McKeon, tight ends impressing after Gentry's departure
After completing a drill in practice earlier this spring, senior linebacker Khaleke Hudson went up to Sherrone Moore with one thought to share.
“Man, (Sean McKeon)’s gotten so much better,” Hudson told Moore.
Just six months ago, the senior tight end hit a low as he let a 25-yard pass against Northwestern slip through his hands, continuing his early-season troubles and giving the Wildcats — already up 10-0 — possession at midfield. When the Wolverines got the ball back, Nick Eubanks lined up as their second tight end, behind Zach Gentry.
Over the rest of the season, McKeon managed just eight receptions for 60 yards, falling well short of the expectations he set for himself after a 31-reception, 301-yard sophomore season in 2017. Gentry, meanwhile, finished his final season third on the team with 541 yards.
On Jan. 2, though, Gentry declared for the NFL Draft, opening the door for competition to fill his void, though the tight ends’ role could decrease in Michigan’s spread offense under new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. Whatever the role, McKeon has taken full advantage.
“Sean as a blocker’s been really good as he’s always been,” Moore said. “But his receiving ability (has improved), catching the ball in traffic, making the competitive catches. … It’s a credit to him and what he’s done this offseason. He hasn’t had any drops, he’s gonna catch the ball, he’s gonna make the competitive catches. I’m really proud of him as a receiver.”
McKeon’s impact has been felt far beyond the tight ends room this offseason. Tuesday afternoon, redshirt senior left tackle Jon Runyan Jr. was asked which of the tight ends has been most impressive in Gentry’s absence.
His response came without hesitation: “Definitely Sean McKeon.
“He’s kinda just like the stalwart of the tight ends, just does everything right.”
Amid the deepest receiving group Jim Harbaugh has had at Michigan, McKeon’s ability to follow through on such praise will be critical in Shea Patterson’s ability to follow through on his senior-year expectations.
“If you want to try to stop Sean, then you're gonna have to deal with Donovan,” Moore said. “If you stop Donovan, you're gonna have to deal with Nico. Then you're gonna have to deal with Nick, then you're gonna have to deal with all the other guys that we've got. So Sean's really taken the part of trying to be that security blanket for (Patterson).”
The competition to replace Gentry’s targets, though, goes past McKeon and further into that talented receiving group.
Eubanks, always a downfield threat with a career average of 21.8 yards per reception, has seen limited playing time over his first three years thanks to limited blocking skills. That has become a focus for Moore this offseason.
“Eubanks is really coming into his own as a blocker,” Runyan said. “And that’s really something that we need with him and Sean in our tight end sets and that’s gonna be really beneficial down the road.”
Redshirt freshman Mustapha Muhammad, a four-star recruit in 2017, has shown Moore flashes akin to his high school film after not being able to practice much a year ago. Luke Schoonmaker, a three-star in the same class, was also mentioned by Moore when asked about the Wolverines’ young tight ends.
But no matter to whom that question was posed, Erick All’s name was the prevailing response.
All, a four-star early enrollee from Fairfield, Ohio, possesses many of the pass-catching skills that Michigan lost in Gentry, regularly practicing with the Wolverines’ wide receivers. When freshman quarterback Cade McNamara wooed Michigan Stadium with a perfect deep ball at Saturday’s open practice, it was All on the receiving end.
And Tuesday afternoon, when asked about the tight ends’ role in a crowded receiving corps, Moore tossed out a comparison to freshman receiver Mike Sainstrill, the star of spring ball.
“The young guys, young receivers, people talked about Mikey (Sainstrill), people talked about (sophomore) Ronnie Bell,” Moore said. “But especially Mikey and Erick (All), those guys have really stepped up for being kids fresh out of high school.”
Of course, all of this is just talk shrouded in the reputation that is Michigan’s signature offseason optimism, and the extent to which the public has seen Shea Patterson without Gentry came in a handful of 7-on-7 drills on Saturday.
But with five months until kickoff, it sure beats the alternative.