With the Michigan football team’s 2017 regular season in the books, the Daily looks back at the performance of each unit this year and looks ahead to the future in 2018. In this edition: tight ends and fullbacks.
Ever since Jake Butt became an integral part to Jim Harbaugh’s offense, everyone knew tight ends would be a featured position in Michigan’s system for seasons to come.
Butt, a former All-American, would obviously be hard to replace, but two frontrunners emerged as the Wolverines’ leading tight ends. They did a fair job making up for Butt’s absence.
Sophomore tight end Sean McKeon led the team with three receiving touchdowns, and finished the regular season as the team’s second-leading receiver with 285 yards. McKeon was a frequent target for both redshirt freshman quarterback Brandon Peters and fifth-year senior quarterback John O’Korn.
The team’s third-leading receiver — behind wideout Grant Perry and McKeon — was another tight end. Redshirt sophomore Zach Gentry collected 276 yards and two touchdowns.
It was the first season that Gentry and McKeon saw significant playing time, and the pair both served as reliable targets for Michigan’s quarterbacks.
The Wolverines had little luck in the air this year — O’Korn and Peters couldn’t hit receivers on the deep ball very often — but they continuously hit McKeon or Gentry rolling off of the line. Those passes were much easier to make, and the quarterbacks utilized them regularly.
At the fullback position, Michigan saw the same contributions for the most part that it had the year before.
When Michigan needed a short gain, either for a first-down conversion or a touchdown push, fifth-year senior Khalid Hill was there to punch it home.
The ‘Hammering Panda,’ as his nickname goes, had three touchdowns this season on just 17 rushing attempts. In contrast, the team’s two main running backs each ran the ball over 120 times.
Hill’s efficiency proved to be important again this season for Michigan.
HIGH POINT: One of the best fullback moments of the year actually came on a play where Michigan chose not to hand the ball to Khalid Hill.
In College Park, from second-and-goal on the three-yard line, Peters handed the ball to fifth-year senior fullback Henry Poggi. Poggi, a Maryland native, dove across the goal line and scored his first career touchdown. His fellow fifth-year senior center Patrick Kugler and senior left tackle Mason Cole quickly surrounded him in celebration.
The score was not only Poggi’s first Michigan touchdown, but also his first rush attempt of the entire season. He wasn’t used as often as Hill or freshman fullback Ben Mason, but Poggi’s touchdown against the Terrapins gave him a highlight moment to look back on.
The Maryland game also saw positives from the tight ends, as both McKeon and Gentry scored touchdowns. McKeon’s came on a short three-yard rollout, his only catch of the game, but Gentry racked up 63 receiving yards on three catches to boost the Wolverines to a road win.
LOW POINT: One tight end in particular never fully showed his worth.
Sophomore Nick Eubanks opened the season with two catches for 61 yards against Florida, but didn’t catch another pass all season after falling victim to injury
Harbaugh never disclosed what that injury was specifically, but the Wolverines certainly lost a weapon without him on the field.
THE FUTURE: At fullback, the future is in the hands of Ben Mason. Recruited as a linebacker out of high school, Mason converted to fullback. Harbaugh even said he was “born to play” the fullback position.
Mason brings a lot to Michigan’s run game. He’ll be crucial in blocking, which he displayed an ability for midway through the season when he barreled a Rutgers player 10 yards into the end zone to pave the way for the Wolverines’ running back.
Mason was the only underclassman fullback to see playing time this year, and his role will likely expand going forward as Hill and Poggi move on.
For the tight ends, not much is going to change in 2018. Gentry and McKeon will both be back, and in addition, redshirt sophomore Tyrone Wheatley Jr. and Eubanks, who both made contributions this year, could see additional playing time.
Ultimately, the tight end carousel revolves quickly. Gentry and McKeon rode it all this year, but with Eubanks back and healthy, wherever the carousel stops turning, the Wolverines will be just fine.