Seemingly every season, the same question gets asked about UConn football: Why doesn’t the offense use their tight ends more? And seemingly every year when training camp comes around, everyone starts talking about how this is finally the year that tight ends become a focus on offense.
But with last season’s offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee leaving for SMU, the Huskies’ offense is now led by John Dunn, formerly an offensive consultant with the Chicago Bears. And from the looks of it, Dunn seems keen on using tight ends in his system.
“I love tight ends. I love involving tight ends,” Dunn said. “I think those guys can be a real x-factor because of how multiple you can be. I think tight ends are a great way to have in the offense because it can create a lot of formation differences for the defense.”
Despite losing Alec Bloom and Tommy Myers to graduation, UConn still has a solid group consisting of Tyler Davis, Zordan Holman, Aaron McLean and Jay Rose. It’s a diverse crew with each player bringing something different to the table.
“They kind of all bring their own uniqueness to the position,” tight end coach Corey Edsall said. “The good thing is a majority of them can do a lot of different things, whether it’s as a receiver or as a blocker. I think it’s hard on defenses when tight ends can do both and we’re fortunate to have guys that do that.”
McLean shifted to tight end after a 2017 season that saw him catch 31 passes for 472 yards and two touchdowns a wide receiver. But with a lot of depth at the position, the coaching staff thought his 6-foot-5 frame would be better suited as a tight end.
While he was used to blocking as a receiver, McLean needed the summer to add the weight and muscle so he could block lineman and linebackers at tight end as opposed to defensive backs.
“Even as a receiver I was more than willing to get involved in the blocking game so being a tight end it’s doing more,” McLean said. “Strength is a lot more important than it is at receiver. That was a big thing for me, getting stronger so I can actually move these 300-pound men.”
While he’s far from a finished product, Corey Edsall is happy with McLean’s progress so far.
“The biggest thing with him is he has that aggressiveness and desire to block,” the younger Edsall said. “He’s not afraid (to block), and that’s half of it. The other half he got a lot better with and I think this training camp he’ll take that next step to becoming an even better blocker.”
If McLean gets the blocking down, he could turn into a good all-around tight end since he already possesses the skills of a wide receiver.
“He has some savviness when he’s running routes and he sees things more naturally because that’s the position he was playing,” Edsall said. “He’s a big target, especially for some of the stuff we do. He’s definitely a guy that runs really good routes and has confidence and really good hands and can make some plays once he catches the ball.”
Davis is another player who switched from wide receiver, but his route to the tight end room is bit more complicated. He began his UConn career as a quarterback but switched to tight end under Bob Diaco during camp in 2016. When Randy Edsall took over, Davis bounced back and forth between wide receiver and tight end seemingly every week before finally settling at tight end this past spring.
Now, Davis is happy to finally have a set position and work out properly for tight end instead of not knowing whether to add weight or keep it off.
“It’s definitely good to have consistency. It helps me to learn the little small details of the position,” Davis said. “It’s not that easy when you’re lighter so the extra pounds definitely help in the trenches.”
Despite all the changes, Corey Edsall is confident that Davis is best suited at tight end.
“That’s the position for him. He’s got the ability to do everything,” Corey Edsall said. “He’s big enough and strong enough to be an in-line guy where he can block lineman, he can be off-the-ball doing move stuff and he’s got that athleticism and hands and speed to be a reliable and good weapon for us at tight end. Now that we have him in the spot we do, he’s going to have a big role this year.”
The role in the offense for tight ends has been a question mark for the past few years at UConn. Despite having two seemingly capable players in Bloom and Myers, they were rarely targeted and combined for just eight catches this past season.
However, Dunn’s system appears much more reliant on tight ends than year’s past.
“I tell my guys the only thing we’re asked not to do in this offense is throw a football,” Corey Edsall said. “Which — we have two former quarterbacks so maybe we will.”
Another thing that makes this group stand out is their athleticism, namely that of Davis and McLean.
“I think we have guys that are going to make it really hard on the defense because we have guys with speed, guys with size,” Corey Edsall said. “You see what [the New England Patriots] do with [Rob Gronkowski] — they flex him out as a receiver on a corner and it’s a matchup issue. And we have guys that can probably do the same thing.”
“They can be very dangerous based on their athleticism and where they will be playing and who they’re matched up against.”
It’s still early for anybody to make any determination of who is going to play come Aug. 30 when UCF rolls into town when training camp has yet to even begin. However, with the new offensive system in place and a different set of players to work with, this year looks better than any other to finally be the year of the tight end at UConn.
“I have really high hopes for them this year,” Corey Edsall said. “I think they’ll meet the goals that we have for them.”