Leading up to the Gophers’ spring game at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, April 15, we’re breaking down each position group. Today, we’re taking a closer look at a position that could change under the new offensive coaching staff: Tight end.
Key Departure(s): None
Key Returner(s): Brandon Lingen, Nate Wozniak, Colton Beebe, Bryce Witham, and Ko Kieft
Spring Enrollee(s): None
Fall Enrollee(s): Nathan Bursch, Jake Paulson, and Nate Umlor
The lone departures at the tight end position are Duke Anyanwu and Nick Hart, who both graduated with a year of eligibility left. Coaches raved about his athleticism, but repeated knee injuries kept Anyanwu off the field. He ended up only playing in a single game in his career at Minnesota. Hart was a special teams contributor as a redshirt freshman and caught nine receptions for 85 yards as a sophomore. He had one catch all of last season.
Will the tight end role change moving forward?
Brian Callahan is the Gophers’ new tight ends coach. Callahan has been coaching at the college level for the last 24 years, but much of that has been spent coaching offensive line. Prior to Minnesota, his sole stint as tight ends coach was a single season at the University of Texas El-Paso in 2000. But Callahan is a heck of a football coach. Just last year, he was named FootballScoop’s 2016 Offensive Line Coach of the Year. To have both him and offensive line coach Ed Warinner — whom we’ll talk about more in the upcoming offensive line preview — is a significant coup for Minnesota. I’m not at all surprised head coach P.J. Fleck felt comfortable shifting Callahan to tight ends to make room for Warinner.
The biggest question at this position moving forward will be how new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca utilizes the tight end in his offense. Here is the tight end production from the last four seasons at Western Michigan under Ciarrocca:
2016: 9 receptions, 112 receiving yards, one touchdown
2015: 6 receptions, 72 receiving yards, two touchdowns
2014: 10 receptions, 60 receiving yards, one touchdown
2013: 45 receptions, 456 receiving yards, two touchdowns
As you can see, aside from that first year, the tight end position has not been a significant contributor in the passing game under Ciarrocca. Granted, that could change at Minnesota. There is athleticism at the position that this coaching staff might not have had with the Broncos, and it would be a shame to see it wasted in an offense that relegates tight ends to outside blocking schemes. This will be an interesting position to keep an eye on during spring practice and in the spring game, which should offer a glimpse of the tight ends’ role.
The Gophers need a healthy Brandon Lingen
No news is good news, and the lack of news surrounding tight end Brandon Lingen would suggest he is on track to return for his senior season after missing most of last season with injury. He missed the season opener against Oregon State after a slow recovery from shoulder surgery in the spring, before breaking his clavicle the following week against Indiana State. Lingen missed three games and returned against Maryland, but suffered a leg injury against Rutgers the following week that cost him the rest of the season. It was one setback after another for a team captain trying to capitalize on a breakout sophomore campaign that saw him catch 33 passes for 428 receiving yards and three touchdowns. If he can stay healthy, Lingen will be expected to lead a young and inexperienced tight end unit short on upperclassmen.
The other upperclassman at the position is redshirt senior Nate Wozniak. The 6’10’’, 275-lb. tight end started all 13 games last season at tight end, where he hauled in 13 receptions for 135 yards. Wozniak has been something of an enigma in his career as a Gopher. His frame would suggest an elite blocker and a massive red zone target, but thus far Wozniak has been neither. His blocking has improved, but he simply has not been part of the Gophers’ red zone offense, although he hasn’t always looked comfortable in the passing game.
Redshirt sophomore Colton Beebe has a promising future at the position. With Lingen sidelined for much of last season, Beebe was more than up to the task at H-Back. He only caught six receptions for 48 yards, but made a name for himself as a terrific blocker. Beebe was responsible for more than a few pre-snap penalties, but as a freshman, that is to be expected. If he can clean that up, I expect he’ll have a significant role in the offense under Ciarrocca, especially if Kirk continues to utilize cross-blocking schemes as he did at Western Michigan.
I’m not quite sure what to expect from redshirt sophomore Bryce Witham and redshirt freshman Ko Kieft. Witham saw action in eight games last season, but didn’t make a noticeable impact. And Kieft hasn’t seen the field as a Gopher.
The Gophers will welcome three freshman tight ends this fall, including Nathan Bursch, Jake Paulson, and Nate Umlor. I wouldn’t rule out at least one of them transitioning over to defensive end, but one to watch out for at tight end is Jake Paulson. The Louisville native had offers from Illinois, Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Purdue. Last season, he caught 25 catches for 328 yards and hauled in three touchdowns en route to a state championship.
Next: Offensive Line.