The tight ends are back.
For the past three seasons, the Longhorns’ offense had a steady decline in production from the tight end position. That’s all changed in 2011.
Blaine Irby and D.J. Grant have returned from serious knee injuries that cost them a combined five seasons, and the two have begun to assert themselves within the Texas offense. The tight ends’ emergence has also opened things up for the rest of the Longhorns’ attack.
During Texas’ win over UCLA, Grant hauled in six passes for 77 yards and three touchdowns. But the breakout game wasn’t just about him. It eased the burden on the rest of the offense.
“When the tight ends get the ball it opens up the defense more,” Grant said. “When we have tight ends that can run good routes, it forces the defense to put more defensive backs in the game and that helps the run game open up and get the receivers out of double coverage.”
That’s exactly what happened against the Bruins.
The defense started to key on the tight ends, which in turn gave more opportunities for big plays to wide receivers down field. In the second half of that game, the Longhorns rushing attack took advantage of the extra defensive backs on the field, running all over UCLA for a season-high 284 yards.
Ever since Jermichael Finley left early for the NFL following the 2007 season, the Longhorns have struggled to find consistency from their tight ends. They were leaning on Irby to pick up where Finley left off, but a knee injury in 2008 derailed those hopes.
Defensive coordinators were able to eliminate the threat of the tight end from their game plans and focus in on stopping the Texas receivers and running game. That simply isn’t the case this season.
“Since we’re all healthy now, it’s one of those deals where we can hurt a defense with the run game and pass game,” Irby said.
“We definitely can stretch the defense out, D.J. showed that last game. The safeties and defensive coaches are going to have to take the tight end as a factor.”
The benefits of a game-changing tight end are endless. They can dictate a defense’s coverage, provide an extra threat in the red zone and make an impact on play-action passes.
“When you have a tight end, you can control the middle of the field,” said co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin. “When you’ve got that threat down the middle, now (the defense) can’t just go double outside the wide receivers and put a linebacker inside. They have to keep another guy — a safety — aware of what’s going on down the middle, which helps you get one-on-one coverage outside.
“It’s just one more for the defense to go okay, ‘What are they going to do?’ If you can get them to freeze their feet a little bit, you’ve got an advantage.”
But this group of tight ends is doing more than just helping out in the passing game. Once criticized for lacking the strength and toughness to block on the edge, the tight ends are creating running lanes for Texas’ dynamic tailbacks.
“They have been blocking better than in the past,” said senior left tackle Tray Allen. “It’s encouraging because we all have a hand in the dirt and we all have to open holes for our backs to get yards and make our team look great.”
While Irby and Grant were rehabbing their knee injuries for two seasons, the two used the extra time in the weight room to bulk up and become better blockers.
“I feel like I was always there mentally, I just had to get there physically,” Grant said.
Grant was a receiver at nearby LBJ High School, and then switched to tight end after tearing his right ACL, PCL and hamstring two years ago. His background as a premier pass-catcher, though, gives him the versatility that coaches covet.
“He’s got a lot of tools,” Harsin said. “We’re moving him around. I think he’s got the ability to be the total package.”
Still, the Longhorns have five other tight ends that are making a case for more playing time, including Irby.
“[Harsin] knows what each of us are best at and he finds a way to get us involved,” Grant said. “When everybody is involved like that, everybody is happy. And when you’ve got a happy team, you’ve got a good team.”
As long as Harsin continues to utilize the tight ends like he did against UCLA, the offense will only get better. Yes, the tight ends are back.
Printed on September 30, 2011 as: Tight end role expanded in Texas' passing attack