By the end of Saturday’s 17-10 loss to Notre Dame, tight end Tyler Ecker was spent. He was dehydrated, and the training staff had to pump him full of fluids. Ecker played more than he was used to and more than the coaching staff wanted him to, but he was always ready for more.
“Tyler had some real fluid problems after that game because he left everything out there,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said yesterday.
Before this season, the senior had caught passes in just 14 games – and in only six games made more than one catch. Heading into Saturday’s game, Ecker had made just 24 catches for 255 yards in his career. Saturday, he put up numbers that were astonishing by comparison: seven catches for 74 yards.
Michigan’s offense often provides a large role for the tight end. Three years ago, tight end Bennie Joppru was second to Braylon Edwards in terms of receptions and total reception yardage. That year, Joppru grabbed 53 balls for 579 yards – an average of 10.9 yards per catch. So Ecker’s lack of production for his first two seasons – he didn’t play as a freshman – was low not because he didn’t fit into the offense, but because of his position on the depth chart. Ecker has played most of his career behind fifth-year senior Tim Massaquoi, who this season was voted preseason All-Big Ten first team.
But on Saturday, Massaquoi didn’t warm up with the team and wasn’t dressed when the team ran out onto the field. Minutes before kickoff, he walked onto the field at Michigan Stadium with his right arm in a sling. Massaquoi wouldn’t talk after the game, and Carr wouldn’t comment on the extent of his injury. But most of the attention was on Ecker anyway.
Ecker might have been the lone bright spot for a Michigan offense that racked up 337 yards but turned the ball over twice in the red zone.
“I thought he played really hard,” Carr said. “I thought he caught the ball well, and I think he did some things to get open. And Tyler Ecker is a heck of a football player.”
But even though Ecker doesn’t have a ton of catches, he has gotten quite a lot of game experience. Michigan often rotates three tight ends into the game – Massaquoi, Ecker and sophomore Mike Massey. Last season, in Michigan’s comeback win over Minnesota, Ecker had the game-winning catch, a 31-yard score on second-and-one in which he ran over two of the Gopher’s defenders.
“He and Tim rotate so much that (it wasn’t a problem),” Massey said. “Tyler is a great player and Tim is a great player. So it was really nothing new to Tyler.”
Massey also helped fill the Massaquoi void during Saturday’s game. He caught two passes for three yards – the first two receptions of his career. But Ecker’s performance was especially important given the struggles of the receiving corps. Senior co-captain Jason Avant had five catches for 90 yards, but the next three wideouts – Steve Breaston, Doug Dutch and Mario Manningham – combined for just four catches and 50 yards.
“They always, defensively, have the chance to take a guy out of the game,” Carr said. “They can always double a guy and now you have to be able to go somewhere else during the game.”
For a lot of game, “somewhere else” was to Ecker. When Michigan got the ball back with three minutes left in the first quarter, the Wolverines needed to get something started. Their first two drives had both stalled and Michigan was desperate to put some points on the board before the end of the quarter. When a screen pass to sophomore Mike Hart didn’t work, quarterback Chad Henne went to Ecker over the middle. The completion went for 17 yards and gave Michigan just its second first down of the game, although the Wolverines punted four downs later.
Ecker was also the intended target of one of Henne’s worst throws of the game, even though he never touched the ball. On second-and-nine from the Notre Dame 12-yard line, Henne tried to force a throw to Ecker near the sideline. But Notre Dame’s safety Tom Zbikowski knew the pass was going to Ecker and stepped in front for the interception.
Despite the interception, Henne continued to look for Ecker. The tight end caught passes on five different Michigan drives, and, at one point in the fourth quarter, he was the intended receiver on three straight plays from scrimmage. He was even the intended receiver on Michigan’s last offensive play of the game. After the game, Carr said the fact that he needed fluids just showed how hard he worked all game long.
“Because Tim was out, he played a lot more than he normally would have played, and probably more than we would like for him to play,” Carr said. “But I thought he played really hard.”
Massaquoi’s status for next game is still uncertain. But one thing is certain: Tyler Ecker is going to show up to play. He always does.