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Bohls: Lighter, motivated Cade Brewer paces a solid group of Texas tight ends

Texas tight end Cade Brewer, left, is congratulated by offensive lineman Junior Angilau after Brewer scored a touchdown against Kansas State last December. The senior tight end from Lake Travis decided to return for one final season to see what tight ends can do in Steve Sarkisian's offense.
  • Head coach Steve Sarkisian relies on tight ends as second most important position on the whole team.
  • Cade Brewer chose to return for a fifth year and is lighter and extremely motivated.
  • Jared Wiley, Brayden Liebrock, Gunnar Helm, Juan Davis offer tremendous talent at tight end.

Cade Brewer wrestled with the decision.

Come back to school for a fifth season or turn pro and try to continue a long Texas legacy of good to great tight ends beyond the college level.

He ultimately chose to return for one final year. But because he is juiced about playing in a system designed by arguably one of the best offensive minds in college football or because he’s pumped about upgrading a lagging program into the upper tiers of the sport as it was in the first decade of the 2000s?

“Kind of both,” the 22-year-old Brewer said. "Toward the end of last season, I started to think about it. I talked to my parents and close friends about it and thought it was appropriate for me to come back for another year. It’s unfinished business, and I can put more on film (for NFL scouts).”

Film, he’s got. More footballs in his direction, he’d love.

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And so the very productive senior from Lake Travis returned to the Longhorns lighter by 12 pounds, motivated by what might be and totally convinced the position of tight end will be elevated to a position of prominence as it was years ago.

Quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and offensive linemen flourished in Steve Sarkisian's offense at Alabama, which yielded two Heisman Trophy finalists and the winner last year. But he says tight end is the second-most important position for the offense after quarterback.

Strong words. Promising words.

And most likely true words, given the fact that new Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian all but vowed that the most important positions at his new gig will be quarterback and — drum roll — yes, tight end.

Say what?

“In our system,” Sarkisian said after the spring game, “probably the most important position after quarterback is tight end.” 

Tight end, really? 

More critical than, say, wide receiver, after Alabama's DeVonta Smith just won the Heisman Trophy with 117 catches for 1.856 yards? A bigger piece of the offensive puzzle than running back, though Bama's Najee Harris trucked defenders just like Derrick Henry en route to a 1,466-yard season? More key than left tackle, such as those who protected Alabama quarterback and Heisman finalist Mac Jones well enough for him to complete a staggering 77% of his passes for 4,500 yards and 41 scores with only four picks and follow Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts as Crimson Tide throwers who brought Nick Saban his last two national championships?

Yes, the former Alabama offensive coordinator will bring to Texas a diverse philosophy grounded in high-level quarterback play that has sent his last three quarterbacks to the NFL, dynamic wide receivers playing at a Big 12 level, a punishing ground attack and tight ends designed to create mismatches in the secondary flexed out in the slot and to block for the tailbacks.

So don’t sleep on tight ends, who were pretty much quiet under the previous regime. Texas fans can count on a lot of two-tight end sets and a lot of movement by them before the snap.

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“It will be an integral part of our offense,” Sarkisian said of the position. “They have made a lot of strides and will play a big role for us in the fall.”

That’s the offense Longhorn Nation should prepare for Sarkisian to roll out. 

Go ahead and think a Roll Left type rollout. That went pretty well, if you will recall the second-most famous play in school history involving a tight end. If you have to ask the first, move to Oklahoma because Randy Peschel’s over-the-shoulder catch on fourth-and-3 against Arkansas will always be No. 1. And David Thomas’ multitude of receptions are close behind.

Sarkisian will have plenty of weapons to choose from.

Brayden Liebrock, scoring against Perry during the Arizona Class 6A championship game at Sun Devil Stadium in 2018, played for three state title winners at Chandler High School.

Besides Brewer, a formidable threat who caught 15 passes a year ago, either quarterback Casey Thompson or Hudson Card can throw to 6-foot-7 Jared Wiley, the former quarterback and kicker at Temple, as well as athletic sophomore Brayden Liebrock and 6-5 freshmen Gunnar Helm and Juan Davis.

Helm, who caught a long pass in the spring game, hails from Colorado, where he led Cherry Creek High to consecutive state championships, and could duplicate Coloradoan Bo Scaife’s solid career. Liebrock can top that. He helped lead Chandler High to three straight 6A state titles in Arizona. Davis caught 40 passes as a senior at Everman High in Fort Worth but was also an all-district quarterback.

The 240-pound Brewer, who has bypassed most fast-food joints and given up most of his precious sweets this offseason, figures to play a prominent role. But he’ll have company.

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“Jared’s like the perfect size to be a tight end,” Brewer said. “He’s a big target with pretty reliable hands. I think Gunnar has the potential to be really good. He’s physical and he gets pretty nasty in the run game. 

“Brayden’s a good player, very athletic and a willing blocker. And Juan’s still learning right now. He’s by far the fastest in our room but also the lightest. He’s got some hands on him for sure. He’s just a natural catcher.”

Sark’s high on the two young prospects as well.

“That’s not an easy position in our offense,” he said. “But those guys have responded. They’ll both end up being really nice players for us.”

Texas has quite the legacy at the position but doesn’t qualify as Tight End U. That’s a designation probably reserved for Miami, which produced Greg Olsen, Jimmy Graham, Jeremy Shockey and David Njoku, to mention a few, or Iowa, which once had two tight ends taken in the NFL’s first round the same year. 

But the Longhorns can hold their own at the position. Or used to before a decade-long drought because of underutilization.

Thomas remains Texas' gold standard as the best ever to line up at the position. It’s an impressive roll call from the recently deceased Pete Lammons to two-time All-American Pat Fitzgerald to Jermichael Finley to Lawrence Sampleton to Andrew Beck to, yes, Derek Lewis. His stunning fourth-down catch broke Nebraska hearts, denying the Cornhuskers a possible national championship, and won Texas the first Big 12 championship in 1996. Thomas, Fitzgerald and Sampleton are the only UT tight ends to top 1,000 career yards, and Geoff Swaim and Beck are still in the NFL.

But any list has to start with Thomas, who might have dropped a pass or two — maybe — amid his 98 receptions for 1,367 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns as an integral part of the 2005 national championship team. He had 50 catches for 613 yards and five touchdowns his senior year, but 10 of them for 88 key yards came in the stirring Rose Bowl triumph over USC with as dynamic an offense as there’s ever been at Texas.

After Thomas, Finley was probably the most gifted tight end despite sticking around the Forty for just two seasons before departing for more glory with the Green Bay Packers. Long and athletic, he had 76 catches for a hair under 1,000 yards and five scores. He exploded onto the scene with 31 grabs as a redshirt freshman and once put up 149 receiving yards against the Sooners.

Heck, even Two-Play Steve Hall had his moments of brilliance with a short touchdown pass against hated Oklahoma and another block to spring Earl Campbell to beat the Sooners as a freshman.

Apparently, if we take Sark at his word, he’ll end the decade-long drought that has been Texas' use of the tight end.

Before you totally dismiss his pronouncement, consider that Alabama used three tight ends during last year’s perfect season. Senior Miller Forristall caught only 23 passes and backup Jahleel Billingsley another 18 to give the Tide 41 receptions, but they were impactful. Major Tennison, a one-time Longhorns pledge, was used primarily as a blocking back.

Longhorn tight ends a year ago caught only 29 balls for 388 yards and five touchdowns. With no proven alpha receivers as of yet, I’d expect that count to double as a group.

And Brewer? He would love to break Thomas’ single-season record of 50 receptions this fall.

“That’s doable,” he said.

With this group and Sark's blessings, almost everything is.