- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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Players like Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski and Jordan Cameron are frustrating defenses and changing offenses in the NFL.
Having that big, powerful tight end who can knock defenders around and stretch the field is turning into more of a necessity for NFL offenses, and college coaches are taking notice.
“I definitely think it's a trend going on right now,” Vanderbilt tight end Steven Scheu said. “Tight ends are starting to become just a larger receiver, quite honestly, especially when you have guys who are tight ends in the NFL trying to get their contracts signed as a wide receiver because they're taking most of their snaps out wide."
In the SEC, most coaches are on board with having that lovely mismatch of size and athleticism lining up inside. Finding multifaceted players who create advantageous mismatches is the name of the game.
The use of the tight end as more of a blocker has become more a part of how NFL offenses operate over the past few years, especially with the emergence of these hybrid players.
In 2011, 14 tight ends ranked inside the top 50 in the NFL in receiving. Those tight ends were targeted 1,526 times and caught 1,006 passes for 12,422 yards and 91 touchdowns. Last year, the NFL saw nine tight ends rank in the top 50 in receiving, catching 723 passes for 8,686 yards and 85 touchdowns. Those tight ends were targeted 1,088 times.
For the SEC, eight tight ends ranked among the top 50 in the league in receiving in 2011. Those eight tight ends caught 233 passes for 2,771 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Those numbers have dropped in the last couple of years, as only three tight ends ranked inside the top 50 of the SEC in receiving yards last season, after five ranked in the top 50 in 2012.
But coaches see those numbers increasing in the coming years, as the tight end becomes more valued. There's a reason Florida coach Will Muschamp jumped at the chance to sign former Virginia tight end Jake McGee, who can play inside and outside and caught 71 passes for 769 yards and seven touchdowns in his last two years at Virginia.
To Muschamp, that kind of player changes blocking schemes for defenses, creating more holes and space for the offense, and can take bigger linebackers and safeties out of plays.
“That changes run gaps, that creates an extra gap,” Muschamp said. “It also creates an extra gap away from the quarterback. From a protection standpoint and a run-game standpoint, it does some good things to be able to utilize a tight end in the game.
“To be able to match up on a linebacker -- to have a guy who athletically is superior to a safety -- and to be able to find those matchups is huge.”
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin didn't use much of a flex tight end at Houston, but emphasized them more as an offensive coordinator at A&M and Oklahoma. He could do it again this year with the 277-pound Cameron Clear and deep threat Ricky Seals-Jones playing inside.
Arkansas' best receiving threat might be sophomore Hunter Henry, who averaged 14.6 yards per catch last year.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel has had a ton of success with tight ends and hopes to make up for his losses at receiver by using his tight ends and bigger receivers inside.
South Carolina has thrived by using Rory Anderson and Jerell Adams to stretch the field the last couple of years. Anderson has averaged 17.8 yards per catch on 39 receptions, while Adams has averaged 16.3 on 17 catches.
Alabama's Nick Saban is even getting in onthe fun with freak sophomore athlete O.J. Howard lining up at tight end.
“Having a guy like that, really there's a lot of multiples in terms of how you can use him and create problems for the defense to have to adjust to him,” Saban said.
More and more, coaches are seeking tight ends with receiver skills, but who like to block. Some players are noticing that that quality makes them even more dangerous.
“It definitely intrigues not only me but people around me, my colleagues I guess, my fellow tight ends,” Auburn tight end C.J. Uzomah. “It's a lot more fun to be integrated in an offense and be moved around a lot. I think it definitely throws defenses off, not knowing where exactly you're going to line up a linebacker or a safety on them or what the offense is going to do. I'm definitely noticing that a little bit more.”