Having as many as four or five capable tight ends available at any given time might be seen by some college coaching staffs as an embarrassment of riches. Michigan assistant Jay Harbaugh wouldn’t use quite the same language.
“I’m not embarrassed, I’m really happy about it,” Harbaugh said Tuesday night in Ann Arbor. “It’s a deep group and they’re all really good guys who work hard and they all bring something different to the table. ... I’m definitely not embarrassed by it. I love it.”
Michigan got a big offensive boost in December when All-American tight end Jake Butt decided to return for his senior season. While Butt will be the centerpiece of a strong position group for the Wolverines, and the only one with more than five career receptions, Harbaugh expects the rest of his group to make an impact in 2016 as well. He said that five tight ends have taken snaps with the starting offense and all of them could play next fall.
If Jim Harbaugh’s history with tight ends at Stanford and during his first year with Michigan is any indication, most of them could end up on the field at the same time in certain cases. The younger Harbaugh said to the best of his knowledge Michigan is the only school that used a four-tight end formation when not in goal line or short-yardage situations during the 2015 season. The group has turned over several players, but there’s no reason to think the same won’t happen in the future.
“I never saw any other [teams use that formation] when I looked,” he said. “We did that I think nine or 10 times. It’s something we’ve done here and we’re going to continue doing as a change-up. If you have the guys for it, it can be a weapon for you because it’s something defenses aren’t really used to.”
Along with Butt, the tight end corps includes redshirt sophomore Ian Bunting, redshirt freshmen T.J. Wheatley and Zach Gentry and true freshman Sean McKeon, who enrolled in school in January. Harbaugh said he was excited about the diversity of skills they represent. Here’s a breakdown of the likely roles for each member of the inexperienced group brimming with potential.
Butt: The returning All-American came back to attempt to become the best tight end in the country this year, and he has as good a chance as anyone else at this point. Harbaugh said Butt already is at the top of the list but has work to do this summer to “separate and solidify” that title. Butt is a natural route-runner and has the size and strength to pull balls away from defenders down the field. His biggest focus this spring will be on blocking in the run game to become more versatile than he already is.
Bunting: Along with Gentry, Bunting gives the Wolverines two 6-foot-7 options – two of the three tallest players on the roster -- in the passing game. That provides an obvious advantage in the red zone. Bunting made four of his five catches last season in September before falling behind on the depth chart. He’s another player who can get on the field more often by improving his blocking.
Wheatley: The 280-pounder and son of running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley has a leg up in the blocking department. He has excited most of the coaching staff with his potential after sitting out last season. Harbaugh said the biggest obstacle for Wheatley and the other rookies will be getting confident at a position that requires them to know all of the offensive line’s blocking schemes and the entire receivers’ route tree. There was some thought that he might be loaned out to the defensive line because of his size and experience there in high school, but Harbaugh said “I’m not letting anybody come near him.”
Gentry: Harbaugh said he was hoping Gentry would eventually make the jump to tight end after arriving on campus as a quarterback prospect. He has what the coach called “dominant traits” with his speed and height. He also brings a different perspective to the position because of his experience running an offense from under center. He has ground to make up in the weight room before he’s a fully developed threat, but Michigan will find a niche for one of the offense’s best overall athletes.
McKeon: The 6-5, 240-pound early enrollee fits the tight end mold well. He, too, has work to do in the weight room, as one would expect for a guy who left high school a few months ago. He showed an ability to catch the ball downfield as an all-state player in Massachusetts, and Harbaugh said he has done enough through his first month of spring practice to be considered a potential contributor in 2016.