In 2019 the Bulldog tight ends combined for 23 receptions. If you’re an enthusiast of the position, and you still have Ben Watson and Randy McMichael posters on your wall, you probably think that’s a little disappointing.
But not as disappointing as the fact that the Bulldog tight ends returning this year have a career total of....1.
Jim Donnan and Mark Richt didn’t get everything right during their respective tenures in Athens. But one thing they perfected was tight end utilization. For a solid decade and a half the starting tight end at the University of Georgia was as safe a bet to one day make an NFL roster as any player in college football. One could argue that as a result we as a fanbase have fetishized the position to a certain extent.
Not as badly as Georgia Southern fans who would rather score 28 points out of the flexbone than 42 out of any other scheme. But enough that some coordinators (cough . . .Jim Chaney. . .cough) probably didn’t get enough credit for the production they engineered simply because it involved sending five star tight end recruits on dummy routes and asking them to perfect their blocking.
Still, it is inarguable that tight end offensive production in Athens has atrophied over time, and the Bulldogs once again find themselves headed into a season with question marks at the position. Kirby Smart is answering those questions the way he traditionally has answered personnel questions in the Classic City: with a liberal application of blue chip recruits and high profile plug-and-play transfers.
Last year Smart addressed the hole in his tight end rotation by bringing in graduate transfer Eli Wolf from Tennessee. Wolf pulled in 13 catches for 194 yards, not the worst season by a college tight end, but a far cry from the glory days of Watson, Pope and Milner. And certainly less than Isaac Nauta’s 30 catch, 430 yard 2018 season.
Wolf is gone, as is the graduated Charlie Woerner, Georgia’s other mainstay at the position last season. New in Athens is Florida State graduate transfer Tre McKitty. While Wolf came to Athens off a 5 catch, 30 yard season at Tennessee in 2018, McKitty arrives as a bona fide Power 5 starter. The 6’5, 245 pound Wesley Chapel, Florida native caught 23 passes for 241 yards in Tallahassee in 2019, making him the Noles’ fourth leading receiver.
There’s something to be said for having done it before, and McKitty will benefit by having just as much experience in Todd Monken’s system as the guys he’s competing against. McKitty also has the advantage of being a versatile player who can block as well as work in space as a route runner. He’s not in the Orson Charles/Aron White mold of large but wide receiver quick players who can block (he said mentioning some more of those highly effective UGA tight ends of yore). McKitty is a true big-bodied tight end. As we’ve said before, Kirby doesn’t bring guys in for one season to sit on the bench and eat at the training table. McKitty will certainly be in the rotation.
Another newcomer to Todd Hartley’s position room is true freshman Darnell Washington. The Las Vegas native was a consensus top 10 recruit in the class of 2020, and bringing him east was a huge win for the ‘Dawgs. At 6’7 and 265 pounds Washington is the biggest member of a position lineup that doesn’t lack for size. He’s also a bit raw as both a blocker and a route runner. But Washington’s upside is off the charts. His athleticism at his size os something that can’t be taught and will eventually make him a matchup nightmare for opposing teams. The only question is whether he masters enough of the finer points of the offense and position to make that impact in 2020.
Back to those returning tight ends. Redshirt sophomore John Fitzpatrick owns the one returning catch among bulldog tight ends a 22 yarder versus Murray State). The 6’6, 230 pound Marist High graduate is a solid blocker and has worked with Hartley for two seasons now. While the lack of catches is a headline grabber, he did see action in 11 games in 2019 and even started against Vandy. In short, Fitzpatrick has played enough football for me to feel comfortable that he could easily start this season depending on the package Monken lines up in, and will almost certainly see action in every game he’s healthy for.
Redshirt freshman Ryland Goede saw action in only two games in 2019 without registering a catch. That’s not necessarily indicative of his abilities however, as Goede’s 2018 senior high school season was cut short by an October ACL tear. The 6’6, 240 pound Kennesaw Mountain High alumnus has already set his school’s record for receptions and receiving yards and earned recognition as a national top 250 recruit. With a full offseason behind him it will be interesting to see where Goede falls in the depth chart.
Rounding out the group is Clearwater, Florida native Brett Seither. Seither, a redshirt freshman in 2019, also saw action in only two games. The 6’5, 228 pounder came to Athens as the least heralded of the recruits the Bulldogs have at the position, a late addition to the 2019 class after a standout senior season that saw him haul in 42 catches for 630 yards and 6 touchdowns.
We don’t know how well those players will work out. And frankly, we don’t precisely know the extent to which new Bulldog offensive coordinator Todd Monken is concerned about it. The tight end rotation may be among the most intriguing early in the season as the staff figures out exactly where the strengths of their various charges lie.
We do know McKitty is a solidly versatile player from his days in Tallahassee, and I’d expect him to be the starter in most sets against Arkansas. FitzPatrick is a solid blocker who is likely to see action in two tights sets. If the remaining freshmen see significant action it bodes well for the future. The good news for the Red and Black is that having five SEC-caliber players at the position will promote competition and give Hartley and Monken great odds of finding at least two or three solid contributors. Until later....