Devin Funchess' athleticism and play-making ability prompts optimism.
The 6'5", 229-pound, soon-to-be sophomore tight end didn't have an eye-popping freshman year on paper (15 catches, 234 yards, five touchdowns), but he certainly showcased enough talent to suggest that he'll be one of the Big Ten's top tight ends for years to come.
The Big Ten hasn't been short on talent at the position. Former standouts like Iowa's Tony Moeaki and Michigan State's Charlie Gantt are just two of the recent superior athletes that come to mind.
Jake Stoneburner, who complete his career with Ohio State in 2012, also deserves to be mentioned. Although he was never a superstar, he was a reliable target for the Buckeyes.
Funchess could have a similar career.
The Wolverines have produced stellar tight ends during their rich football history: Jerame Tuman, Aaron Shea, Jay Riemersma and the late Ron Kramer.
Funchess, obviously, has a ways to go before he reaches that level.
He has to first establish dominance in the Big Ten before being considered among the historical greats at Michigan.
As one of Devin Gardner's surefire, big-time targets this fall, Funchess has the opportunity to separate himself from the rest of the pack. Departing tight ends from the Big Ten should clear a path for him to reach the top of the ladder.
As Bleacher Report college football writer Adam Jacobi's detailed in his list of the top tight ends entering 2012, some of the top-rated players were seniors.
Funchess will have competition this year, as a solid group of like 3-star commits entered the Big Ten this past fall with him.
Michigan State has Josiah Price.
Ohio State has Blake Thomas.
And Penn State has Brent Wilkerson, along with Kyle Carter, who had a respectable freshman tenure with the Nittany Lions in 2012.
Don't count out Carter when it comes to gauging the best in the league this fall (we'll see how the aforementioned 2012 newcomers develop, too).
But Funchess may have a leg up over Carter.
Michigan's offensive line looks to be one of the conference's elite, and Gardner has more experience. That will surely benefit Funchess, who should be a X-factor in the receiving department for the Wolverines in 2013.
Funchess' Forecast for 2013
As mentioned above, Funchess only had 15 catches in 2012.
However, five of them were touchdowns. So, simple math would reveal that 33 percent of his touches resulted in six points. That's awfully efficient by any standard.
For comparison's sake, Funchess' numbers will weighed against Stoneburner's, the Buckeyes standout who had 16 receptions and four touchdowns in 2012. That was a rampant clip to take notice of, too. Carter, who is undoubtedly neck-and-neck with Funchess, was the Big Ten's eighth-leading receiver a year ago with 453 yards.
Not bad for a tight end.
Carter had 36 receptions but just a pair of scores. He was utilized differently than Funchess, but it's important to skim over other talented tight end's numbers when forecasting what Funchess could do this fall.
Four catches, 106 receiving yards and a touchdown during Michigan's 31-25 victory over the Air Force Falcons in 2012 proves that Funchess was on the fast track to something special. Wolverines coach Brady Hoke noticed the freshman's efforts and praised him during the post-game presser.
"Well, I think he did a nice job," Hoke said (via Scout.com). "I think there were some—you like to go to playmakers, so there were some things set up for him. But he also makes plays, so he's coming along."
In short, Funchess makes plays.
Not sure if Hoke made that abundantly clear or not, so it's worth rehashing for the sake of driving home the point. But it's worth noting that Funchess essentially fell off the radar after Michigan's slim win over the Falcons. After the four-catch outburst, there were just two games where he caught more than one pass per game.
There were two games (Nebraska and Ohio State, both losses) in which he failed to make a single grab.
Of course, that gives reason to doubt Funchess to an extent.
But Michigan's offense was predicated on Denard Robinson's ability to run, and then Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo went onto to steal the show through the air. Funchess, used correctly or not, simply wasn't part of Michigan's game plan for one reason or another.
If the Wolverines return to Funchess in 2013, he's capable of becoming a dynamic weapon. Expecting somewhere in the range of a 400-yard, 25-to-30 catches and eight-touchdown campaign wouldn't be illogical should the coaching staff give him the go.
Athletically, Funchess is one of the most agile tight ends to come through Michigan. Looking at what past stars did at the position influences the decision to predict a phenomenal fall for Funchess.
Tuman pieced together two outstanding seasons in 1996 and 1997, racking up 524 and 437 yards, respectively.
Kevin Koger had a great career in Ann Arbor. He was a reliable target and vital piece to the overall flow of Michigan's offense. However, he was only good for about 14-to-23 receptions and 200-244 yards per fall.
Forecasting Funchess to land somewhere in the Koger-Tuman range makes sense.
Michigan's use of the West Coast offense and power formations gives more reason to see a productive season for Funchess.
He's a big target, and short-to-mid range curl routes could be a staple of the Wolverines' attack. Quick outs make for quick grabs, and Funchess has the muscle to corral bullets from Gardner, make a quick turn and turn a five-yard route into an eight-or nine-yard gain.
However, his speed is a bit deceiving. He demonstrated his deep-ball prowess in 2012 by making three catches of at least 26 yards. He can hit the corner of the end zone with a Calvin Johnson-like leap and haul down towering shots from Gardner.
Michigan has a Swiss Army knife at tight end, and its name is Devin Funchess.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81
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