The best tight ends in the college football landscape have been identified as the John Mackey Award Selection Committee has announced its 2014 preseason watch list.
A prestigious award given to the top tight end in the nation named after NFL Hall of Fame member John Mackey, heralded by many as the best to every play the position, the 13-year history of the award touts elite collegiate alumni such as Dallas Clark, Kellen Winslow II, Heath Miller, Marcedes Lewis and Fred Davis.
While far from an indicator of future pro success, even placement on the preseason watch list validates the talent of each individual and their future potential as one of the best overall players in the country.
As the NFL continues to place a bigger importance on the position, recent winners such as Dwayne Allen, Tyler Eifert and Austin Seferian-Jenkins were able to translate the honor into critical pro roles. The following names can parlay the watch-list nomination into something special with excellent campaigns.
|Rory Anderson||Sr||South Carolina|
|EJ Bibbs||Sr||Iowa St.|
|Kyle Carter||Jr||Penn St.|
|Kivon Cartwright||Sr||Colorado St.|
|Luke Eakes||Sr||Northern Illinois|
|Evan Engram||So||Ole Miss|
|Billy Freeman||So||San Jose St|
|Darion Griswold||Jr||Arkansas St|
|Connor Hamlett||Sr||Oregon St.|
|Jeff Heuerman||Sr||Ohio State|
|Wyatt Houston||So||Utah State|
|Jesse James||Jr||Penn St.|
|Malcolm Johnson||Sr||Mississippi St.|
|Ben Koyack||Sr||Notre Dame|
|De'Marieya Nelson||Sr||Arizona St.|
|Nick O'Leary||Sr||Florida St.|
|Casey Pierce||Sr||Kent St.|
|Tyreese Russell||Sr||E. Michigan|
|Wes Saxton||Sr||South Alabama|
Stars to Watch
Nick O'Leary, Florida State
The only thing that can stop Nick O'Leary—because it sure isn't any defense in the country—is himself.
O'Leary is one season removed from reeling in 33 receptions for 557 yards and seven touchdowns as a junior, but has already missed time this spring thanks to his second motorcycle accident.
Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher noted that he hopes the event is a wake-up call for his three-year tight end, who holds the school record for touchdowns at the position with 11, as captured by ESPN's Jared Shanker:
He wrecked a motorcycle again. He's skinned and got a swollen ankle and can't practice but he'll be fine. ... He's skinned from head to toe. He needs to be frustrated. It's not important if I'm frustrated. What's important is if he's frustrated and learned his lesson.
A semifinalist for the award last year, O'Leary is hailed by most as the top senior tight end in the 2015 NFL draft class, including ESPN's Mel Kiper (subscription required). It helps that O'Leary gets to work with elite quarterback Jameis Winston, although his numbers have consistently increased with more playing time regardless of who resides under center:
No matter how it is sliced, O'Leary is a strong candidate to nab the award this season before possibly going on to a lucrative pro career, health permitting.
Ben Koyack, Notre Dame
In what is perhaps best described as "Tight End U" at the moment thanks to recent graduates such as Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert and Troy Niklas, Ben Koyack is next at the plate as a massive target who can split out wide to create mismatches.
The No. 3 senior on Kiper's board and the No. 2 overall tight end on Matt Miller's big board, Koyack has just 14 career receptions to his name in three years with the Fighting Irish, but his potential and size (6'5", 261 pounds) ensure a major role next season with the depth chart above him finally clear.
For his part, Koyack has finally fulfilled his sole reason for attending Notre Dame, as he told ESPN's Matt Fortuna:
You don't come here unless you want to do that. Coming here a freshman, every one wants to get out here and be that No. 1 guy, especially with the reputation like we have. That's pretty much the reason I came here, to have that role. It's something I do definitely look forward to.
There is no doubt Koyack will shine in his final collegiate season as the main safety valve and red-zone target of either Everett Golson or Malik Zaire. His breakout season will add some intrigue to the final race for the award in late November, to say the least.
Jeff Heuerman, Ohio State
One of the nation's most violent blockers in the run game, Jeff Heuerman also put on a show last year in the aerial department of the Ohio State offense as a junior.
Thanks to his size at 6'6" and 250 pounds, Heuerman is a chess piece coach Urban Meyer utilizes often to create mismatches in the passing game. His 26 receptions for 466 yards and four scores—with a per-catch average of almost 18 yards and his longest score coming from 57 yards out—suggests big things for the Florida native in his senior campaign.
Who will win the John Mackey Award?
That said, he too will have to get healthy after it was revealed he will miss the spring with an injury.
"Jeff is going to be fine. I think it's been right about the normal number of injuries, Meyer told ESPN's Austin Ward. "But we should have [Heuerman] ready to go full speed by June."
The No. 2 senior per Kiper and No. 10 overall for Miller has an upside and leaping ability (above 36 inches, per the former) that makes him a standout, especially when one considers he will spend his final year catching passes from Heisman contender Braxton Miller.
While a bit of a sleeper as he has yet to become a household name, it won't take long for Heuerman to secure his status as a finalist for the prestigious award and make the lives of the selection committee much more difficult than most previously anticipated.