Mark Richt benefited from an ever-plentiful well of tight end talent during his time in Athens. Versatile players like Benjamin Watson, Orson Charles, Randy McMichael, Martrez Milner, and Leonard Pope turned productive careers in Athens into NFL tenures and helped UGA claim the title of “Tight End U.”
Then, something happened. Or, more likely, several somethings happened which had the net effect of reducing the tight ends’ significance to the Bulldog offense. During Mike Bobo’s final season as the Bulldog offensive coordinator in 2014 UGA tight ends snagged 31 passes for 394 yards and 3 touchdowns. That was down from prior years, though the Red and Black passing offense was actually effective on the whole, especially in the second half. But Bobo and Hutson Mason were able to look to veteran receivers Chris Conley, Michael Bennett, and Malcolm Mitchell, all of whom had statistically outstanding seasons. As Bobo left for Colorado State he left behind Jeb Blazevich, whose 18 catch, 269 yard season was one of the best in recent memory for a Bulldog freshman tight end.
It’s no secret that the UGA offense then struggled in 2015 under Brian Schottenheimer. The tight end unit was no exception. Despite the return of Blazevich, healthy senior Jay Rome, and talented freshman Jackson Harris, Bulldog tight ends saw their yardage decline by 22%. As a unit they scored only a single touchdown.
Georgia fans had lots of critiques of how Schottenheimer handled the UGA offense. Some were nuanced. Some were brutal. Not all took into account the limitations he faced (untested QB, injured Nick Chubb), but many were imminently fair. And most of them included the fact that, despite the loss of Conley and Bennett (and with them over 1000 yards in production), Schottenheimer and Greyson Lambert seemed at times unaware that the tight ends were even an option. Every returning Bulldog tight end saw his production drop from the prior season. Blazevich’s sterling freshman campaign dissolved into a distant memory as he was rarely targeted and never as a first option, ending 2015 with only 15 receptions for 144 yards. Despite remaining healthy for his senior season Rome hauled in only 8 catches for 88 yards.
2016 saw the exit of Schottenheimer and Mark Richt, and the entrance of Kirby Smart from Alabama and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney from Pittsburgh. Smart specifically singled the tight ends out as a group that needed to be better utilized, and Chaney came to Athens with a reputation for making the most use of the talent he found on hand. With Blazevich, Harris, and Jordan Davis back and talented freshmen Isaac Nauta and Charlie Woerner onboard, the tight ends looked like a unit ready to be better utilized in 2016.
And in fact their production did climb significantly. Nauta in particular developed into a target for freshman QB Jacob Eason, turning in a freshman All-American season and finishing as the team’s third leading receiver. Nauta’s 3 receiving touchdowns were the most by a UGA tight end since Arthur Lynch hauled in 5 in 2013. As a group the tight ends caught 41 passes for 485 yards in 2016, and could have had more but for some growing pains on the part of Eason and some drops.
There’s every reason to expect a step forward for the Bulldog tight ends in 2017. Nauta in particular emerged as both a short yardage and downfield threat. His 29 receptions for 361 yards last season were more than could reasonably be expected from a freshman in that position, and he’s shown no signs this spring of regressing. Nauta, and the tight ends as a group, stand to benefit from Eason’s maturation. If he starts finding the tight end as a third or even fourth option in his progression rather than trying to force high risk/high reward deep balls to receivers as he was prone to do in 2016, everyone in red and black will benefit.
I also somewhat doubt that the Bulldog offensive line will be worse than its 2016 iteration. That should help give Eason some more time, and perhaps open up the running game for healthy Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. That in turn should allow Chaney to use the play action game which seemed to falter under pressure last season. And every time a QB finds a tight end down the seam off play action, an angel gets its wings. I’m forecasting 450+ receiving yards and 5 touchdowns for Nauta in 2017 as a natural consequence of an offense that just functions more smoothly.
Perhaps a more interesting question will be whether anyone else in this group steps forward, or whether a committee approach reigns. Since that outstanding freshman season Jeb Blazevich has seen his production dwindle each season. Those stats don’t tell the whole story, as the 6’5, 242 pound Blazevich has matured into an effective blocker. But his 6 receptions for 69 yards in 2016 was a pretty anemic number for a guy whose shown as much receiving ability as Blazevich has. I look for his production to also increase in 2017, and for Blazevich’s blocking ability to keep him on the field as much as any tight end in the group.
Behind Nauta and Blazevich Georgia returns sophomore Charlie Woerner, junior Jackson Harris, and senior Jordan Davis. Davis has really been the forgotten man at the position because he’s been so rarely used in the passing game. For context, his career high in receptions came in a 2 catch effort against Charleston Southern. But Davis quietly appeared in all 13 games in 2016. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him involved in the passing game some this season.
Junior Jackson Harris has also quietly played a lot of football in Athens. After appearing in 12 games as a freshman and catching 4 passes for 50 yards in 2015, Harris played in all 13 contests in 2016, making one start (against Missouri). But that Missouri game was also the only one in which he caught a pass on the season (for five yards).
While it’s hard to imagine Harris’s stats will decrease, it also should be obvious that there are a crowd of tight ends in Coach Shane Beamer’s meeting room. Snaps will be at a premium. Georgia didn’t add a scholarship tight end in the 2017 signing class, but did add preferred walk on Wix Patton from Landmark Christian, a 6’5, 220 pound standout who picked Georgia late over a preferred walk on slot at Louisville and scholarship offers from smaller schools. Patton played wide receiver and tight end in high school and averaged a double-double on the basketball court. In other words, he doesn’t make this unit any less athletic.
Woerner, however, may be the biggest wild card in the group. At 6’5, 250 pounds he has the size to line up and block straight ahead. But Woerner also has shown flashes of playmaking ability, like when he lined up as a slot receiver and rumbled 36 yards for a touchdown on a seam route during the G-Day game. Woerner was hampered last season by a high ankle sprain, and likely would also have seen the field more with better blocking skills. But the sophomore from Rabun County could emerge in 2017 in a variety of roles: on the line at tight end, split out as a slot receiver who can both outrun linebackers and outmuscle nickelbacks, and as an H-back capable of keeping defenses off balance. If Woerner can be counted on to be on the field more to block, he’ll also be on the field more in passing situations, and I expect his stats to take a big leap up as a natural consequence of that.
Georgia has as much talent at tight end as it ever had in the heyday of Richt’s tenure. The question for 2017 may be whether the rest of the offense requires an emphasis on the tight ends from Chaney, or merely allows it. In determining how and when to use this group Chaney and Smart will also be deciding whether a second tight end needs to be on the field more than a third wide receiver. Because it’s possible that for the first time in a while the Bulldogs’ third and fourth best receivers may be reliable threats this season. They’ll be balancing out whether Brian Herrien and Elijah Holyfield can contribute in the passing game from the backfield. And they’ll be figuring out whether the best use for Woerner (and to some extent Davis) is even at tight end rather than split out or in the backfield. That being said, Georgia now has the talent, experience, and continuity of scheme to return the tight ends to center stage in the Bulldog offense. Until later....