Position review: tight ends

Monday, February 11, 2019 - 10:43am

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Alexis Rankin/Daily

With the Michigan football team’s 2018 regular season in the books, The Daily looks back at the performance of each unit this year and peers ahead to the future in 2019. In this edition: tight ends.

When the Wolverines went 8-5 in 2017, one of the lowest points in a disappointing season was the performance of the receiving corps. Just three players cracked 300 yards on the season — barely. Wide receiver Grant Perry had 307 yards, followed by junior tight end Zach Gentry and sophomore tight end Sean McKeon with 303 yards and 301 yards, respectively. 

And while the wide receivers struggled as a result of inconsistent quarterback play, the tight ends became security blankets for the rotating string of Michigan starting quarterbacks. Gentry, especially, at 6-foot-8, was valuable as a checkdown option almost every time he was on the field.

In 2018, junior quarterback Shea Patterson locked up the starting job and continued the trend of leaning on the tight ends. Gentry finished the season with the third-highest receiving total at 514 yards and two touchdowns. Junior Nick Eubanks — after catching two passes for 61 yards in his sophomore season — caught eight receptions for 157 yards and a touchdown.

HIGH POINT: Early on in Michigan’s Oct. 6 game against Maryland, Patterson faked a handoff to senior running back Karan Higdon and dropped back to pass. The offensive line gave him time to set up for the throw and he saw Gentry wide open on a crossing route 31 yards down the field.

Gentry made the catch — his first of a career-high seven on the day.

It was a tight-end heavy drive, as evidenced by McKeon’s catch three plays later that put Michigan on the Terrapins’ 16-yard line which set up redshirt sophomore kicker Quinn Nordin for a field-goal attempt to put the Wolverines ahead, 3-0.

At the end of the game, which Michigan won 42-21, Gentry had notched a team-high 112 yards on seven catches for an average of 16 yards per catch. The next closest receiver was sophomore wide receiver Nico Collins, who finished with one catch for 51 yards.

It was a career day for Gentry and exemplified his development since Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh decided to change him from quarterback to tight end.

“He’s really worked hard,” Harbaugh said. “Everything you want a tight end to be, he’s really growing into a prototypical type of tight end.”

LOW POINT: The Ohio State game may well have been the low point for the entire team last season, but it was certainly the low point for the tight ends. The three main tight ends — Eubanks, Gentry and McKeon — were held to four catches for 21 total yards combined.

Eubanks saw most of his usage throughout the season as a deep threat, with a season average of 19.6 yards per catch. But against the Buckeyes, his two catches totaled eight yards with a long of seven — not quite the numbers he’d been putting up earlier in the season. McKeon caught just two passes for 13 yards.

After spending a whole season as one of the go-to check downs for Patterson, Gentry didn’t make an appearance on the stat sheet in his final regular season game as a Wolverine.

Early in the second quarter, Michigan had the ball on the Ohio State 13-yard line on third down with six yards to go. Patterson found Gentry on his way into the end zone and gave him a chance to catch it. But Gentry couldn’t hang on, and Michigan was forced to kick a field goal that left them one point off the lead.

Later in the game, Gentry dropped another would-be catch that would’ve gone for a first down. Instead, he left the game with a concussion. Gentry was expected to cap his career season with a strong performance against the Wolverines' biggest rival, but the end result was certainly disappointing.

THE FUTURE: After a breakout season — despite the slow finish to his year at Ohio State — Gentry declared for the NFL Draft. That leaves McKeon, Eubanks and a handful of freshmen and sophomores that haven’t seen much, if any, game action in the returning tight end group.

McKeon’s production dipped in his junior season after a strong sophomore campaign in 2017. This past season, his lone touchdown came against Western Michigan in the second game of the season and he never had more than 29 receiving yards in a single game. With Gentry departing, McKeon will be expected to step into that role and return to his 2017 numbers.

In his first three years, Eubanks’ role took a backseat to McKeon and Gentry, who asserted themselves as the two primary tight ends. He was largely used as a deep threat and targeted less than a handful of times in each game. But now that Gentry is gone, Michigan will be in need of a second tight end that has game experience. Eubanks figures to be that player.

Outside of McKeon and Eubanks, Michigan lists six tight ends on the roster. The most important names to know among the returning group are sophomore Carter Selzer and freshmen Mustapha Muhammad and Luke Schoonmaker.  

Muhammad, who has yet to appear in a game, was a four-star recruit out of Texas and ranked No. 168 in his class, per 247Sports. Selzer was lightly recruited, but at 6-foot-8 may replace Gentry as a big pass-catching threat in his third year after playing in just three games in 2018. Schoonmaker has made only one game appearance, but he did it all for his Connecticut high school and will add a wide range of skills for Michigan.

The Wolverines signed only one tight end in the 2019 class — four-star Erick All. All enrolled early and has a chance to contribute starting in the fall.

The tight ends have always been a valuable position group for Harbaugh. With the addition of new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, it remains to be seen how much the tight ends will be utilized, but Gattis has a talented group with which to work.