Mike Casazza

Time for Big 12 TEs To Run Comeback Route

Created on Apr. 24, 2013 1:51 AM EST

As college football offenses have advanced and acquired new philosophies, skill players translate into good pros and NFL franchises pluck the best NCAA coaches, one position has changed more than the rest.

Quarterbacks pass more now than ever. They’re in the shotgun, or a pistol, seemingly more than they are under center. They orchestrate the space and the speed of the offense and they have to carry so much on their shoulders. They remain the key to the car.

But we’re not talking about quarterbacks.

Running backs have been devalued. It’s mostly a passing game now, so their opportunities are limited. Some good high school running backs become great college slot receivers. Where running backs do remain running backs, there are often platoons and an urge to not wear out kids by subjecting them to defenders who are bigger and stronger and faster than ever before.

This isn’t about those guys, either.

Nor is it about receivers, who have seen their roles expand and escalate. Teams need multiple receivers at multiple positions to catch the rising number of passes. They’ve taken over what’s been taken away from running backs.

Nothing has changed more than it has for tight ends. They used to be the players who were either too light to play the offensive line, too big to play receiver or too tall to play fullback. They’re now highly-recruited, highly-valued parts of the offense. 

No longer do they primarily function as a third tackle to help the running game. They’re still big targets in the middle of the field, but they stretch the field side-to=side and in some cases bottom-to-top. They’re threats, as opposed to just red zone threats. Slot receivers are the NFL's latest fad, but tight ends have added their twist to that.

They move on to become millionaires in the NFL, where teams need two or three good ones if they want to be successful. They learn touchdown dances. They’re drafted early in fantasy drafts.

A lot of the tight end transformation in the NFL originated in the Big 12. Schools like Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M, when it was in the Big 12, could recruit athletes who were good enough to play in the NFL. The Sooners and Missouri when the Tigers were a part of the league had bold offenses that would line the tight end up on the end of the line, but move him up the field after the snap. Other times the big guys would line up in space.

Spread offenses soared. Baylor, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State traveled that route. Kansas, Iowa State and even Kansas State blended in bits and pieces until they could resemble everyone else.  

In the drafts from 2003-2013, teams drafted 147 tight ends. Sixteen were from the Big 12. That’s 10.9 percent of all the tight ends drafted from just one of the many conferences across all the levels of college football. Compare that to how the Big 12 accounted for 36 of the 324 total receivers drafted, or 11.1 percent.

They were good players, too, like Oklahoma’s Jermaine Gresham, Oklahoma State’s Brandon Pettigrew, Missouri’s Chase Coffman, Texas A&M’s Martellus Bennett, Texas’ Jermichael Finley and Colorado’s Joe Klopenstein.

Today’s Big 12 offenses are big on tempo and creating mismatches with players who double as tight ends and either inside or outside receivers. They can eliminate the need to substitute and allow an offense to play quicker and manufacture advantages against slower linebackers or smaller defensive backs.

Offenses across the country are doing it now and maybe that’s why the Big 12 has slowed a little bit. There were no Big 12 semifinalists for the Mackey Award last season. Or in 2011. Or in 2009. If there are to be any this season, the responsibility rests in the hands of a few.

Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro is the prototypical Big 12 tight end, a 6-foot-5, 255-pound player who behaves a lot like a receiver. He was injured in the sixth game of the season and missed the next six games before returning to catch two passes in the bowl contest. With new coach Kliff Kingsbury and the way the Air Raid offenses use big bodies as inside receivers, a healthy Amaro shouldn’t have trouble surpassing his 25 catches, 409 yards and four scores from last season.

Oklahoma State’s Blake Jackson, playing in the version of the Air Raid the Cowboys have adopted the last three years, is the league’s top returning player at the position. He caught 29 passes for 598 yards and three scores. His 20.62 yards per reception ranked No. 1 among all players in the Big 12, No. 2 in the BCS leagues and No. 4 in the FBS.

Kansas’ Jimmy Maudine (14 catches, 183 yards, two touchdowns) will benefit from BYU transfer Jake Heaps playing quarterback. He was honorable mention all-state in Texas’ Class 4A in 2010. Baylor’s Jordan Navjar transferred from Stanford, which is all that needs to be said about his potential, and should improve on his 10 catches for 80 yards in 2012: the Bears lost Terrence Williams and Lanear Sampson to graduation, and so many eyes will be on running back Lache Seastrunk.

Iowa State’s Ernst Brun Jr. led all Big 12 tight ends with six touchdowns last season. His 26 receptions for 330 yards are the most among returning Cyclones. TCU freshman Charlie Reid was the top tight end recruit to sign with a Big 12 school in February. Oklahoma’s Taylor McNamara was the top recruit a year earlier, a high school All-American who ended up starting one game and playing another before a season-ending injury.

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