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The tight end is a weapon that can’t be wasted in 2024

Miami tight ends were all but ignored in Dawson’s offense this past season. The ‘Canes need to improve their red zone and 3rd down woes via the TE in ‘24.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 24 Miami (FL) at Boston College Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Miami Hurricanes are 7-5 and awaiting their bowl game selection and opponent. I would expect the ‘Canes to play in a bowl around Christmas, and before New Years Eve. December 27th, 28th and 29th bowl games are typically reserved for the lower tier bowl teams like Miami.

While we wait, I want to look back at where I went wrong with the SWOT Analysis from my Summer Scheming: Miami Hurricanes post (above) from the off-season. Last week, I broke down a 30,000 level view of the season in my post titled, “Self-Scouting the Hurricanes 2023 regular season.

Regarding the TE position, I tried to use my best positive visualization when selecting the group as a “Strength” heading into the 2023 season. Cristobal wanted to go heavier in sets with the offense, OC Shannon Dawson used 12 personnel (one back, two tight end) groupings at Houston, and Miami had signed three blue chip prospects at the position in three seasons.

However, that “Strength” quickly became a weakness for Miami’s offense. Jaleel Skinner redshirted, Elijah Arroyo was injured, Riley Williams failed to develop into a threat as a freshman, and Cam McCormick wasn’t athletic enough to scare anyone in the passing game. McCormick was practically left uncovered by defenses who chose to rally down to him instead. That is if he even caught the ball the few times it was thrown his way.


The Doppler

Normally “The Doppler” is dedicated to what helps a team win a game. I’m a firm believer in a small handful of data points determining wins and losses. Penalties, turnover margin, 3rd and 4th down conversions and the kicking game.

Outside of Miami TE McCormick letting a Boston College defender walk in off the edge to block a kick, TE’s don’t usually play a huge role in kicking situations.

Rose Bowl X

But what about the other three categories: penalties, turnovers, and conversions? TE’s often play a pivotal role in converting both as pass catchers and blockers. Miami’s red zone offense was middle of the pack in FBS for ‘23, and TE’s play a big role there, too.

Below, we’re going to compare Miami’s TE data to the data of some of the better teams in the country who are playing on conference championship weekend. But the data was collected BEFORE CCG weekend (had some free time at work on Friday).

Miami Tight Ends

I never expected the TE room to combine for only 17 catches and one single TD when I named them a “Strength” back in the summer. McCormick was brought in from Mario’s Oregon roster to provide super-senior leadership and run blocking prowess. I thought McCormick would be the second TE to come in for 12 personnel packages, not play the role of the starting TE in most sets.

Of the three blue chip tight ends on the roster, only R. Williams scored a touchdown in ‘23. Skinner caught one single pass, as did sophomore Arroyo. Arroyo spend most of ‘23 injured, a common theme in the Miami tight end room since Christopher Herndon IV played in orange and green.

The Top Squads

Kirby Smart has UGA at 12-0 and clearly the Bulldogs have one of the best tight ends in the country. Even with missing three games due to injury, Brock Bowers caught 51 balls, six for touchdowns and even ran one in for a score. Georgia’s starting TE is the cream of the crop. Their OC, Mike Bobo, comes from the Mark Richt coaching tree.

Michigan, also 12-0, has been a tight end factory for some time now. The Wolverines have the offense Cristobal is dreaming of down at Miami. That’s why former Miami and Michigan OC Josh Gattis was brought to South Florida, and why Mario then went after Shannon Dawson, a fellow lover of 12 personnel groupings. Michigan’s top two TE’s caught 37 and 21 balls for five combined scores. Their OC (and part-time HC) is Sherrone Moore, an offensive line coach by trade.

Alabama’s top tight end caught 18 passes with four going for TD’s. Their passing offense was anemic early on with QB Jalen Milroe and OC Tom Rees learning each other and how Rees would adapt himself, and Milroe, to the Nick Saban System. The Tide are 11-1 and playing for the SEC Championship on Saturday. Note: Cristobal is a former tight end coach under Saban.

The Oregon Ducks are 11-1, and their tight end has caught 36 balls for three TD’s in year two under HC Dan Lanning but year one under their new OC Will Stein. Their former OC is Kenny Dillingham, the Arizona State head coach. QB Bo Nix has turned his career around in Eugene, and a balanced passing game has helped him immensely.

The Washington Huskies are in year two under head coach Kalen DeBoer. They’ve totaled 23 wins after the Jimmy Lake fiasco while Cristobal has amounted to 12 wins in the same time frame. Washington’s second TE has 12 catches for two TD’s, and their main TE has 31 catches for one score.

The Texas Longhorns are 11-1 and their second TE has caught 12 balls with two TD’s while the main tight end has 31 grabs with one touchdown. HC Steve Sarkisian is obviously a strong offensive mind, he knows how to get backs, tight ends, and multiple wide receivers involved.

