:

"He's got what we call a 'dominant trait.' He's super fast and super tall and has very good hands. He has something naturally that gives him a chance to beat everybody as a route-runner.

Gentry's best bet is Michigan following through on the bonus spread looks they showed in the spring game. He will be a disaster making inline blocks against DEs. He might be able to handle the spacebackers that more and more teams turn to, along with extra defensive backs that make their way onto the field when the game spreads out. Utilized properly, he can be just as much of a mismatch as Wheatley. Here's hoping.

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pronounced "McCune," FWIW [Bryan Fuller]

Michigan's other two options are super-athletic redshirt freshmen. SEAN MCKEON [recruiting profile] had one of the best TE SPARQ scores in the country last year after a 4.65 40 and 36-inch vert; he did well in the spring combine, winning the two explosion-related events in his position group.

Since he arrived he's generated talk and that's continued through spring and fall. "The staff loves McKeon," per Lorenz, and he's on a steady upward swing since his arrival. During his early playing time I thought he was a "potential player down the road" because he made a couple of good blocks based on his football IQ. Most of the blocks he tried to execute weren't great because he was a freshman three-star tight end. That natural for everyone not in the (sigh) Asiasi range.

McKeon was up to 250 by the end of June with the goal of adding another five pounds before the season, which brings him much closer to the plausible range. (He was 230 upon enrolling early.) Wheatley said McKeon has "the best mechanics [he's] ever seen" and he's "naturally gifted" at being a tight end; Harbaugh called him "very, very athletic"; he should start seeing meaningful time.

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[Patrick Barron]

Finally, NICK EUBANKS [recruiting profile] had noticeably expanded in girth this spring and may force his way onto the field. He too is a major league athlete Michigan is attempting to polish, an "athletic freak" per Wheatley and one of the most athletic tight end sorts in the country last year:

The kid’s a freak,” said Cape Coral Island Coast coach Wayne Blair …. "was just jumping over people” against Daytona Beach “He’s what everybody’s looking for in that flex, hybrid tight end,” Blair said. “And he’s still relatively new to football.”

Eubanks's newly tight-end shaped person caught local attention during the spring game:

…appears to have made a move. He looks like a tight end now, which is step one. He was also targeted frequently. Michigan only found middling success doing so; the sheer number of balls he saw implies he's been making plays this spring. Here he only almost made a play, dropping a tough fade route from Peters after executing a textbook Manningham slow-and-extend to wall off the safety he'd gotten over the top of.

Reading between the lines, though, it seems like it might be one more year before Eubanks is ready to go. Harbaugh:

Nick Eubanks has really, really been tough and proficient in the pass game and Greg Frey’s bringing him along as a run blocker.

He's still just one year removed from being an oversized wide receiver and is still catching up to McKeon, let alone more veteran options, weight-wise. It wouldn't be a huge surprise to see any of Michigan's five tight ends break out; Eubanks might be a slight one.

FULLBACK & H-BACK: SEXY PANDA TIME

RATING: 4.5

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PANDA WINS [Eric Upchurch]

Michigan split snaps down the middle last year, but there was a clear 1A: KHALID HILL. Hill scored one-yard touchdowns, wiped out multiple players on the same play with some frequency, made shoetop catches without falling over, and nicknamed himself "the Hammering Panda." On many levels it was the best season from a Michigan fullback since Chris Floyd was stiffarming his way through a blizzard back when pogs were cool.

It is only a slight exaggeration to say he singlehandedly rescued the Colorado game with the best fullback block in the history of UFR:

I've been doing this for a decade and have never seen an edge guy blow through someone like he wasn't there and then go get some more. That is hugely valuable, and as the year progressed it became clear that this was a coaching point and not a fluke:

Hill can do that because he's squat, mobile, and powerful. Mike Spath collected this anonymous quote from a Big Ten opponent that sums him up well:

"Get out of his way. It's one thing if you're a lineman or a linebacker but if you're a cornerback or a safety, you want no part of him. Guys in the secondary, safeties, think they're tough but you saw a lot of guys last year on film that would take the wrong angle or hit the wrong hole and I think it was because they wanted no part of taking him on as a blocker. He's nasty."

