Tight-knit tight ends play key role in Michigan's offense
If you ask tight end A.J. Williams, his position group is a cast of characters, all with different personalities and backgrounds.
He mentions redshirt sophomore Henry Poggi, a recent convert to the position, with his “crazy flow,” and redshirt sophomore Khalid Hill, who just returned from anterior cruciate ligament surgery and until recently had a haircut that Williams described as a box.
Add in junior Jake Butt, the star with the funny last name; redshirt freshman Ian Bunting, who tight ends coach Jay Harbaugh says “looks like a big tree”; and Williams, the senior who has been a blocking specialist for the last three years, and the Wolverines have quite a deep and diverse tight end group.
And those are just the guys who caught a pass in Michigan’s win against Brigham Young on Saturday.
Playing tight end for Michigan feels different this year, Williams said Tuesday. He has been in offenses where tight ends have been overlooked, particularly in his primary role of blocking. But when Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh arrived last December, Williams and his position mates knew they were in for a treat. During his tenure at Stanford, Harbaugh was known for his development of tight ends, most notably Zach Ertz and Coby Fleener, both significant contributors in the NFL.
Michigan’s tight ends want to get there some day, Williams said, and they rely on one another to achieve their goals. Studying the playbook is nearly a constant — even on group trips to Chipotle. If any of the players ever feels as though Michigan’s playbook is too long or too in-depth to study, they are reminded that it will be even more so in the NFL.
“We have a group text, which is constantly going, and we communicate,” Williams said. “I know certain people, we like to hang out, we’ll watch football together all the time, watch tight ends in the NFL who we want to advance our game to.”
Jay Harbaugh, in his first year leading a position group, said that the camaraderie can be attributed to the players, not anything he has done. It’s the players who have welcomed him into their group, he said Wednesday.
Williams thinks that Harbaugh’s age — he is just 26 years old — is a benefit to the unit, laughing at the notion that Harbaugh would have been a senior in high school when Williams was in seventh grade. But still, he has no problems listening to a coach who is less than five years his senior.
“Coach Jay is wise beyond his years,” Williams said.
Harbaugh does not believe his age really helps him coach his unit.
“I mean, certain references and all that I get that maybe are over other guys’ heads, but I just think that that’s kind of a little bit overrated,” Jay Harbaugh said. “But that’s just my opinion.”
Where Harbaugh does agree with Williams, though, is that watching and learning from the NFL can be a key to Michigan’s success. Harbaugh had spent the last three seasons working with his uncle as an offensive quality control coach for the Baltimore Ravens.
Michigan’s style of offense, Harbaugh said, is more similar to those of NFL offenses than other college offenses. He studies film of NFL teams he believes use tight ends well to improve his own unit, including the Kansas City Chiefs, the Carolina Panthers and the New England Patriots.
Some of those teams, like the Wolverines, rely heavily on multiple tight ends. As it continues to develop over the course of the season, Harbaugh’s unit will have its opportunities.
“I think we’ve thrown the ball eight times per game to my group, and I don’t think anyone else is that high in the country,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t think anyone else is even close.”