True tight ends can often be the forgotten men at the college level. Some are used as a sixth offensive lineman and occasional pass catcher, while others are used as big slot receivers. The guys who were both in-line blocker and receiver are on the way out. Or so one would think. Instead, not only are true tight ends are alive and kicking, I could have written a “Top 20” article and still left guys out. The position is deep, with a lot of guys who could be ready to break out, and the Big Ten seems to be deepest of all. Of course, when you create such a list, you need some conditions to shorten down the list. The alliterative pairing of Hunter Henry of Arkansas and Jesse James of Penn State, at least as far as this article is concerned, have already broken out, while others have flashed some ability, but don’t play in an offense which features the tight end. A stable quarterback situation, and an opportunity for the player to be a star in the offense, such as a departing star at the position or a clearout at wide receiver, have also been factored in. The list is in alphabetical order; feel free to offer your own suggestions.
Jake Duzey, Iowa
Duzey was broken in gently last season, learning the ropes behind CJ Fiedorowicz and playing mostly in multiple tight end sets. Duzey appeared in all 13 games, starting 7, but playing second fiddle certainly didn’t mean he was without his highlights. Against Ohio State, the sophomore caught 6 passes for 138 yards, including an 85-yard TD reception. Against LSU in the Outback Bowl, he caught 3 passes for 58 yards. For the season, Duzey caught 19 passes for 270 yards, good for fifth on the team in both categories, and 2 scores. Now with Fiedorowicz gone and quarterback Jake Rudock likely to take another positive step forward, Duzey could be in a good position to come close to doubling last season’s production.
Evan Engram, Mississippi
If not for a high ankle sprain against LSU, Engram may have been in the “already there” category. But, despite missing 5 games, the true freshman was still voted 2nd team all-SEC. After opening with 5 receptions for 61 yards in his first collegiate game, Engram went onto catch 20 passes for 265 yards and 3 TDs before his injury knocked him out. Engram had surgery on his ankle and made it back to start in the Music City Bowl, but caught just 1 pass for 3 yards. Now he’s back to full health and ready to get even better. At 6’3 and 217 pounds, Engram needs to get stronger to improve his in-line blocking, even though the Rebels’ spread offense reduces that need, but his wide receiver speed makes him a matchup nightmare. In the spring game, Engram flashed that speed on a 65-yard TD reception – not bad for a guy who was pressed into action due to lack of depth at the position.
Devon Johnson, Marshall
Of all the tight ends on this list, is anyone in a better position to rack up stats than Johnson? The sophomore didn’t see a lot of action outside of special teams over the first 1½ season’s of his career, but when the Thundering Herd got him more involved over the second half of 2013, he showed he has a lot to offer. Playing second fiddle to the prolific Gator Hoskins (50-821-15), Johnson grabbed 12 passes for 218 yards and 2 scores. The former high school running back also found a new role late in the year, as the Herd used him as a goal line running back, where he added 3 TDs on the ground. At 240 pounds, Johnson has the size to be a problem for defensive backs, but also has the speed to get away from linebackers. He may have to split time with Eric Frohnapfel, who has seniority, but Johnson’s knack for the big play, coupled with playing in an offense that likes to throw the ball, could see him put up some big numbers.
Johnny Mundt, Oregon
Anyone who saw Mundt’s breakout game against Tennessee, his first start at that, probably expected more of the same throughout the season. However, after catching 5 passes for 121 yards and 2 TDs against the Vols, he caught only 11 passes for 160 yards and a score the rest of the year. Of course, Mundt’s promotion to starter had a degree of good fortune to it, at least on his behalf. Colt Lyerla’s suspension, coupled with Pharaoh Brown’s injury, left Mundt next in line, and he may have been forced into full-time action a little sooner than hoped. Still, he’s shown what he’s capable of, and what coach wouldn’t like a player of Mundt’s size and ability wreaking havoc in opponents’ secondaries? Lyerla is long gone, but Brown will be around again next season. Brown returned to his starting spot when healthy last season; let’s see him hold onto it in 2014 with Mundt more seasoned.
Josiah Price, Michigan State
With quarterback Connor Cook struggling early in the 2013 season, Michigan State was no place for a freshman tight end trying to make a name for himself. However, as Cook grew over the course of the season, he discovered a reliable target in Price, who also came down strong down the stretch. The redshirt freshman started 6 games, splitting time with Andrew Gleichert and Michael Dennis, but Price was the top receiver of the trio with 17 receptions for 210 yards and 4 TDs, including a crucial scoring catch in the B1G championship game. Now, with a season under his belt, and a confidence boost from his big TD against Ohio State, Price is in a position to make the starting tight end job his own. With a quarterback who is also entering his prime, and on a team who isn’t averse to featuring the tight end, Price could become a household name in a conference that will be known for tight ends sooner rather than later.