Two Tight End Evolution

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Two Tight End Evolution

Kyler Reed is seated at the last row of tables with his back to a Chicago ballroom full of the Big Ten. Everything — Urban Meyer, the “Penn State question” for anyone who’s willing to answer, Montee Ball — is happening behind him on the second day of the conference’s annual family reunion known as media days.

Rex Burkhead and Bo Pelini flank Reed’s table. Both seem to always be speaking to at least 10 or 12 reporters. Behind Reed, Will Compton is telling anyone who asks about how much better the Blackshirts will be this year and how excited he is to wear a black helmet.

At Reed’s table, the senior tight end is typically dealing with three or four reporters at a time. He speaks softly and thoughtfully. He puts off taking a drink of water that he obviously wants to speak for 10 minutes with a local television station. He’s wearing a brand new striped shirt, a handsome purple pin dot tie and Jake Long’s suit.

I didn’t want to go out and buy a suit so I borrowed this from my fellow tight end,” Reed says. “I don’t think I’ve worn a suit since the eighth grade.

But Reed’s position coach will tell you that the senior could need a regular arsenal of suits by this time next year. You need to look sharp in the NFL.

At Nebraska’s annual high school coaches clinic last spring, tight ends coach Vince Marrow told a group of coaches that he’d be “surprised” if either Reed or fellow tight end Ben Cotton were around after the second day of the 2013 NFL draft.

High praise for a pair of players that, combined, caught one touchdown pass last year and averaged less than two catches per game. Higher praise for a pair of players in an era where, suddenly, tight end is the sexiest position on the field.

***

Blame the New England Patriots. Last January the Patriots pounded Denver 45-10 in the Divisional round of the NFL playoffs. It was the culmination of their season-long revolution of the tight end position.

Rob Gronkowski had 10 receptions for 145 yards and three touchdowns that night. Fellow tight end/jack knife Aaron Hernandez had four catches for 55 yards and one touchdown while adding 61 yards on the ground. Tom Brady tied an NFL playoff record with six touchdown passes while New England played the entire game, minus the final series of the blowout, with both tight ends on the field simultaneously.

Gronkowski and Hernandez combined for 2237 yards and 24 touchdowns last season. This off-season Gronkowski signed a $54 million extension, making him the highest-paid tight end in NFL history. Bill Belichick is so committed to attacking from the tight end position, an idea he claims came to him with the Detroit Lions in the 1970s, that he drafted another one (West Virginia’s Tyler Urban) and added three more via free agency this off-season. All this despite being set for the foreseeable future with Gronkowski and Hernandez.

It’s nearly impossible to look at Nebraska’s senior tight ends and not think of the possibilities. Reed (the former wide receiver) and Cotton (the big-body blocker with soft hands) are like junior versions of the Patriots’ potent duo. Or at least they could be.

It’s also very hard not feel a twinge of regret over their limited role last season.

After exploding for eight touchdowns and nearly 18 yards per catch as a sophomore in 2010, Reed only caught 15 balls last year. He still averaged better than 17 yards per catch but didn’t record a touchdown until the final game of the regular season against Iowa. Cotton had 14 catches for 189 yards in 11 games.

Looking towards 2012, one touch a game hardly seems like enough for a pair as talented as Cotton and Reed but an increased role is more than just recognizing their talent. There are obstacles.

First is Nebraska’s run-pass split. The Huskers ran the ball 67.5 percent of the time last year and Burkhead deserves his touches. In theory, offensive coordinator Tim Beck is hoping to get closer to a 50-50 run-pass split in 2012. In practice that’s a monumental shift. Nebraska would likely need to run 150 fewer rushing plays this season or more than 10 per game.

Second is the talent at wide receiver. Many consider Nebraska’s returning unit the best in the Big Ten. It’s difficult to find spots to split Reed out or play him in tandem with Cotton when proven guys like Quincy Enunwa and Kenny Bell – not to mention bright young talents like Jamal Turner, Taariq Allen, and Jordan Westerkamp – are also fighting to get on the field.

For Pelini and Beck, this isn’t a bad problem to have but teams are well aware of the strength of Burkhead and Nebraska’s talent at wide receiver. The Cotton-Reed combo, however, could be an advantage the Huskers have yet to truly exploit.

“We can create some mismatches if we want to play two tight ends,” Reed said. “We’re confident we can throw the ball and we’re confident we can run the ball out of those two tight end sets. We can put Ben and I wherever.”

But the question is will they? Reed remains hopeful.

“We ran the ball out of two tight sets a lot last year,” he said. “I think we want to break that habit.”

***

After the television interview is over, Reed finally gets his drink of water.

“I’m not used to talking that much,” he says. “I usually don’t talk too terribly much.”

And then he goes on talking – about the new uniforms, about his surprise at being asked to represent Nebraska in Chicago, about how he loves the Big Ten but wishes he could have played on the road against Texas and Oklahoma, about his “quiet” junior season – because he is asked to keep talking.

That’s how it works. It’s difficult to remain quiet when you’re asked to speak up and Nebraska has two tight ends who, it seems, are just begging to be asked.

As Reed demonstrated, you can get some good answers that way.

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