After Tarik Black’s devastating foot injury derailed his season for the second year in a row, the Michigan football team’s wide receivers and tight ends briefly spoke about what the next steps for the group would be. But most of what was said didn’t need to be — everyone has to up their game.
“It’s one of those things that kinda happens, whether you like it or not,” said senior tight end Zach Gentry. “In this game, it’s next man up mentality. … When something like that happens, other people have to elevate their game and make the play others would’ve made.”
And Gentry, who was named to the preseason Mackey Award watch list given to the nation’s most outstanding tight end, is one of the first names that onlookers mention to make the biggest leap.
In 2017, Gentry finished the season with 17 receptions, two touchdowns and 303 yards — second highest on the team. They are solid numbers, sure, but not when Gentry was the second leading receiver. Another year of experience and optimism in junior Shea Patterson under center, though, has left the 6-foot-8 Gentry turning heads in practice.
“I’ll tell you what, Zach Gentry had one heck of a camp,” said fifth-year senior defensive end Chase Winovich. “(Defensive line) coach (Greg) Mattison always jokes with us at some points and says ‘Wow, Zach Gentry, All-American here.’ Some of the stuff that he was able to do this year, he kinda like popped off almost out of nowhere. … I love Zach and he deserves to have a great season and I think he will. I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t believe that.”
Gentry often split time with his starting counterpart junior Sean McKeon as he improved his run-blocking. Now, Gentry calls his progression “night and day,” mentioning he is faster jamming at the line and staying set. The former quarterback says he only thinks about football as a tight end now.
McKeon, who is also on the Mackey Award watch list, finished 2017 with 31 receptions and 301 yards. The 6-foot-5 tight end doesn’t possess the same physical attributes as Gentry, but understands the need for improvement in an embattled receiving corps.
“We don’t wanna repeat that,” McKeon said during spring camp. “We want to get better. We’re sick of the defense pushing us around in practice.”
According to Gentry, he and McKeon have discussed striving to be the best tight end duo in the nation. Gentry says the two called themselves “The Duo” on the team before Winovich and fellow defensive end Rashan Gary did. A third option in redshirt sophomore Nick Eubanks, though, could create a terrifying trio.
Eubanks is 6-foot-5 with the most athletic build of the three. He had two catches for 61 yards against Florida in last season’s opener, but sat out the remainder of the year after suffering a neck injury against Purdue. Eubanks is also viewed as an emerging receiving option in Black’s absence.
“Nick is very athletic, he’s fast, he’s speedy, he’s quick,” Gentry said. “He can obviously challenge people vertically downfield. I guess he’s kinda the spark plug in the group. I think he’s dangerous with the ball in his hand.”
Added first-year tight ends coach Sherrone Moore on his whole unit: “From a skills standpoint playing the tight end position, the sky is the limit for this group. With each kid presents a different issue for different defenses. All of them have their strengths and all of them have their weakness, but as a group they’re gonna be really dangerous.”
With Patterson, that’s the hope for the Wolverines. Gentry says Patterson would pull aside different receivers and tight ends after practice to “get timing down.”
On Sept. 1, a date with No. 12 Notre Dame looms, and the time to develop chemistry without consequence vanishes. Gentry doesn’t have many concerns.
“Our offense as a whole has been more cohesive in knowing our responsibilities and knowing what to do in different adjustments,” he said. “Overall, everything has looked better.”