Jake Butt is arguably the best to ever play the tight end position for the University of Michigan.
Devin Asiasi didn’t have a sensational freshman year in 2016, but was a potential future star at the tight end position for the Wolverines and was expected to be featured a lot more in 2017.
Those two players are now both gone – Butt was drafted by the Denver Broncos and Asiasi transferred to UCLA, much closer to home.
What will Michigan do at the position now? What they’ve been doing since Harbaugh arrived: Next man up.
But in this case, the next man up is actually “next men up.”
Redshirt junior Ian Bunting and redshirt sophomore Tyrone Wheatley Jr. are the two tight ends Michigan fans, analysts and basically everyone are expecting to see a lot more of this season for the Wolverines. But we can’t forget about the others in the tight end room either.
Sophomore Sean McKeon is a guy Harbaugh mentioned at Big 10 Media Days a few weeks ago as one of the “very talented players” that played as a true freshman. Redshirt sophomore and ex-QB Zach Gentry had a very nice catch-and-run touchdown in the spring game and is quietly a very shifty athlete. And let’s not forget redshirt freshman Nick Eubanks, who also made some nice plays in the spring game and is one of the more athletic tight ends Michigan currently has.
It’s safe to say Michigan has depth at the position. The talent is all there, but there isn’t a lot of in-game experience from these guys at the moment. That will all change once the season kicks off.
The tight end I am most excited to watch this season is Wheatley Jr. A lot of fans I have spoken with are looking forward to Bunting, which is justified, but I think Wheatley Jr. is the “dude” at the position this season, as Don Brown would say.
Wheatley Jr. has reportedly dropped weight this offseason, but is looking to drop another 10-15 pounds before the season starts, Nick Baumgardner formerly of MLive.com said in an article posted last month.
“I’ve been (blocking for a while) now, but I want to also become more of a vertical threat,” Wheatley Jr. told MLive.com. “Instead of taking me off the field when they want to run a seam route or something, I want them to be comfortable enough to leave me in the game.
“I want to show them I can run corners and posts and be a real threat.”
Wheatley Jr. seems determined to drop the weight and have a significant role with U-M this season. Not only will that make him faster and better in the passing game, but it will help with his blocking abilities as well. The extra quickness to set his feet, get in position, get leverage and adjust to rushers will pay dividends in the blocking game if he does indeed get to his goal weight, which is an unknown number publicly. I would guess around 260 or so.
He also probably knows his tight end teammates are all athletic enough to get playing time over him. Like anything with Harbaugh, positions are all a meritocracy, meaning everyone has a fair chance to beat out competition to earn a starting role, even if the winning player is a freshman over an upperclassman.
To top all that off, Wheatley Jr. was named to the John Mackey Award watch list. The John Mackey Award, which was taken home by Butt last season, is given to the nation’s most outstanding tight end.
For all these reasons, Wheatley Jr. is the tight end for the Wolverines I expect to have the best season. I don’t expect him to get a ton of touchdowns – somewhere between three and five – because of the crop of receivers Michigan has coming in, but he could become a crucial third down target for whoever starts at quarterback (probably Speight).
Enough about Wheatley Jr. Let’s talk about Bunting for a minute, because he can be just as important to this team as Wheatley Jr will be.
Bunting saw limited playing time last season with Butt and Asiasi getting most of the work, but his biggest impact came in the Orange Bowl after Butt tore his ACL. He had 3 catches for 40 yards, one of those catches being a clutch and quite athletic third down reception with a defensive back draped all over him.
He’s tall (6-foot-7) and big enough to be a Jake Butt replica. We saw flashes of his abilities in the Orange Bowl and I believe we will see some of that again this season. If he is able to nail down the blocking part of the position, he could be a scary part of this offense in 2017 and perhaps 2018, depending on if he stays at the university.
With the departures of the aforementioned Butt and Asiasi, the time is now for Wheatley Jr. and Bunting to take over and make names for themselves. Hell, maybe someone like Eubanks, Gentry or McKeon can step in and become the next star tight end at Michigan.
But for now, we wait. Kickoff in Dallas against Florida is soon, my friends. Just not soon enough.