It’s the year 2020: The position of tight end has become a rare breed that’s being phased out by the masses. Many teams are rendering the position obsolete. However, at the University of Michigan in a town called Ann Arbor, tight ends play a pivotal role in their offense. This is their story...
The Michigan tight end unit will look a bit different than it did in 2019, with Sean McKeon headed to the NFL and Mustapha Muhammad transferring midway through last season. Someone will have to replace McKeon’s 13 receptions, 235 yards, and 2 touchdowns of production. The good news for Michigan is they have a veteran returning and younger options with promise behind the vet.
Fifth year senior Nick Eubanks is returning, a player that fits nicely into offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ scheme. Eubanks had a good year in ‘19, with 25 receptions for 243 yards and 4 touchdowns.
“I like everything about Nick,” head coach Jim Harbaugh said in August 2019. “He is one of my favorite players on the team, one of my favorite players I have ever coached. Progress has been really good. He has always been really athletic, can run, catch, his change of direction.”
The 6-foot-5, 256 pounder has shown the ability to create separation as a pass catcher and has improved as a blocker as well. “He has really improved tremendously as a blocker,” Harbaugh said. “I think that is the thing that is separating him, as someone who can block a tight end, attached or detached at the line of scrimmage. He also has the ability to gain separation and catch the football and get downfield.”
Eubanks is a player that could thrive in year two of Gattis’ speed in space scheme. “You get to play how you want to play,” Eubanks said about the system. “They put you in the right position. For me, it is a plus-plus.”
If Eubanks can consistently become a weapon in the middle of the field in Michigan’s passing game, it’ll bode well for the likes of wideouts Nico Collins and Ronnie Bell on the perimeter, especially Collins who’s double-teamed often.
Who’s TE No. 2?
There will be a competition for who receives the most snaps behind Eubanks. It remains to be seen whether Erick All or Luke Schoonmaker will get the majority of the reps behind Eubanks, but both of them should see the field plenty in 2020 either way.
The 6-foot-4 All is a player that, according to Jim Harbaugh, was “catching the ball as good as anybody out there” in spring of 2019, while also embracing the role of blocker. Tight ends coach Sherrone Moore says All “craves the contact”, is “like a heat-seeking missile”, and a player who’s “trying to go take people out”. As far as his receiving chops, Moore said “His time will come. He’ll have plenty of catches in his career. He’s one kid that you don’t ever worry about that.” Maybe this is the year he starts racking up the catches after hauling in 1 reception for 10 yards last season.
The former high school quarterback turned tight end, Schoonmaker caught 2 passes for 54 yards and a score in 2019. Schoonmaker isn’t the first former QB that Jim Harbaugh has turned into a tight end, Zach Gentry was the first. At 6-foot-6 Schoonmaker presents another tall option at the position.
Last but not least there’s three-star true freshman Matthew Hibner who will see the field as well in some capacity. The 6-foot-4 235 pound freshman will need some time to develop and likely won’t be pushing for extended snaps unless there’s an injury or two.
“If you asked me specifically if there’s one position that is as vital as quarterback in your offense, it would be tight end,” Gattis said last month. “Tight ends is the most vital position for us because of how much we ask of those guys. Our tight ends are not just great pass catchers, but they’re great run blockers, and then we use them in pass protection. So, they really are involved with every area of our offense.”
Michigan’s tight ends power much of what the team likes to do on offense, in the pass and run game alike, and how they go so goes Michigan’s offense. As it stands now, Gattis likes his options at the position. “When you look at our room with the type of dynamic athletes that we have, in Nick Eubanks, Erick All and Luke Schoonmaker, those guys possess all those traits,” Gattis said. “They’re big, they’re strong, they’re fast, they can run, they have loose hips, they can catch the ball, they’re all smart. So, they’re really the kind of Swiss Army knife of our offense, where they’re asked to do everything, and a lot of times that gets overlooked. But, we could not play and could not be successful without our tight end group.”
Strong. Fast. Pass catchers. Smart. Savvy route runners. Some of the traits Gattis believes his tight ends have. Behind the known productivity of Eubanks, we only know of the potential of All and Schoonmaker, the good news for them is they’ll have every opportunity this season to showcase why Gattis is praising them.