The world of college football recruiting changes as the game of football changes. Everything is about evolution, and the game itself has changed drastically. Whether it be rules, schemes or positions, and that includes the tight end.
Frankly, that's fitting. Since the beginning of the sport, football has been an experiment in reaction. The offense does something and the defense reacts. Defenses adjust and the offense is forced to change.
Sometimes change starts in the NFL and travels all the way down to pee wee football, and other times, it starts at the lower levels and eventually makes its way to the NFL.
For instance, the read-option and pistol looks you see right now in the NFL are mainly derived from the college and high school game. Conversely, the change we're about to talk about mainly originated in the NFL.
Let's talk about tight ends. The position has undoubtedly evolved over the past few years.
In "old school football", the tight end lined up on the line of scrimmage, blocked, and occasionally ran a post route up the middle or an out route to the flats. More than anything, the tight end was a safety valve.
That slowly but surely changed as quarterbacks and offensive coordinators realized that the safety valve can actually be a great option. If you're checking down for six every play, you can easily work your way down the field without having to risk the deep shot. Also, the tight end's size played a factor in the red zone, as it created a ton of mismatches.
The position has evolved to the point where mismatch is the key word for tight ends in football today, but so is athleticism.
No longer is the tight end used as just a check down option. We've seen tight ends become bigger, faster, stronger and more athletic. Basically, they've become wide receivers who can occasionally block.
Consider the size of some of the best tight ends in the NFL. Rob Gronkowski is 6'6'', 265 pounds and Jimmy Graham is 6'7'', 265 pounds. Jermichael Finley is a bit small at 6'5'', 247 pounds, and that's saying something.
NFL teams are looking for tight ends who are fast enough to stretch the field, and big enough to go up and get the ball. Some of the best tight ends the NFL has seen as of late have also been former basketball players, and that's something that may continue to trend as well. They can jump, essentially box defensive backs out and create a huge mismatch that a good quarterback can exploit.
In recruiting, that could bode well for a two-sport athlete who plays basketball and football, and is getting recruited as a tight end.
A good tight end in the NFL today is fast enough to outrun linebackers and safeties, and he's big enough to tower over cornerbacks. We've even seen teams line a tight end up in the slot, and they've even been used at the edge receiver positions (think Tyler Eifert when he was with Notre Dame).
How does this change recruiting?
If you want to be recruited as a tight end in 2013 and beyond, you're going to have to be versatile and big. You'll need to have the speed and hands of a wide receiver, and you'll have to be able to run good routes.
With that said, offenses still keep tight ends in-line, and some may even use them in the backfield as an H-back, so it's not as if the blocking portion of the position will go away because of this evolution.
Basically, tight ends have to be one of the best athletes on the field, so that's exactly what college football coaches and their staffs are going to start looking for in their tight end recruits.
2013's No. 1 tight end recruit, O.J Howard, is 6'6'', 237 pounds. He ran a 4.42 40, according to 247Sports. 2014's No. 1 tight end, Tyler Tuatua, is 6'4'', 230 pounds. He runs smooth routes and has hands like a wide receiver.
Another 2014 star 4-star tight end recruit, Georgia commitment Jeb Blazevich, discussed the evolution from his perspective.
"I'm a huge fan of the evolution of tight ends", he said in a recent text to Bleacher Report. "We're no longer taught just how to perform the duties of linemen and only if necessary, the role of a receiver. But instead, how to be a receiver who can still get in the box and block at the point of attack."
The tight end position is changing, and college football recruits will have to change right along with it.
That change is already happening.
Note: Overall rankings per the 247Sports composite.