When senior tight end Nick Eubanks lined up for the team photo this year, he noticed he was placed right next to Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. Maybe a coincidence, he thought. On the contrary.
“Before (Harbaugh) sat down, he said ‘You were hand-picked,’ ” Eubanks recalled on Monday afternoon. “I was like ‘Oh man.’ It was kind of a plus for me. That’s my dude.”
That certainly has something to do with his and Harbaugh’s relationship off the field. The two have developed a strong bond throughout his four years on the team. Eubanks said his father regularly calls and texts Harbaugh — “just to check up on me.”
“Nick Eubanks is one of my favorite players on the team,” Harbaugh said, “one of my favorite players I’ve ever coached.”
This year, Eubanks’ redshirt junior season, also presents a chance for him to take that favoritism to another level. It’s his golden opportunity to translate his vast talent and athleticism into production — and he knows it.
Last year, he flashed glimpses of those capabilities, hauling in eight catches for 157 yards, including a 41-yard touchdown against Indiana. With Zach Gentry’s departure to the NFL, Eubanks sits atop the depth chart alongside Sean McKeon.
In former tight end Jake Butt’s third year, and first under Harbaugh, his production ballooned to 51 catches and 654 yards. Last year, his third as a tight end, Gentry blossomed into a regular target, tallying 514 yards en route to an NFL draft selection. After redshirting in 2016 and missing the majority of 2017, this, ostensibly, serves as Eubanks’ third season.
And the addition of Josh Gattis makes that progression all the more logical. Eubanks’ athleticism figures to slot in cleanly to Gattis’ new offense, one predicated on tempo and spread looks. He’s spent the offseason working on his blocking technique — taking cues from fellow tight end Sean McKeon — which has allowed him to be more versatile.
“He’s been always really athletic, can run and catch and his change of direction and everything — he’s really gotten improved immensely as a blocker,” Harbaugh said. “I think that’s the thing that’s separating him as somebody that can block in-line as the tight end, attached or detached from the line of scrimmage and also has the ability to gain separation and catch the football and get down the field and run all the assortment of routes.”
After redshirting in 2016, Eubanks sprung onto the scene during the season opener against Florida in 2017 with two catches for 61 yards. On one of the plays, he outran a cornerback on a crossing route. On the other, he ran down the seam, darting past a linebacker and a safety to haul in a 50-yard grab.
The tools were obvious. The potential unlimited.
Any growth, though, was halted just a few weeks later when he was sidelined for the season after the Purdue game with an elbow injury.
Now entering his fourth season, Eubanks knows his versatility will be his key to maximizing that elusive potential.
“I think a big advantage for me was knowing different personnel,” he said, “knowing any personnel we could run in the game has been a big plus for me.”
In this offense, he could play as a traditional in-line tight end, a receiver out of the slot or even a wideout. He now appears to be well-versed in run blocking and eager to display his route-running ability. The offensive philosophy shift seemingly benefits him as directly as anyone.
“This is the football I’m accustomed to,” Eubanks said, succinctly.
That’s why there’s some irony — and now a chuckle — when revisiting his first thoughts on all the changes.
“Ah man, another adjustment,” he recalled thinking then.
“(I was) worried about another change coming, but you know, change is always good. We went from there and came to where we’re at now. Can’t wait to see what’s in store.”