The departure of Devin Asiasi for UCLA leaves a big void among Michigan tight ends - literally. At 280 lbs., he and Ty Wheatley were the only two ends with the size for interior blocking.
Many, in fact, projected Asiasi as the future leader of the Michigan tight end squad. A swift-footed behemoth, he conjured memories of old-school ends who could deliver a pancake block as easily as a first down.
But to cast Asiasi as heir apparent to Jake Butt’s dominance at the position was premature. Sure, the kid had promise and should contribute for the Bruins, but he caught only two passes in 2016 and Wheatley edged him out for playing time by season’s end.
And he hardly leaves the cupboard bare in Ann Arbor. In addition to the 275-lb. Wheatley, the Wolverines return a quartet of athletic pass catchers in what might be the nation’s most tight end-friendly offense. While few anticipate the emergence of another Jake Butt anytime soon, there is reason for optimism as the Wolverines work their way through spring practice.
Coaching change: Jay Harbaugh moves to replace Tyrone Wheatley as running backs coach, making way for the return of Greg Frey. In addition to tight ends, Frey will focus on offensive tackles. This is Frey’s first go at coaching tight ends, but his knowledge of run blocking should benefit a position group that loses a capable run blocker in Asiasi.
Ian Bunting: When Butt went down with an ACL tear in the Orange Bowl, Bunting stepped in with 3 catches for 40 yards. With Butt off to the NFL, expect more of the same. Bunting has solid hands and at 6-7, 255 lbs. he’s a big target. He needs to improve his blocking, but Bunting’s the closest the Wolverines have to a sure thing at tight end.
Tyrone Wheatley Jr.: The Wolverines faithful have been waiting for Wheatley to break out since the Michigan legend’s son committed in 2015. Easier said than done when you’re playing alongside the nation’s top tight end. He’s the best blocker in this unit, but with Butt gone expect Speight and company to give him plenty of looks. He should start alongside Bunting unless one of these other fellas surprises during spring and fall practice.
Zach Gentry: He might just be the most intriguing guy in this unit. Athletic enough to have spent significant time as a wide receiver last season, the 6-7 Gentry runs a 4.7 forty, fastest among tight ends in Michigan’s spring combine. That’s a big, fast target and a nightmare for sluggish linebackers. Unfortunately, he’s built more like an NBA shooting forward than a tight end, so his potential as a blocker seems limited. And one has to wonder how long the former top 5 quarterback prospect can tow the party line and avoid transferring if he doesn’t get some significant playing time.
Sean McKeon: One need not start to contribute at tight end at Michigan. Outside the presence of a once-in-a-generation player like Butt, the Wolverines prefer the squad approach to the position. That set up favors McKeon, who incoming Coach Frey has praised for his athleticism (he topped the other ends in the vertical jump and broad jump at the recent team combine). At 6-5 and 240 lbs., he should be a key backup and reliable piece in the tight end rotation.
Nick Eubanks: Keep an eye on Eubanks during spring ball. At 6-5, 240, he’s another big, athletic target (see a trend, here?) who should work into the tight end rotation in the fall. While he didn’t put up crazy numbers at the Michigan combine, he might be the most explosive receiver in the lot and poses some mismatch issues for linebackers and safeties. While 2017 might be primarily a development year for Eubanks, he has the potential to surface as a big play receiver.