Ann Arbor – Michigan’s new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis is all about speed in space, which is what he has touted since arriving in January. While that conjures images of a no-huddle, up-tempo offense featuring quarterback Shea Patterson and talented receivers like Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black and Nico Collins making big plays, don’t forget about the tight ends.
Gattis, who spent last season at Alabama as co-offensive coordinator, certainly hasn’t. Tight end Irv Smith Jr. thrived in an Alabama offense last season that had 4,854 receiving yards. He was fourth on the Tide in receiving with 44 catches for 710 yards and seven touchdowns.
Michigan, by comparison, had 2,804 receiving yards last season. Zach Gentry, now making final preparations for the NFL Draft, led the tight ends with 32 catches for 514 yards, while returning tight ends Sean McKeon, honorable mention All-Big Ten, had 122 yards on 14 catches, and Nick Eubanks had 157 yards on eight catches.
McKeon said recently that Gattis likes to refer to the tight ends as “big speed in space.”
“So that’s definitely cool to see,” McKeon said. “Obviously, everyone needs to be fast when you’re running routes. I think we have some pretty fast tight ends.”
The tight ends are getting even more work this spring with a lack of depth among the receivers – Peoples-Jones and Collins were not available at the start of spring because of minor health issues, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. With the extra work has come extra running on top of adjusting to the up-tempo pace of the offense. The 6-foot-5 Eubanks joked that’s why he has dropped weight. He was at 255 and is down about 10 pounds and maintains in the 245-250 range.
Eubanks has developed as a strong blocker, so this spring he is learning the concepts and assignments working on the inside and outside.
“It’s been a big blessing for me to do that,” Eubanks said. “I’m taking advantage of it right now being able to line up inside and out.”
McKeon, 6-5, 240 pounds, was the team’s leading receiver in 2017 with 31 catches for 301 yards and three touchdowns. He and Gentry combined that year for five of Michigan’s paltry nine receiving touchdowns. Harbaugh likes using the tight end and during his first season, Jake Butt, the Big Ten Tight End of the Year, was third on the team with 654 yards on 51 catches and three touchdowns in 2015, and the following season Butt was second in receiving with 46 catches for 546 yards and four touchdowns.
Undoubtedly, McKeon and Eubanks want to establish themselves as top tight ends in the conference.
“We just want to get the ball more and do what we can,” McKeon said “Coach Gattis has a great plan for us and done a good job of installing it. I’m pretty excited to keep getting more new stuff and trying to perfect the ones he’s give us already.”
McKeon and Eubanks have watched plenty of Alabama film of Smith to get an idea what Gattis expects. The tight ends play an enormous role.
“In the RPO world, we’re always a threat to block, a threat to run a route,” McKeon said. “It really puts linebackers and safeties in a bind. They don’t know whether we’re going to release on a route or blocking someone. The big plays come in that aspect of the game for tight ends.”
The younger tight ends, redshirt freshmen Luke Schoonmaker and Mustapha Muhammad, are coming along and both got a lot of work during bowl practices. Ben Mason, who played fullback last season, is practicing on the defensive line this spring and also on offense at fullback and tight end. Early-enrollee freshman, four-star Erick All, has been impressive this spring.
“That kid he’s going to be special for this program,” Eubanks said last Friday after practice. “Kids that love to hit. You don’t find too many kids that crave to hit besides Ben Mason, them type dudes. He’s a good student as in knowing the game and knowing what he’s doing. He’s kind of opening my eyes from an offensive standpoint and him knowing what to do. He’s got a lot of ahead of him. He’s also trying hard to improve."
Which is exactly what all the tight ends are doing so they can be "big speed in space."