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VOL. 131 | NO. 151 | Friday, July 29, 2016

The SEC is TEC – Tight End Conference

By Don Wade

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Last season, Hunter Henry became the second Arkansas Razorback to win the John Mackey Award, which for the last 16 years has annually recognized the best tight end in college football. Henry, famously known for the fourth-and-long “Hunter Heave” in the Razorbacks’ wild 53-52 overtime win over Ole Miss, also produced a strong body of work for the entire season, including 46 receptions for 647 yards and three touchdowns.

Alabama’s O.J. Howard had a career day in the 2016 national championship win over Clemson. Howard is perhaps the best of the seven SEC tight ends that made the Preseason John Mackey Award Watch List.

(Ric Tapia via AP)

Henry’s Mackey Award came just five years after Arkansas tight end D.J. Williams won the award, making Arkansas the only school to have two winners. And Henry’s stats in 2015 surely would have been larger if not for Jeremey Sprinkle, who caught 27 passes for 389 yards with six touchdowns.

“Just having both of us out there last year made mismatches for defenses and so it gave us both opportunities,” said Sprinkle, who is a 6-6 and 240-pound senior for the Razorbacks.

Across the SEC this season, opportunities would seem to abound. Of the 45 players on the Preseason 2016 John Mackey Award Watch List, seven, including Sprinkle, play in the SEC. Florida’s Aaron Hernandez won the award in 2009 and Chase Coffman of Missouri won the award in 2008 before the Tigers had moved from the Big 12 to the SEC.

“We always try to be Tight End University,” said 6-5, 232-pound Georgia tight end Jeb Blazevich, also on Mackey Award Watch List. “That is what we try to promote, that is what we try to claim.”

This season, the SEC has a claim to make as the nation’s premier conference for tight ends. At the top of the Mackey Award Watch List and perhaps the tight end mostly likely to go first in the 2017 NFL Draft is Alabama senior O.J. Howard.

Howard was at his dynamic best in last season’s College Football Playoff National Championship victory when he caught five passes for a career-high 208 yards and two touchdowns. He had 38 receptions in 2015 for 602 yards, averaging 15.8 yards per catch. Overall, he’s made 69 catches for 1,131 yards in three seasons at Alabama.

He has dramatically changed the Crimson Tide’s offense as evidenced by the fact 24 of his catches last season went for first downs. Alabama is again going to trot out a new quarterback – and yes, there’s always a stable of talented running backs and sophomore wide receiver Calvin Ridley gives the team a proven big-play threat – but Howard is the complication, if you will, for defenses.

Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin increasingly embraced Howard’s role and head coach Nick Saban, while first pointing out Howard has improved as a blocker, almost gushes about him as a pass-catcher.

“A fabulous receiver,” Saban said. “He’s got great hands. He’s got speed to stretch the field. He can make the tough catch. He can separate from man-to-man. We probably need to use him more.”

That’s a theme running through many SEC offenses: use the talented tight end more. He’s too fast for linebackers and too big for safeties.

So, also on the Mackey Award Watch List from the SEC: sophomore C.J. Conrad from Kentucky, senior Evan Engram of Ole Miss, junior DeAndre Goolsby of Florida, and junior Ethan Wolf of Tennessee.

“It’s a cool position,” said yet another starting tight end in the SEC, Missouri senior Sean Culkin. “You can do a lot. Athletic guys, we still gotta get involved in the running game, but to be able to use size and mismatches that a tight end matchup presents adds value to the offense.”

Engram is a prime example. A three-time All-SEC selection, he is already the all-time Ole Miss leader in receptions (97) and receiving yards (1,394) by a tight end. His 662 receiving yards in 2014 also set an all-time record for the Rebels.

Engram and wide receiver Quincy Adeboyejo are the leading returning pass catchers from 2015 with 38 receptions each and figure to be quarterback Chad Kelly’s top targets.

“I love getting the ball and making plays,” Engram said. “Our team could be really successful if I’m getting involved and getting more touches. What I have to offer the offense is unique and I put a lot of work into it. I’ll put the work in to get the ball.”

And yes, like all of them, he looks to the “next level” and sees the game turning in his favor. He enjoys watching Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots, Jordan Reed of the Washington Redskins (at 6-2, Reed is similar to Engram who is 6-3 and 227 pounds). Engram even likes watching old Tony Gonzalez film.

“Just guys that relate to my hybrid – smaller tight end,” said Engram, though Gronk and Gonzalez do not really fit that pattern at 6-6 and 6-5, respectively. “The new evolution of tight end plays perfectly into the way I play the position.”

And is an ever-increasing headache for defensive coordinators pretty much everywhere.

“I would say football in general is becoming a tight end game,” Howard said.

“I always say if you feed the tight end good things are going to happen,” Engram said. “We have a lot of great tight ends in this conference and there’s been a great history of tight ends coming through this conference.

“I take pride in representing tight ends in the SEC.”

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