Tuesday, March 5, 2013
Horns have major questions at tight end
By Carter Strickland
AUSTIN, Texas -- Geoff Swaim was knocked down because he stood up.
"This isn’t junior college," Texas coach Mack Brown said.
Texas' M.J. McFarland has improved as a blocker but needs to show more consistency.
Nope, to steal a line from Dan Hawkins -- sans the hysterical screaming voice -- it's Division I football. And Swaim, a junior college transfer working in his first spring practice with the Longhorns, found that out from the seat of his pants during practice Friday.
Texas found out on Saturday that Swaim had learned his lesson as he stayed low in his blocks and, surprisingly enough, on his feet. Consider it a learning curve successfully traveled.
Now all Texas has to do is learn how to most effectively use Swaim and the rest of the tight ends.
That's not such an easy task considering there are vastly differing body types there. Swaim and Daniels are blockers. The former had nine catches last year in junior college. The latter is a converted defensive end. Onyegbule and Harris are converted receivers. And McFarland is a cross between the two.
"The short-yardage and goal-line stuff will be more Geoff and Greg, but what can you do in substitution?" Brown said. "What can Geoff and Greg do in the flex and what can John and M.J. do tight? When you get two of them in the game for short yardage and goal line, can they flex? Can you use Geoff Swaim or M.J. as an H-back?"
Forget about hope springing eternal in spring. It seems as if around Texas, particularly when it comes to the tight end position, questions are starting to bloom.
For years now, the tight end has been a dead zone in the Texas offense. Jermichael Finley caught 45 passes in 2007. Since that time, no tight end has had more than 16 receptions in a season. In fact, the highest pass-reception total for the tight ends as a group in a single season since 2007 was 32 in 2011.
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Injuries have played a major role in that lack of production. A change in scheme in the past two years also transformed the tight end into more of an edge blocker than a pass-receiving threat. But with Texas committed to going to a more wide-open attack, it would make sense that the Longhorns would want to make use of all of their possible offensive weapons.
That’s not to say Texas doesn’t need a tight end that can block. The Longhorns do. They will still run to the edge with Malcolm Brown and it's always handy to have another blocker to pick up a defensive end or to seal a lane following a screen pass.
But if that player is not also a threat to go into a route and slice the defense down the middle, then Texas puts itself a tactical disadvantage before it even snaps the ball.
That’s why Brown and the coaches are taking their time and asking so many questions about the tight end spot. It’s also why Daniels was sent into the same pattern three straight times Saturday until co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite was satisfied the throw, route and catch were perfect before the offense was allowed to move on to another play.
The situation at tight end becomes more complicated because of Texas’ desire not to substitute during drives. Whereas in the past Texas might bring in a pass package or a run-block package, now the Longhorns want the same players on the field for the entire drive so as not to allow the defense a chance to substitute players. That means versatility at tight end will be a premium.
Whether or not Texas has a player or even two stand up and display that versatility is something the coaches are trying to learn this spring.