I'd say this is probably a Michigan State player except that their pettiness would not allow such a positive take on any Michigan player. Because Montae Nicholson really should have gotten out of the way:

Hill's technique was erratic enough to cause some failures against bigger guys; he is uniquely suited to wiping out guys in the back seven. He was the unsung hero on Chris Evans's late touchdown against FSU, clobbering a linebacker in the hole to open up a crease:

PFF had him the second best run-blocker on the team, behind only Mason Cole. He was probably not up to Chris Floyd or Kevin Dudley's standards just yet, though—he did still mis-identify some blocks and occasionally lunge at guys only to miss. He more than made up for those incidents by wiping out whole secondaries.

As a bonus, Hill was a weird squat sumo slot receiver kind of recruit and his hands have popped up as a major positive from time to time. Michigan hit him for a 24-yard in route in the Citrus Bowl, and a year later he was out there scoring against Florida State.

When he goes out in a pattern he feels more like a tight end than a fullback; when he meets a linebacker downfield he feels emphatically like a fullback. Nice combination.

Hill's main drawback was pass protection. He's the guy who got Speight earholed in the Colorado game, and he had a couple other embarrassing olè blocks as the season progressed:

In all other matters he was an impact fullback. Harbaugh.

Hill's role won't change much in his senior year. There were some rumbles that his conditioning caused a bit of consternation amongst the coaches this spring, so it's unlikely he takes over a bunch of additional snaps. He might get a higher proportion of FB snaps if Michigan does move to more spread looks.

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Ol' Bandit [Fuller]

Fullback 1B is fellow senior HENRY "OL' BANDIT" POGGI, who got a dramatic haircut this offseason.

"Who the hell is that," quoth your author upon running into the rightmost picture for the first time. "Ol' Bandit got a hell of a makeover," he further quoth'd.

If some of that makeover could make it to the field that would be great, too. This space wants to love a Lebowski-enthusiast headshot artiste who has twitter conversations with his dad about eating whole ice cream cakes, but Poggi's performance paled in comparison to Hill's a year ago. This was a frequent discussion topic in UFRs. One of the less bitchy takes:

Hill seems like the better FB option by some distance. Wonder if we'll start seeing that in the playing time.

Poggi improved from an erratic sophomore year, occasionally flashing a Hill-like ability to get multiple guys on the edge. Ignore the box here and watch the FB:

Targeting issues were less frequent but still prominent. Poggi ran by a lot of linebackers in 2015. He was capable of slowing up and finding a chestplate to bash in 2016…

…but he still ran by guys, or decided to block the DE who was supposedly being optioned off. Sometimes the first guy would show in the hole and still get run by:

He picked up a lot of negatives, thus the complaining above. PFF was particularly skeptical, giving him a –8.6 just in run blocking. I was more positive about both fullbacks than PFF but thought the gap—obvious, significant, made the playing time split goofy—was just as big.

Poggi wasn't Hill when it came to getting touches but did have a couple of moments in the flat. He hossed up against UCF, for one. That aspect of his game looks to be about fullback-average.

It sounds like Poggi is getting pressed by Ben Mason, who we're about to address, and his snaps may get squeezed as Michigan floods the field with WRs and TEs. When he's on the field he'll be incrementally better than last year, and that's probably about it.

BACKUPS

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LB turned into hell-yes-that's-a-fullback [Bryan Fuller/Aaron Bills]

Freshman BEN MASON [recruiting profile] enrolled early, got the shot at linebacker he requested during his recruitment, and was then moved to his inevitable home at fullback. Harbaugh is delighted by this development:

"Ben Mason goes forward and hits people better than anybody I’ve ever seen and what a great thing to say about somebody that they go forward and hit people, and that’s the fullback position. … It looks like he was born to play the position."

You might find someone foolish enough to gainsay Jim Freakin' Harbaugh about people who go forward and hit other people. This space will not. Neither will Poggi, who told assembled media that Mason's transition was going "very smoothly":

"He’s going to be a really, really — he [already] is a really good player. He’s really strong. He’s definitely up there."

