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An Early Look At 2017 Michigan Football: Tight End Preview

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NCAA Football: Illinois at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Personnel

Who’s definitely leaving? The Big Butt himself. Tight end extraordinaire. We’ll miss you, buddy, and heal up.

So, who’s going to be in town, then? Everyone else will be coming back next year, and there are no incoming freshmen in the 2017 class. So we’re looking at Ian Bunting, Tyrone Wheatley, Devin Asiasi, Sean McKeon, Zach Gentry, and Nick Eubanks for expanded roles next year.

The Depth Chart

The presumed starters: Tyrone Wheatley will be Michigan’s starting “Y” tight end, but there will be a hotly contested battle to replace Jake Butt’s production outside. Ian Bunting has the inside track, though.

Bunting is a guy whose name has been heard around town for a while now, but this was a mostly quiet season for a guy who’s been in the program for three full years. Still, the Orange Bowl was an encouraging sign: 3 catches for 40 yards after getting 6 yards in his first 12 games.

Right on his heels: Devin Asiasi will be backing up Tyrone Wheatley, but he’ll see a lot of playing time. Devin is a lot like Tyrone Wheatley: he’s a “Y” or in-line tight end, very strong, lineman-sized, athletic as heck, and a guy who was a really high-ranking recruit coming out of high school. We’ll see how his pass-catching and route-running develops, but the pressure isn’t there to produce right away. He’s already a good blocker, and that’s what matters.

We’ll see how many snaps are there for whoever doesn’t win the “F” tight end position (that Jake Butt played). Butt took most of the snaps in 2016, but that might be an aberration.

Outside looking in: There’s a handful of solid darkhorse candidates to usurp Bunting and steal a starting job. Sean McKeon, Nick Eubanks and Zach Gentry will all get their chances; athletically, all of them are impressive prospects in their own ways.

I was a big fan of McKeon coming out of high school, and he validated that somewhat by making the field earlier than expected. He was a good blocker out of high school, but at 6’5”, 240 (on the fall roster, so somewhat outdated), I think he would do well to bulk up another 15-20 pounds and try to handle some more in-line blocking duties in addition to his route-running.

Gentry, too, will probably want to bulk up enough to take on defensive ends if he wants to see the field. He was listed at 6’7”, 244 on the fall roster, but another 15 or so pounds would give him enough weight to go toe-to-toe with a lot of defensive ends. He was mostly praised for his route-running after he first transitioned from quarterback, but I think he could work a little more around the line of scrimmage. He’d also be a valuable red zone weapon.

In contrast, Nick Eubanks is more of a receiver, and honestly I think that suits him best. He’s listed at 6’5”, 236 and might want to add another 10 pounds, tops. Like Gentry, I’m excited to see what Eubanks can do to create mismatches around the red zone.

Two Questions

How much playing time is there? Once again, Michigan is loaded - so while there’s playing time to be had, it’s not clear who exactly is going to take it. There’s talent to spare at running back and at wide receiver, too, so how much will the offense need to use these guys?

What do the in-line tight ends do for the running game? This is a bit of a change of subject, but I’ll be very curious to see what Wheatley and Asiasi can do to open up lanes for some of these running backs. Both are tremendously strong and athletic compared to a lot of other tight ends. In a lot of ways, this is a mismatch waiting to happen.

Final Verdict

Losing Jake Butt hurts. There’s no way around it. But Michigan has been able to replace key players numerous times during Jim Harbaugh’s tenure, and there are a lot of talented options ready to make an impact in 2017.

No other team in the Big Ten has a tight end group anywhere near as good as what Michigan has. This group could potentially be a huge advantage for Michigan going forward; we’ll just have to see who’s throwing them the ball and how much they’re needed.