Texas might as well have wanted posters around its stadium asking for a productive pass-catching tight end.
Ever since D.J. Grant erupted for three touchdowns against UCLA, the Longhorns’ tight ends have disappeared. There have been a few Blaine Irby sightings, an occasional Barrett Matthews appearance and even a D.J. Grant resurfacing here and there. But Grant’s six-catch outburst against the Bruins seems like a distant memory as Texas has gotten just 40 yards on five receptions from its tight ends since blowing out UCLA.
“Tight ends have been inconsistent,” said head coach Mack Brown. “That worries us because this is a tight end offense. You look at the three tight ends at Stanford and they rush for 446 yards. We feel like we’ve got some guys there that just need to continue to step up and grow.”
None of the three tight ends Brown refers to, however, has had six catches or three touchdown grabs in a game. Ever since Grant’s breakout performance, opposing defenses have focused their efforts to the middle of the field in an attempt to force throws closer to the sideline, where receivers roam. As tight ends traverse the middle of the field, they’re being left out now. But with freshman Jaxon Shipley and sophomore Mike Davis being the only productive receivers, Texas could use a tight end to step up as a reliable third option.
“Most teams don’t want to give up the middle of the field,” said co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin. “They want to force stuff outside because you have a sideline out there. It’s a chess match back and forth. If we do a good job outside, then they’ve got to do something to take that away and open up the middle of the field.”
Another thing that has held tight ends back lately has been the need for them to contribute to the pass protection aspect of the offense. With Oklahoma and Oklahoma State racking up more sacks than anyone in the Big 12 except Texas A&M, Texas needed more tight ends in the trenches, where they have opened up holes in the running game as well.
“Our guys are trying to find a consistent blocker,” Brown said. “The receptions have been down the last couple of weeks because we’ve had to keep the tight end in and block because our protection has been iffy at best.”
When the Longhorns’ tight ends do get a chance to run routes, they don’t get thrown at often. In Texas’ last three games, tight ends have been targeted 11 times. If the coaches are indeed grooming Ash to be the consistent full-time starter, it may take even longer for tight ends to be productive again with the true freshman learning to go through progressions quicker.
“We’re behind him,” Irby said. “I think David is going to keep learning as he keeps experiencing more and more games. Whatever he feels comfortable with, we’re going to do.”
Irby, like Grant, has fully recovered from a knee injury that kept him out for two full seasons. He made his first two catches in more than three years against Oklahoma. The senior also took part in a grueling workout run by strength head coach Bennie Wylie, who had players run up and down the steps of Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium’s upper deck. Irby, unlike some of his teammates, was fortunate to avoid vomiting on those steps.
“[Wylie’s] a crazy man,” Irby said. “It’s a part of our ‘protect the house’ routine. You see the stadium from a completely different perspective when you’re up there. You appreciate the fans that pay to come watch us play football.”
Those fans in the nosebleed sections Wylie tried to help his players appreciate have a good chance at watching Texas’ tight ends catch a few passes against Kansas. But don’t be surprised if they go a few weeks before another productive performance.