With the Michigan football team’s 2016 regular season in the books, the Daily looks back at the performance of each unit this year and looks ahead to the future in 2017. In this edition: tight ends.
At this time a year ago, Michigan tight end Jake Butt announced he would put off the NFL Draft and return for his senior season. He said he had unfinished business. And while he didn’t get to finish all of it, he’ll still go down as one of the best tight ends in program history.
Butt was the clear No. 1 option at that position again this season for the Wolverines, perhaps an even more central figure than last year. In 2015, A.J. Williams complemented his blocking skills with 12 catches for 129 yards. This year, the next-most frequent target was redshirt freshman Tyrone Wheatley Jr., who caught two passes for 27 yards. He and freshman Devin Asiasi caught their first career touchdown passes.
Butt’s production dropped off a bit (from 51 catches and 654 yards to 43 and 518), but for the first time, he captured the Mackey Award, given to the best tight end in the country. He now holds Michigan records for receptions and receiving yards by a tight end with 135 catches and 1,618 yards.
Despite receiving fewer targets, the tight ends were still a focal point of coach Jim Harbaugh’s offense, as usual. Butt lifted the offense, in particular, on third down, when redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight looked to him as a safety net to move the chains.
HIGH POINT: Butt was fairly consistent as a short-yardage option all season, but his biggest impact came in Week 3 against Colorado, when he totaled a season-high 87 yards on seven catches. That day, the Wolverines faced their first deficit of the season, trailing by two touchdowns after the first quarter, and Butt’s presence over the middle helped them slowly rally.
Two of Butt’s four touchdowns came a week before against Central Florida, though Butt also dropped two passes in that game, a rarity for the sure-handed senior. Another memory fans will keep from the season about Butt is that he was usually the primary option coming out of coach Jim Harbaugh’s famous “train” formation. After Michigan broke the huddle with nine players in a straight line under center, Butt was often the first target over the middle.
Asiasi and Wheatley’s touchdowns, on Sept. 24 against Penn State and Oct. 22 against Illinois, respectively, were promising signs as well.
LOW POINT: The weakest game for the tight ends, and the passing game as a whole, came on Nov. 19 against Indiana, when redshirt junior quarterback John O’Korn stepped in for injured starter Wilton Speight. That day, the Wolverines completed just seven passes for a season-low 59 yards, none of which went to a tight end.
Butt’s lowest production of the season as an individual came in the middle four games of the year, during which he caught just 10 passes for 118 yards, and perhaps that was because the Wolverines won three blowouts in that span and faced Wisconsin’s strong defense in the other game. Butt reemerged down the stretch, opening up the passing game Nov. 5 against Maryland to the tune of five catches for 76 yards.
THE FUTURE: Just like at wide receiver, graduation losses are leaving the cupboard fairly bare from an experience standpoint. The returning tight ends — Wheatley, Asiasi, freshman Sean McKeon and redshirt sophomore Ian Bunting — combined for just eight catches for 61 yards. Freshman Nick Eubanks is another name to watch in the next couple of years.
Of those players, Bunting seems like the best option to become the No. 1 receiving option because of his size (6-foot-7, 252 lbs.). Harbaugh loves to make use of tight ends, though, and whoever steps in as the starter will have plenty of opportunities, considering fifth-year senior wide receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson are also graduating.