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Tight ends: Michigan 2018 positional rundown

Welcome to the most loaded position on the offense, complete with clones of Jake Butt and Kyle Rudolph, as well as versatile depth.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Jim Harbaugh’s arrival promised a full weaponization of tight ends in Ann Arbor.

In his final year at Stanford, he possessed three future pros at the position — Coby Fleener, Konrad Reuland (R.I.P.) and current Super Bowl champion Zach Ertz. Two of the top five receivers during Harbaugh’s Super Bowl season with the 49ers were Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker.

This intense focus continued at Michigan with the development of Jake Butt into a Denver Bronco, but heading into 2018 it’s a whole new monster. Sean McKeon, Zach Gentry and Nick Eubanks form perhaps Harbaugh’s deepest group since his final season in Palo Alto.

Tight ends coach Sherrone Moore really has an embarrassment of riches.

Sean McKeon, JR

Sean McKeon (mc-kyoon) is poised to break out a la Jake Butt. In fact, he’s a bit of a New England Butt doppelgänger.

Both stand in the 6-foot-5, 250-pound range, and both produced decent sophomore seasons on struggling offenses. Butt hauled in 21 catches for 211 yards and two scores, while McKeon snagged 31 balls for 301 yards and three touchdowns. Also weird: both were third on the team in receiving yards as sophomores. Twilight Zone time...

You unlock this door with the key of a athletic tight end. Beyond it is a Stanford offense...

McKeon isn’t an athletic freak like the other two tight ends, but like Butt he is a smooth runner who can make teams pay in the open field. In his touchdown against Minnesota, he looks natural weaving behind blocks en route to the end zone.

He also can make linebackers and box safeties pay when covering him one-on-one. Against Purdue — a solid No. 35 in overall defensive S&P rankings — he streaks by safety Jacob Thieneman on a crossing pattern, catching the pass in stride to set up the Wolverines for the go-ahead touchdown.

Skip to 12:03.

He did the same thing to Michigan State’s Joe Bachie before the end of the first half last year, but he fumbled the ball to erase the first down. This leads into a concern over his ball security. Remember when Michigan really started handing South Carolina the Outback Bowl last year?

Between taking a potential score off the board against the Spartans, or giving the Gamecocks life, he really picked the worst times to lose the ball. In fairness, he should not have been the up-back in the Outback Bowl, as Harbaugh blamed coaching miscommunication for the miscue.

One thing he has over Butt is real aggressiveness as a blocker. He sticks his nose into the chest of the defender and drives his feet well. With another year of strength gains, this skill should only improve.

If McKeon stays on the Butt trajectory, he’ll be in the 650-to-750 yard range as junior. For a possession tight end, his plus-athleticism and blocking make him truly multi-dimensional.

Zach Gentry, RS JR

Gentry got Michigan fans salivating over his surprising acceleration in the 2017 Spring Game.

Yes, that’s a walk-on safety he juked, but he also didn’t let safety Josh Metellus close any distance. For a 6-foot-8, 250-ish dude, that play opened eyes. Now he weighs 262 pounds and appears more physically ready for the conference wars.

In 2017, he was four yards behind Grant Perry for leading the team in receiving yards. He finished with 17 grabs for 303 yards — nearly 18(!) yards a reception — and two touchdowns. For a converted quarterback, that’s a pretty good debut.

He make opponents pay with his height, coming down with passes that nobody could possibly defend. This first down on the first touchdown drive against Ohio State lofts just out the reach of Damon Arnette. (3:07)

He made a similar catch against Purdue to set up the game-clinching score, as he contorted his body for a circus catch over a safety.

He took advantage of a befuddled Terrapin secondary to sprint past for an easy 33-yard touchdown. He has enough speed to get open and make teams pay on intermediate throws.

On these two consecutive plays against Wisconsin, he sneaks open behind a very good secondary. If Peters saw him glaringly wide-open on the first one, it’s a touchdown.

Start at 2:01. Watch the two plays.

On the second play, I love how he lulls D’Cota Dixon to sleep and pivots towards the sideline on a wheel route. He then shows a touch of shiftiness to gobble up yards after the catch.

