In our “Race to MAHturity” series, we will be highlighting Gopher football players who are expected to step up and take on a bigger role for Minnesota next season (whenever that may be).
Since NFL tight end Maxx William led Minnesota in receiving with 36 receptions, 569 receiving yards, and eight touchdowns in 2014, the Gophers’ passing game has not been kind to tight ends. Brandon Lingen emerged the following year to record 33 receptions for 428 receiving yards and three touchdowns, but the drop-off after that has been steep. Tight end production in the passing game has been especially absent in the P.J. Fleck era at Minnesota, during which a single tight end has yet to record double-digit receptions in a season.
But a new pair of co-offensive coordinators and an emerging homegrown talent at tight end in the form of St. Cloud native Brevyn Spann-Ford could change that.
As a redshirt freshman last season, Spann-Ford played in 12 games and finished the season with four receptions, 25 receiving yards, and a touchdown. His lone score, which came against Illinois, is a perfect example of how he can be weaponized in the passing game:
Minnesota is in a two tight end set, with Spann-Ford on the line of scrimmage and Ko Kieft set back on the opposite side. Both wide receivers are lined up on the short side of the field, leaving the wide side wide open. The Fighting Illini bring their lone cornerback on that side up to the line of scrimmage, where Spann-Ford engages with him as a blocker for a few seconds before going vertical. The free safety playing center field doesn’t even see Spann-Ford until Tanner Morgan releases the ball, and by then he is wide open for the 12-yard touchdown reception.
Unfortunately that was our best view of Spann-Ford all season. I can’t exactly blame previous offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca for his reluctance to target tight ends considering the embarrassment of riches he had at wide receiver, but I’m all about inclusion.
Which is why I was pleased to see Matt Simon, promoted to interim offensive coordinator for the Outback Bowl, open things up against Auburn. Spann-Ford had only one reception against the Tigers, but it was Bryce Witham who emerged to show what the Gophers’ tight ends can do.
You may not have noticed it, but prior to the Outback Bowl, the Gophers did not use the play-action pass in short yardage situations. With Simon calling the plays, Minnesota used it twice on fourth down against Auburn, and on both occasions the tight end came up big.
The first was on 4th and Goal at the goal line in the second quarter. Simon utilizes quite a bit of misdirection on this play, with Seth Green lined up at quarterback out of the wildcat. Spann-Ford is set back from the line of scrimmage and comes across the formation to block. Witham is up on the line of scrimmage and blocks for a second before slipping into the end zone. Green and Mohamed Ibrahim fool Witham’s defender on the play-action, leaving Witham all alone for the touchdown.
The next big play came on 4th and 1 at the Auburn 41 with less than four minutes left in the fourth quarter, as the Gophers were delivering a back-breaking drive to end the game and secure their 31-24 victory. Witham is the only tight end in the formation and he is lined up as the H-back. He blocks long enough to give Ibrahim a chance to pick up his man and then releases downfield past the sticks. Morgan makes an unbelievable pop pass with Marlon Davidson in his face, and Witham makes an even more unbelievable one-handed catch to earn a fresh set of downs.
Creativity like this is exactly how Spann-Ford can make more of an impact.
How exactly the offense will change under Sanford and Simon remains to be seen. Spring football would have provided our first glimpse, but COVID-19 had other plans. Sanford utilized a lot of offensive concepts at Utah State — pre-snap motions, pin-and-pull blocking, and four wide receiver sets, to name a few — that I don’t think quite gel with the personnel Fleck and co. have recruited and the type of offense they’ve run up to this point. I hope, at a minimum, more passes to the tight ends (Spann-Ford, specifically) are among the new wrinkles.