AMHERST, Mass. - When the UMass football team took the field against Bowling Green on Oct. 21, 2012, it had zero natural tight ends ready to play.
UMass tight end Derek Beck during fall camp/Andy Heller for the Maroon Musket
Rob Blanchflower was hurt, Brandon Howard wasn't playing, Dan Foesel was repositioned, and the true freshmen had either already redshirted or were playing linebacker. When the Minutemen marched into Gillette Stadium, there was only Derek Beck, a freshman wide receiver who was too small and inexperienced to get into fisticuffs with the big boys from Ohio.
This season, UMass has six guys who are ready to either put their hand in the dirt or detach and line up in the slot.
Blanchflower, now the team captain, leads the way, and behind him are some familiar faces and a few new guys. Howard and Beck are back, and both have put on significant weight since the end of the 2012 season. Rodney Mills, who has been a wide receiver and linebacker at UMass, is filling a tight end spot, and is joined by true freshman Sharif Custis and Ricardo Miller, a fifth-year transfer from the University of Michigan.
“This is a deeper and more competitive group, and from the older guys to the younger guys, they are competitive,” said Shane Waldron, UMass' tight ends coach. “I think we have guys with position flexibility that can align detached, attached or in the backfield. It's just going to help our offense overall.”
Aside from Mills, each tight end is at least 6-foot-3. Mills and Miller bring high-end speed, while Blanchflower and Howard have a traditional tight end look. Beck is still working on his blocking but has turned heads in fall camp with his ability to get open in the red zone. Custis is “still swimming,” according to Waldron, but he “is going to grow and get stronger, and his grasp on the offense will get there.”
Blanchflower, a fifth-year senior and the team's captain, is taking it upon himself to show the new guys what he's learned during his career at UMass.
“I learned from some greats – Andrew Krevis and Emil Igwenagu – those were good guys to look up to. They brought me through the ringer, and they taught me what it takes. I'm trying to keep the legacy going by showing what it's like to be a tight end at UMass,” Blanchflower said. “It's a hard position. You've got to be tough, and you've got to be strong. You've got to be fast enough to out-run a linebacker but big enough to be blocking a defensive end. You're going to get hit, and you're going to get hurt, but I'm trying to instill that sense of toughness. It's something that I learned from the guys before me.”
While toughness is key, in the Mid-American Conference, size is undoubtedly important. Known for its hulking defensive lines, the MAC frequently have throwback defensive ends lining up across from opposing tight ends. In order to compete at the point of attack, UMass desperately needed to add muscle.
UMass' tight ends gather for a meeting during fall practice.
That's where new strength and conditioning coach Mike Golden came in.
“I've got to give a lot of credit to our new strength coach, coach Golden,” said Howard, who was a key contributor during UMass' 2013 Spring Game. “He works us hard, and he knows what he's doing. All the credit goes to him really. He's just taking us to the next level, and now we have to take it on the field.”
With the added muscle, UMass' tight ends should be better equipped in blocking schemes, but the athletes' natural length and athleticism has been noticeable in red zone packages. The Minutemen have several tall receivers – most notably Tajae Sharpe and newcomer Shakur Nesmith – that they have used near the endzone, and Beck has been helping the wideouts overload and cause mismatches.
“In the red zone, height is the great equalizer,” Waldron said.
Blanchflower, who has been banged up a bit, and Miller are also expected to get some reps in scoring position. Miller sees the red zone as an opportunity to have a friendly competition with the receivers.
“I think me and the receivers, and even the other tight ends, are going to have some battles over who gets the ball in the red zone. As long as we score, it will be all good,” Miller said, with an ear-to-ear grin.
Mills and Custis are still working on getting the playbook down and making plays. UMass coach Charley Molnar said Mills was “really out of his element” last fall and was starting to come into his own during the spring.
“Now he's really starting to show what he can do,” Molnar said.
Ricardo Miller/Andy Heller for the Maroon Musket
Molnar said Custis is a little small for a tight end right now, but “he's going to be a big son of a gun one day. We envision him as an in-line blocker that can detach and be a really fast guy.” Miller, carrying his experience from Michigan, has taken it upon himself to show the new guy the ropes.
“I've been a little bit of a mentor to him. He's kind of new to this offense, with all the schemes and whatnot, so he's working at it. He's coming along nicely, and I'm going to stay on him and make sure that, when he's on the sidelines, he stays focused on the plays and signals. He'll be good,” he said.
Both Molnar and Waldon indicated that the new depth at tight end will allow UMass to add some different packages to the offense.
“I think that the way tight ends are nowadays, the ideal guy can do a little bit of everything. If he can put his hand in the ground, and also detach, that's what we're looking for,” Waldron said. “Some guys are going to do one thing a little bit better than others, but as long as they can be adequate at everything, it will add a lot of flexibility.”
Off the field, Blanchflower is happy with how the group is getting along.
“We're a great group. We love to have fun, but we're all business in the meeting room. It's great having a group of guys that you enjoy being around,” he said.
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