The tight end may not have been as extinct as the fullback under Rich Rodriguez, but it was close.
Now, the tight end is making a comeback.
“Our tight end is very similar to the fullback in that it hasn’t been a heavily featured position here,” Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges said last week. “And now, they’re catching more balls than they’ve caught. They’re involved in so many phases of our offense. And I’m a tight end guy. I like tight ends. I like having them. I know what they bring to the table, in diversifying your offense.”
And before the spring started, it wasn’t exactly clear who would man the new position with a greater importance.
One candidate was senior tight end Kevin Koger, who caught 30 passes for 419 yards the past two seasons, combined. And he was the Wolverines’ biggest factor at the position under Rodriguez.
“Kevin, he’s a guy who’s a very talented,” Hoke said during his weekly radio show on Monday. “He’s a great leader. (And) he comes to work every day.”
Redshirt junior tight end Brandon Moore could also contribute. He has a similar build to Koger, as each stands at 6-foot-4 or taller and weighing in at 250-plus pounds. Moore hasn’t had much of an impact during his first two seasons, but he’s catching Borges’ eye this spring.
“Brandon Moore has been very effective,” Borges said. “Brandon’s still learning every day, but he’s improved steadily.”
Then, on National Signing Day, Hoke secured the commitment of four-star recruit Chris Barnett, another tight end who can stretch the field.
But the new face to the group is fifth-year senior Steve Watson, who could be the fourth member in the mix to give Hoke enough depth at the position. He spent his first three seasons on the team playing multiple positions, most recently on the defensive side of the ball.
“Steve Watson, who caught a touchdown pass the other day, (played) tight end in high school,” Borges said. “I know he’s bounced around here a little bit. But Steve’s fired up, he can help us too.”
Last season at San Diego State, Hoke’s tight end, Gavin Escobar finished with 30 catches for more than 300 yards and four touchdowns. Borges has a group he’s working with this spring that could produce similar numbers.
“I think we’ve got some good people there,” Borges said. “And I think when it’s all said and done, we’ll be pretty good there. And we’re going to recruit that position heavily, heavily as we go on. It’s going to be a position of priority.”
OFFENSIVE LINE SHUFFLE: The offensive line is missing a few key members this spring, but that has been a positive in Hoke’s eyes.
Center David Molk has missed most of the spring due to a hamstring injury and then he contracted strep throat. And left tackle Taylor Lewan dislocated his left elbow early on. That has opened the door to Rocko Khoury and Michael Schofield to fill in at center and tackle, respectively.
“Those guys are getting a lot of work,” Hoke said. “And to be honest with you, they need a lot of work. And that’s a good thing.”
Added Borges: “Some of those other kids get exposed to some different positions and it helps them. It helps your depth, the guard has to play a little bit of tackle … We found a way to get five of them out there and they haven’t done a bad job.”
During practice on Tuesday, the first-team offensive line consisted of Mark Huyge at left tackle, Ricky Barnum at left guard, Molk and Khoury at center, Patrick Omameh at right guard and Schofield at right tackle.
All the offensive linemen have gone through a transition from Rodriguez’s spread-option offense to Hoke’s downhill running, play-action style of play.
“So much of what we do is geared to get-up, getting-off. You know, come off the ball and getting after people, and being aggressive. And they did that before. This is just a different style. We’re in a three-point stance. And we’re going to do our best to move whoever’s in front of us. Or make them think we’re trying to move them and pull a play-action pass. That’s a different animal for an offensive lineman when you’re going from shotgun every single snap.”
One guy who may fit that aggressive style is on the sidelines, though. As Lewan recovers this spring, Borges thinks the sophomore has a chance to be a special player at the position.
“Taylor’s got a chance to be a good football player,” Borges said. “He’s got to put on a few more pounds of quality weight. But he has good explosiveness, good hips. He’s got some fundamental issues he still has to remedy. But he’s a young player, who I think has a bright future, if he goes about it right.”
WIDE OPEN COMPETITION: Of the deep set of receivers Denard Robinson will have to work with, Roy Roundtree has set himself above the rest with consistent play.
“I think Roy’s had a really good spring,” Borges said. “I think they all have really. We’ve made some nice catches. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that way. But not really surprised, because they were making them. I watched last year, they were making them. But Roy’s been very consistent. Junior (Hemingway’s) moving good, goes up and gets (it), good range to the ball.”
Borges also mentioned how Darryl Stonum has had a good spring. The trio of Roundtree, Hemingway and Stonum are the bigger receivers of the group, and also the most seasoned ones.
The question is where the rest of the receivers will fit in. Borges said the second-most asked question he’s received — only behind those focusing on Robinson — is what he’s going to do with all of the slot receivers Rodriguez recruited.
Players like Martavious Odoms, Jeremy Gallon, Terrence Robinson and Drew Dileo are all smaller slot receivers, of similar molds. But Borges responded by saying that guys like Odoms and Roundtree, who have also played inside, have the ability to play both inside and outside receiver positions.
And Borges assured those who were concerned that there was going to be plenty of three and four-wide receiver sets.
“There’s a lot of bodies there,” Hoke said. “And you know, the toughest job is you have to settle on those eight guys, nine guys that you’re going to play with in a rotation … We have a lot of competition there, which makes this better.”