Whereas McKeon is a dead ringer for Jake Butt, Gentry reminds me of former Notre Dame flex-end Kyle Rudolph. Gentry is two inches taller, but both are adept at lining up on the line, as well as in the slot.

This is Rudolph’s 95-yard bomb that almost beat Michigan in 2010. Michigan fans, thank Denard Robinson for excising this memory.

First, he lines up on the inside slot, matching up against Jordan Kovacs. The idea that the 5-foot-10 Kovacs could match up with the 6-foot-6 Rudolph is not only reminding me why people doubted Greg Robinson’s abilities as a coordinator. It’s also the same matchup nightmare seen when Gentry finds himself against a linebacker, nickel or safety.

The second thing is both Rudolph and Gentry exhibit a loping running style where ground is made up through strides, rather than quick rotations of the feet. With Gentry’s potential muscle gains, this starts to approach a one-for-one comparison.

As a sophomore, Rudolph similarly racked up over 300 yards receiving, but exited after a shoulder injury against Navy. By the way, just to flex my background as a Naval lieutenant, here’s America beating Notre Dame in 2009. He was poised for a monster junior season before hamstring surgery cut his year in half.

So McKeon and Gentry equal Butt and Rudolph — two former All-Americans. How can the position get better?

Nick Eubanks — JR

Oh, look. Another 6-foot-5, 251-pound junior who can also beat teams down the field.

Skip to 9:24 for proof.

The Plantation, Fla. product tallied two catches for 61 yards against his home state Gators, then disappeared after a season-ending elbow injury against Purdue.

He arrived in Ann Arbor as a 4-star prospect per 247, and more in the mold of Devin Funchess. His ability to get behind a solid SEC defense — Florida ranked No. 29 nationally in S&P pass defense — shows he might have the receiving chops of the current Carolina Panther.

Sherrone Moore praised his athletic gains early in summer camp.

“I mean I saw him just taking pictures, the other day, and you can see his back, you can see his legs, you can see his arms, everything’s just like popping out of his uniform,” he said to The Michigan Insider ($). “And he said he feels, you know the most important thing for him is (he) has to keep (his) speed, and he felt like he has done that and kept that weight, and he’s going to be a really special player.”

He seems ready for a breakout, if healthy, as his size is starting to match his top-end speed.

The freshmen

First thing, Traverse City 3-star Ryan Hayes is listed on the roster as a tight end. At 6-foot-7, 271 pounds, though, he already seems to be shifting to tackle.

Much like the departed Tyrone Wheatley, Jr., he may be this season’s jumbo tight end inserted for power running situations. This will give him time to put on the weight needed to play offensive line in the Big Ten.

The two freshmen intended to stay at the position are Mustapha Muhammad and Luke Schoonmaker. The former is a consensus 4-star out of Texas, while the other is another potential “diamond in the rough” from New England.

Muhammad’s offer list included Clemson, Oklahoma and Texas, among others. Those programs saw what Michigan saw: a tight end whose demonstrates functional speed — 4.8 40-yard dash — and a 6-foot-4, 245-pound frame that will present matchup problems for defensive backs.

Schoonmaker, on the other hand, apparently remained a secret at Hamden Hall in Connecticut. His coach wanted college recruiters to legitimately want him.

“There is no recruiting ranking for him because we never broadcast him to anybody,” Hamden Hall HC Joe Linta explained to The Wolverine. “When he first started getting offers, I didn’t call Rivals or ESPN. It was kind of funny, because college coaches would call and ask who’d all offered him, and I’d tell them not to worry about it — if you like him, that’s all that matters.”

This strategy kept the 6-foot-6, 229-pounder under wraps, especially surprising since the big guy pumped out 4.6 40s regularly. Like McKeon, he is a New England prospect with elite measurables — remember, McKeon earned the top SPARQ score at Nike’s Opening combine in New Jersey.

Either Gentry or McKeon could be headed to the pros with a good year, so look out for the freshmen to make noise in 2019.