College Football's Top TEs Entering 2014 Spring Practice

Michael Felder@InTheBleachersNational CFB Lead WriterMarch 12, 2014

College Football's Top TEs Entering 2014 Spring Practice

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    2013 was a phenomenal season for tight ends from all over the nation.

    Austin Seferian-Jenkins, from Washington, won the John Mackey Award, and many folks would not even consider him the best tight end. Eric Ebron of UNC and Jace Amaro from Texas Tech are expected to be first-round picks, and they were just the tip of the iceberg.

    Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen and Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz carried the flag for traditional tight ends who blocked like animals and then escaped into the void to help out quarterbacks. Gator Hoskins was far from traditional as he moved around the field and made plays at Marshall.

    This coming season will bring more of the same, as the tight end position evolves to be as much about creating mismatches as it is about getting an extra blocker to the point of attack in the run game. While the players above are headed to the NFL, other tight ends players, thanks to talent, system and expected production, should step into their shoes at the top of the sport.

E.J. Bibbs

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    E.J. Bibbs is what every program that inks a JUCO player is hoping for when the athlete enrolls. The tight end, who originally signed with Iowa State out of high school but had to take a different route to college, was not only the most consistent performer for the Cyclones but the second-leading receiver.

    The transition from Arizona Western to Iowa State seemed seamless, as he caught multiple balls in every game and played his way on to the second All-Big 12 team. Of course, he would have likely been first-team All-Big 12, if not for the monster season that Jace Amaro put together at Texas Tech.

    Bibbs is ready to become a household name at the position. He runs great routes, demonstrates strong hands and is a matchup problem for opponents regardless of where he lines up. His biggest challenge will not be evolving as a player but watching the quarterback situation play out, as Iowa State looks for a season-long starter.

Braxton Deaver

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    Duke's Braxton Deaver was one of the more exciting tight ends to watch in 2013 because of his versatility and style of play. Coach David Cutcliffe was comfortable lining the sophomore up on the edge, in line or in the backfield in order to find mismatches and create space for Deaver.

    And he responded well by blowing past slower defenders, outmuscling weaker opponents and finding ways to move the chains for the Blue Devils.

    This year should be no different, as Duke returns the bulk of its pieces for another season with high hopes. Deaver and receiver Jamison Crowder will be back to pace the passing game, and that spells trouble for defenses. The inside-outside combo is among the nation's best.

Devin Funchess

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    Devin Funchess is the best player, at any position, on the Michigan Wolverines roster. On the offensive side of the ball, he is the most dangerous weapon and, more importantly, the one player that opponents have to worry about on an every-down basis.

    In 2014, with new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, optimizing Funchess' impact on the game has to be one of the most pressing jobs. The Funchess effect will be felt, provided the Wolverines force the issue on multiple levels.

    First and foremost, that means using the rising junior both inside and outside to exploit mismatches.

    However, it also means using him as a decoy by setting people up and playing off the focus on Funchess. Nussmeier will force teams to adjust to Funchess split out wide or going in motion, and then have the offense hit the area vacated by the tight end with other players, including fellow tight end Jake Butt. Bodies will have to grow bigger roles for the Wolverines, and having Funchess as the focal point will help them find space to operate.

    It also means him becoming more of a player in the run game. As his blocking improves, operating from an in-line position will force opponents to make a decision on how to play the explosive pass-catcher.

    2014 should be a solid year for Funchess and the Wolverines, as Nussmeier finds ways to use his best asset.

Jeff Heuerman

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    The Buckeyes had so many weapons in 2013 that it is easy to forget that tight end Jeff Heuerman led the team in yards per catch with 17.92. Although he only caught 26 passes, when he did get the opportunity to get the ball in his hands, he made the defense pay by taking chunks of yards. In fact, in his final four games, despite having just six catches, he put up 211 yards for a 35.17 yards-per-catch average.

    Teams seemed to forget about him at year's end, and while it was due to them paying attention to Braxton Miller, Carlos Hyde and Corey Brown, the overall lack of targets also played a role. 

    This season, Heuerman's production will boil down to how the Buckeyes use his talent. As Miller sits out the spring and works only the mental aspect of the game, Heuerman has to find a way to get more targets in order to get more touches.

    If the Buckeyes can make the athletic tight end a bigger piece of the puzzle, they will open up plays on the edges for all of the speed that Urban Meyer has brought to Columbus.

O.J. Howard

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    The Alabama Crimson Tide's identity under Nick Saban has been to run the ball first and second and sprinkle in some play-action passing when the opportunity presents itself. The tight end has been an extra blocker, for the most part, and a safety valve for the quarterback at best. In fact, only one tight end in Saban's time in Tuscaloosa has topped the 350-yard mark for a season: Brad Smelley in 2011 with 356 yards.

    With O.J. Howard on the Crimson Tide roster, that schema has to change.

    Howard, like Michigan's Devin Funchess, is the best mismatch on the team. He is a problem for linebackers and safeties because he is too fast for them to run with stride for stride. He presents problems for cornerbacks because he not only towers over them at 6'6" but is stronger as well. He needs to be fed the football as he grows into the position.

