With a new coach at Texas, tight ends enter the 2021 season with 'a lot to prove still'
Did you know that the 149 receiving yards that Jermichael Finley recorded against Oklahoma in 2007 is still a single-game record for Texas tight ends?
No Longhorns tight end, by the way, has caught more touchdowns in a season than Pat Fitzgerald, who scored eight times in 1995. The longest reception for a UT tight end? That was William Harris' 84-yard catch at Penn State in 1984. David Thomas owns the position records at UT for catches in a game (10), season (50) and career (98).
Those tight end tidbits, of course, are related to the past. If Longhorns fans want to know about the future of the position, UT assistant coach Jeff Banks dropped a hint during a recent media availability.
"We're a two tight end-based offense," said Banks, who worked last year at Alabama with new Texas coach Steve Sarkisian. "I think somewhere in the neighborhood of 30, 40% of our snaps last year at Alabama were two tight ends."
In recent years, tight ends have been overshadowed in Texas' offense. Charlie Strong, who often found his tight ends among other position groups, didn't have one catch more than 11 passes during his three seasons in Austin. Tom Herman's leading tight end averaged 15.8 receptions.
Last year, Florida's Kyle Pitts and BYU's Isaac Rex led the nation's tight ends with their 12 touchdown catches. Over the last four years, Texas got a combined 12 touchdowns from its tight ends.
Will tight ends at Texas post Pitts and Rex-like numbers in the near future? That may be an unrealistic goal. But Sarkisian has said that outside of the quarterback, there may not be a more valuable position in his offense.
"We put a lot on them formationally," Sarkisian said. "We have a variety of run schemes that ask them to be blockers, whether it's on the line of scrimmage, on the perimeter, internally. And then a pretty extensive role in the passing game so there's a lot on them to make this offense go.
"What all that means is they need to be versatile players. They need to be physical, they need to be athletic, they need to be smart, they need to have good ball skills. There's a lot that goes into that position for us to operate at a high level."
During his two years as Alabama's offensive coordinator, Sarkisian never coached a Mackey Award finalist. His top two tight ends in 2020 — Miller Forristall and Jahleel Billingsley — did combine for 41 catches and four touchdowns. Forristall scored four touchdowns in 2019.
At Texas, Sarkisian inherited two veteran tight ends in Cade Brewer and Jared Wiley. The Longhorns also signed three tight ends in the 2021 recruiting cycle.
Between the two of them, Brewer and Wiley have caught 47 career passes. Offensive lineman Christian Jones added that the tight ends were an additional asset to the team's blocking schemes.
"They're physical, they stay low, moving D-linemen," Jones said. "I love when I have the tight end to my side because I feel like they got my back."
Having taken advantage of the NCAA's decision to freeze a year of eligibility, Brewer is entering his fifth year with the Longhorns. A memorable touchdown at USC in 2017 and last year's key two-point conversion at Oklahoma State rank among his signature highlights.
Wiley is a former high school quarterback who was once listed as the backup kicker on UT's depth chart. As tall as he is athletic, the 6-foot-7 Wiley used 52- and 47-yard gains last season to account for 59.6% of his 166 receiving yards.
"With those two, they definitely lead our room. They definitely lead the way," Banks said.
Freshmen Gunnar Helm and Juan Davis were both three-star recruits who enrolled early. Helm recorded a 41-yard catch in the annual Orange-White scrimmage this spring. A converted receiver, Davis had two receptions that April afternoon.
Ja'Tavion Sanders was regarded as a five-star talent in the Class of 2021. Sanders could eventually end up on the defensive line, but his Texas tenure will begin on offense.
Davis, Helm and Sanders are joining a position group that is looking for its first 500-yard receiver since 2007. Only one Texas tight end has earned all-conference honors in the past 15 years.
"I think we have a lot to prove still, especially in the pass game where we haven't really been there that much in the past years," Brewer said. "We always have something to prove."