The 12-0 Seminoles of Florida State have used three tight ends in 2023. After years of neglecting the TE as a weapon, the ‘Noles are making their best attempt at a resurgence under head coach Mike Norvell. FSU’s main TE has caught 39 balls and scored three times (one rushing). Their two backups have 19 and 11 catches for two combined scores.


How can Miami involve the TE more?

Cristobal wants to play broball, bullyball, Maribroball, fyzical- whatever the internet wants to call it, those aren’t inaccurate descriptors of his style of offense. The ground and pound method might work a little better if the tight end was involved in the passing game.

As a defensive coordinator, I can’t stack the box against 12 personnel formations and run blitz if the TE might release on RPO’s, play-actions, or delayed route concepts. But if my TE isn’t a weapon physically, and/or isn’t in a route at all, why not stack 8-9 in the box, run blitz that 12p look, and stuff the run.

No offensive line, I don’t care how good it is, can overcome 8-9 in the box against their run game. Eventually even an excellent line needs some kind of protection a tight end can provide in the pass game.

Run-Pass Options

Former Cristobal OC Joe Moorhead shows off some of his TE driven RPO’s in the video below. Joe Mo, like myself, likes to attack a certain player and ‘pick on him.’ I liked to pick on the 5-technique in the run game, and the overhang in the pass game. Much like Moorhead, he’s going to block, flatten, and then delay the overhang player over his TE.

“Y Pop”

The pop pass is an old school concept from all eras of forward pass football. We used the concept when I was a teenager in the old I-Formation offenses of the 90’s. We saw it a ton when I first got into coaching in the early 2000’s. It works great off play-action, but also as an RPO tag in modern football.

Stick-Draw (Pass-Run Option)

Stick-Draw is a Pass-Run Option (PRO) concept. The pass option comes first. If the stick route is covered, the Q will handoff to the RB who is clearly waiting for the draw option. This variation, to use the RB in the draw, is very effective when you have a less mobile QB.

Play-Action Passes

Cristobal clearly wants to be some version of the Alabama teams prior to Lane Kiffen’s arrival in Tuscaloosa. The old “ground and pound” squads of Saban’s ~2012 Tide. If you can accomplish the run game portion, the play-action game will follow.

Slide Route

One concept that’s continuously hurt Miami’s defense under Lance Guidry, especially, is the play-action (and sometimes RPO) slide concept. Especially on split zone type concepts, the slide route can be deadly for defenses with LB’s flying up to play the run.

The Wheel

Another deadly concept for Coach Guidry has ben the wheel route. I’ve always used wheel routes as a coach, whether from TE’s, slots, or running backs. They’re a great concept that requires defensive back communication and the right call to be on (lock man is a no-no).

Drop back Concepts

Tight ends are just as useful in typical drop back concepts as in the ‘run based’ passing game. Just look at guys like Travis Kelce from the Kansas City Chiefs. He’s running mesh, stick, and y-corner an absolute ton in KC to win two Super Bowls.

Mesh

Mesh an age old Air Raid staple. A great man beater, not so great against a zone defense, however. That’s where tagging The Wheel (way above) to the RB can come in handy. Catch some of those zone defenses biting on the post and mesh crosser and hit the wheel or rail to the RB.

Red Zone: Hoosiers

Miami finished the season 70th in the FBS red zone scoring offense (touchdowns and field goals per visit).

Hoosiers is a great red zone concept. No1 runs a Fin (3-yard in route), no2 runs a ‘lookie’ or a 0-step slant, and no3 runs a corner. As you can see, the fin and lookie are covered but it’s really damn hard to also cover the TE in the corner, unless you’re his hands, then you have him covered for a major drop.

Alignment

You’ve now seen tight ends lining up all over the place at multiple different programs. Let’s look at one alignment, to “flex” the TE, that Miami needs to use more in ‘24.

“Flex” picture for Skinner or Williams

Western Michigan getting their TE flexed out. The OC discusses how quarters coverage teams will play more aggressive with their boundary LB when the back is away from the TE here. That’s because most of the run game will start away and work across (inside/tight zone, outside/wide zone, dart, power).


The Wrap

Tight ends are a major weapon at all levels of football. High schools rarely have a safety that can cover a 6-3 tight end. Colleges struggle to find linebackers and safeties that can cover big guys, and they’re even deadly in the bubble screen game having nickels and corners trying to take down a big guy like David Njoku in the flat.

Baltimore Ravens TE Mark Andrews is a top-25 receiver in TD’s the NFL this, year. Oregon State TE Jack Velling is 30th in TD’s in FBS. I’ve had tight ends catch 8+ TD’s in 10 games in high school before. It’s all about matchups and a 6’5 250# tight end that can run routes is a dangerous matchup.

Not taking advantage of tight ends and backs in your offense just seems asinine. Both groups were ignored in the passing game all season in ‘23, here’s to finding them open in the end zone in ‘24.