    2014 is going to be about Saban and new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin showing an understanding of just how dangerous of a weapon they have in Howard. Given the stable of running backs and Amari Cooper at the receiver position, trying to figure out how to best use Howard is not a bad problem to have.

Jesse James

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    Entering 2013, Penn State fans knew there were plenty of bodies at the tight end position. Kyle Carter was coming off a 360catch freshman season in 2012. Jesse James also caught 15 balls in 2012 and was going to contribute. Plus, Adam Breneman, the prized No. 2 tight end in the nation, per 247Sports, was an early enrollee.

    Despite Carter's prior success and Breneman's high hopes, James became the story at tight end for the Nittany Lions. He proved to be reliable and athletic enough to be a factor and a fighter on the field for head coach Bill O'Brien.

    Now, with O'Brien coaching the Houston Texans, James will have another fight on his hand under new head coach James Franklin. The rising junior tight end will have to fight to keep the ground he gained in 2013. Each of these players is capable, and as spring progresses, Franklin will likely find a way to put all three to good use for the Nittany Lions.

Nick O'Leary

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    Nick O'Leary, who put up 557 yards receiving in 2013, is the truest definition of an afterthought when it comes to Florida State. Eyes go quickly to Jameis Winston, the Heisman-winning quarterback. Folks are excited for Karlos Williams to take over the run game and relieved to see Rashad Greene back in the fold to pace the receivers.

    Yet, O'Leary keeps getting it done for the Seminoles, and that is all that Winston and head coach Jimbo Fisher need out of the rising senior tight end. 

    2014 will be another season where O'Leary shows up, the defense focuses on everything but him, and the tight end makes them pay. One of the most aggressive players at the position, he brings the fight to his opponents, and that is not only reserved for the run game. This upcoming season should see Florida State continue to go to the tight end when it needs a play.

Randall Telfer

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    With just six catches for 78 yards and one touchdown in 2013, Randall Telfer's return to school was almost a foregone conclusion for the tight end who battled injuries his entire junior season. He made it official at the end of December, and now USC, a school with a quarterback competition that the nation is watching, has a quality tight end to help out either Max Browne or Cody Kessler.

    As the quarterbacks, new coaching staff and fans see Telfer as a welcoming face and big target to help the quarterback, he is eyeballing 2014 as an opportunity. Not only is he looking to be healthy, but more importantly, he has no Xavier Grimble to split field time with at tight end. He owns the position, and that means more targets and more chances to prove what he can do on the field.

    Browne and Kessler will be battling it out. For Telfer, this is a chance to show new head coach Steve Sarkisian that he is ready to be the guy at the tight end spot.

Clive Walford

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    Miami's Clive Walford is an interesting player at the tight end position. He is a dynamic athlete first and foremost who brings gobs of athleticism and talent to the position. The rising senior is also a developing player who is still figuring out how to put all of that ability to use with consistency.

    His focus in 2014 will largely be the same as in 2013: Catch the football and prove that he is capable of being consistent in his route running and blocking. He improved every element of his game a year ago, but he still has room to grow as he hopes to become one of the nation's premier tight ends.

    Walford has real skills. If he can secure the football and polish his route running, he will not only help out the Hurricanes and his new quarterback but also increase his draft stock.

Maxx Williams

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    Minnesota's Maxx Williams is the rare tight end who shoulders the load for his team as the leading receiver. For the run-focused Golden Gophers, his 417 yards on 25 catches a season ago was the top of the heap. In 2014, the tight end is looking to improve his numbers and get some help.

    Mitch Leidner is expected to be the quarterback for the Gophers, and fellow freshmen Donovahn Jones and Drew Wolitarsky, both receivers, are hoping to improve the pass game of Minnesota. As coach Jerry Kill's team gets into spring ball, the goals are clear when it comes to opening up the passing game to generate true balance for the offense.

    Williams will make defenses take notice of him, whether he gets the added help or not, because he is a versatile and athletic target at the position. As the receivers try to grow in their roles, look for the Gophers to continue to push Williams' limits in an effort to get him open and use him to find space for other players.

Other Notable Tight Ends

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    Although Oregon has been known for its running backs, the tight end position is becoming a strength for the Ducks. Johnny Mundt and Pharaoh Brown both showed flashes in 2013, and with Marcus Mariota back in the fold, the duo should be a bigger problem for defenses. Oregon's offense has all of the pieces to play itself into playoff contention.

    At Virginia Tech, the Hokies are replacing their quarterback but get Kalvin Cline back at the tight end position to help ease the transition. The big-bodied player should continue that development, showing himself to be a big and reliable target in Blacksburg.

    South Carolina is inserting a new full-time starter as well, although Dylan Thompson has seen plenty of action over the last few seasons. He will be looking for both Rory Anderson and Jerell Adams. Both are mismatch problems who need more targets because of the issues they give defenders.

    The Gamecocks are not the only SEC team returning a stud tight end who is worth watching. Arkansas gets Hunter Henry back into the fold, and after a solid freshman campaign, the tight end is looking to grow his role for the Hogs.