Mason is already physically prepared at nearly 250 pounds, but it's tough to find fullback snaps given the two gents above. He'll have a one-year apprentice period before emerging into the starter. Probably. Harbaugh gung-frickin-ho about the kid:

“Another guy giving everybody a run for their money is Ben Mason. Just a wonderful, wonderful, physical football player. He will help us this year. He’ll help us win games. He’s climbing up the depth chart at the fullback position. He’s made to be a fullback. Just real excited to watch him. Every day you just get excited to watch him come play.”

Webb reports he's "laying people out" and the future is "very bright," though the two seniors still hold primacy for now. A "giddy" Harbaugh might toss Mason out there because of his "punishing blocking." They did give him a test drive on the top unit, and Rivals asserted he could be the #2 FB. He almost certainly won't be; he should get all the garbage time snaps and be the obvious heir apparent.

Also per Poggi, Michigan has moved redshirt junior JARED WANGLER [recruiting profile] to fullback. Wangler was beyond buried at linebacker and there will be FB opportunities next year so that makes a modicum of sense. It's a bit difficult to believe Wangler will be particularly effective there after entering as an LB/S hybrid, and the way the roster falls out there is going to be extreme pressure on Michigan to offer a firm handshake instead of a fifth year. He has not drawn mention.

Comments

TCGoBlue

August 29th, 2017 at 2:44 PM ^

I feel like I'm on my fourth bowl, but they just restocked the steak in the line. Most people would be overfull, but I'll just go back one more time for MOAR content. I can't quit you Mongo.

True Blue in CO

August 29th, 2017 at 2:53 PM ^

Hoping the threat of our receiving corps will strech the field to help open routes for this group.  Really hope to see Gentry get open down field and see what he can do with his stride against a line backer.  All of these quality targets for pass routes and quick outlets should help as the O-Line develops over the course of the season.

TrueBlue2003

August 29th, 2017 at 6:36 PM ^

Plug the gaps and apply as much pressure as possible and it'll be hard for those weapons to get utilized.  It all starts with the OL for us, but even if they struggle early, I think we'll have some tricks up our sleeves for some misdirection/confusion type stuff to get the weapons involved.

mgobleu

August 29th, 2017 at 3:39 PM ^

For the love...

I give not a rat's ass who the qb is for Michigan. If the OL holds, any rock chucker with a pulse is going to look like a gunslinger with all the weapons out there.

Wow. Much excite. Very receiving.

Benoit Balls

August 29th, 2017 at 3:57 PM ^

I totally picked the best week to take my vacation. Not only did I get last Friday off for my Birthday (m y boss gives us our birthday off, which is kind of a neat perk), but Im off all this week, and dont go back until Tuesday. I got 11 days off for the price of 5 days of PTO, and I have all of this sweet, sweet content to read while i sit in an empty house while the Boy is in school. Aaaaaahhhhh, this is the life

OkemosBlue

August 29th, 2017 at 4:14 PM ^

This reads very positive for both TEs and fullbacks.  Several players ready to step up at TE, two FBs with room for further growth but not bad as they are, and a bunch of young-converted players with very high athletic upsides that Harbaugh can figure out ways to use.   Harbaugh has made it a clear priority to recrui and develop players withl high athletic ability in anticipation of teaching them the skills they need to become special football players, and my bet/hope is that it will pay off sooner rather than later.  

OkemosBlue

August 29th, 2017 at 4:14 PM ^

This reads very positive for both TEs and fullbacks.  Several players ready to step up at TE, two FBs with room for further growth but not bad as they are, and a bunch of young-converted players with very high athletic upsides that Harbaugh can figure out ways to use.   Harbaugh has made it a clear priority to recrui and develop players withl high athletic ability in anticipation of teaching them the skills they need to become special football players, and my bet/hope is that it will pay off sooner rather than later.  

JWG Wolverine

August 30th, 2017 at 12:02 AM ^

CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT!

Jon06

August 30th, 2017 at 5:03 AM ^

Hill acts like he thinks he has help on that play. For a college player heading into a new season, all of last year's mental mistakes are good mistakes. Or at least that's what I'm telling myself.