Michigan gets talented tight end group up to speed

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor – When Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis arrived earlier this year, he introduced the know well-worn "speed in space" hashtag. And then, he added a new layer with “big speed in space.”

That was meant to include the tight ends in what was expected to be an explosive offense.

Sean McKeon

Three tight ends through five games have combined for 19 catches for 239 yards, with Nick Eubanks leading the way with 12 catches for 114 yards. Sean McKeon has missed the last two games after suffering an injury while scoring a touchdown at Wisconsin. He has six catches for 96 yards and two touchdowns, tied with receiver Nico Collins for most touchdown receptions this season.

Michigan plays at Illinois on Saturday and has another opportunity, much like the Rutgers game, to get its offense clicking. The 16th-ranked Wolverines (4-1, 2-1 Big Ten) defeated Rutgers 52-0 two weeks ago and the Illini are similarly porous defensively. This also could be the perfect opportunity for McKeon, provided he’s fully recovered, to return and regain his rhythm in the offense.

Tight ends coach Sherrone Moore said this week that McKeon has remained focused while rehabbing the injury.

“He’s by my side,” Moore said. “If he’s not in treatment, and I turn and I’m writing something down, I see Sean and I’m like, ‘What are you doing?’ And he’s like, ‘I’m gonna watch practice.’ He’s going to know what’s going on, there’s not going to be any dropoff when he steps on the field. He’s going to know exactly what to do. He’s been locked in pretty good.”

McKeon has been missed as a target for quarterback Shea Patterson, and while Eubanks has proven more than capable as a receiver, McKeon is considered the team’s best blocking tight end. With tough games ahead at Penn State next week and at home against Notre Dame, having him back in the lineup is huge.

“It’s something we’ve seen during the spring, during camp. It just keeps carrying over,” Moore said of McKeon as a blocker. “He’s just going to keep getting better and better. He just has that demeanor about him. He’s willing to keep running his feet and finish guys (while blocking). So, really proud of the way he’s progressing.”

Nick Eubanks

With McKeon out, Eubanks’ role has increased and freshman Erick All, arguably the most athletic of the tight ends, also has seen playing time.

“(He’s) had to do some things on the line that he’s never really done,” Moore said of Eubanks. “Really proud with what he’s done in these past couple games. He can still get better, and technique and fundamentals are something he’s focused one more and more this week. He comes out in pre-practice and does extra. Makes sure he stays after it and does what he needs to do. Definitely progressing and getting better.”

The 6-foot-4, 229-pound All has not yet caught a pass, but he clearly enjoys mixing it up as a blocker. Moore said that was obvious when All played for Fairfield High in suburban Cincinnati.

“It’s pretty uncommon, especially at the tight end position,” Moore said of seeing a freshman tight end that wants to block. “You get guys that want the ball, want the ball. I’m pretty blessed with the room I’ve got. The guys all love blocking, but for a true freshman to come in and love that so much -- he craves the contact.

“He really is like a heat-seeking missile. You can see on some plays, he’s just trying to take people out, sometimes to a fault where he gets off-balance. But he’s a joy to be around, and it’s really uncommon to see a guy like that. It’s rare to see a freshman tight end come into the college game with a nose for blocking, especially in modern day football where high school teams are throwing the ball more and more.”

Having that kind of desire to be active as a blocker will only serve to get All some catches at some point, perhaps even at Illinois.

“The way we spread the ball around, you’ve got so many guys getting catches, getting targets,” Moore said. “So, his time will come. He’ll have plenty of catches in his career. He’s one kid that you don’t ever worry about that, because when you look back at his high school film, he blocked more times than caught the ball. He loved it. That time will come. It’s just all part of the progression and what (defenses) try to take away and what they give you.”

Michigan at Illinois

Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Ill.

TV/radio: ABC/950

Records: No. 16 Michigan 4-1, 2-1 Big Ten; Illinois 2-3, 0-2

Line: Michigan by 20