Every team has them—guys who know their role, play hard, and get the job done efficiently. They're not the stars, but without them, the wheels would fall off the team.
Billy Raftery and Fran Fraschilla would call them "Glue Guys" on the hardwood, but in college football these players are simply called tight ends.
Tight ends are the utility players of the football world—when called upon they don't hesitate to:
Convert third downs to move the chains.
Cut the defensive end to open up the screen pass.
Take on linebackers to run up the middle.
Catch crucial red zone passes.
Their job description is a limitless list of tasks that are incredibly critical to the success of any football team. A popular adage states a tight end is a quarterback's best friend, and though they go largely unnoticed by casual fans, their importance inside the game cannot be overstated.
Troy Aikman, Joe Montana, and Peyton Manning can all attest to the significance of Jay Novacek, Dwight Clark, and Dallas Clark in their championship successes. The world of college football is no different, as TEs are truly the grease for the gears of any potent offensive scheme.
Although Florida's Cornelius Ingram, Missouri's Chase Coffman, and Oklahoma State's Brandon Pettigrew will be among the nation's elite tight ends, Wisconsin's Travis Beckum and Oklahoma's Jermaine Gresham are the leaders in the Tight End battle at the top.
Travis Beckum (6'4", 235 pounds)
Beckum's on-field production in terms of yards and catches is without a doubt the class of his position, as he totaled 75 catches for 982 yards and six touchdowns in 2007. He's a long, rangy, athletic tight end who uses his talents to get open at any spot on the field.
Being the Badgers' primary receiver has lent itself to the development of Beckum, as he punishes defenses with his 4.5 speed and outstanding leaping ability.
He's a matchup nightmare, as he's too quick for the Big 10 linebackers, yet too tall and athletic for the safeties to cover confidently. In zone coverage, Beckum does a solid job of finding the holes and makes defenses pay by making sure-handed catches and getting first downs.
After switching to TE from DE entering 2006, his understanding of how to get open against zones has truly blossomed. This was highlighted by his shredding of the top Big Ten defenses in 2007.
Man coverage presents a terribly difficult predicament, as Beckum's 6'4" frame allows him to use his basketball background to get open and make tough catches. He's got great leaping ability, and the senior not only understands but practices the art of high pointing the football.
The kid has great hands and a concentration that is lacking in many major college receivers. He not only makes the incredible catch but stays tuned in to make the routine catch as well. Watching him climb the ladder for the football is a treat, as he's got superb body control and unique fluidity to his athleticism.
He plays well in big games, going for over 100 receiving yards against the Big Ten's upper tier of Michigan, Michigan State, Illinois, and Ohio State. Posting nine catches for 140 yards in the Columbus is no small task.
However, Beckum suffers mightily in the blocking game, as he's not powerful enough to move defenders, rarely altering their route enough to prove beneficial. He comes off the field in a lot of running downs due to this liability in the ground game.
Another drawback to the slightly built tight end is his lack of red zone production. A 6'4", 235 pound target is gold in the end zone and Beckum needs to become a factor to truly up his status. Six touchdowns on 75 catches for a tight end is a paltry number that needs to improve in 2008.
Jermaine Gresham (6'5", 264 pounds)
Gresham is the prototypical tight end—a wide body with great feet, soft hands, and a mean streak in the run game. Although he only ranked third in catches for the Sooners with 37 catches for 518 yards, Gresham finished 14th in the nation in touchdown receptions, hauling in eleven scores.
In the run game, Gresham is a surprisingly aggressive blocker who is capable of stoning defensive ends, washing down defensive tackles, and engaging linebackers and defensive backs in space. He shows a propensity for blocking downfield on long gains, something lacking in a large number of college and professional players.
Jermaine Gresham is capable of operating from motion, the flex position, or out of the backfield as well as the traditional on-line position. The junior has ample speed to be a factor in OU's screen game, and has shown the ability to take the ball to the house from distance.
Under Stoops, Gresham fulfills his role in extraordinary fashion, being an every-down tight end capable of stretching the defense vertically. He makes tremendous catches in traffic, and at the seams of a cover-2 or cover-3 he is a nightmare to defend because of his deceptive speed.
From twenty to twenty, Gresham is a pretty good football player, with blocking and receiving abilities that score quite high. However, once the team hits the red area, he becomes an elite force deserving of special defensive attention. Neglecting to focus on Gresham from the twenty in is an automatic six points for the boys in Norman.
The Texas Longhorns can attest to this fact, as Gresham punished them by scoring two wide-open touchdowns in the red zone during the Red River Shootout. Against divisional foe A&M, Gresham rang up just five catches for 86 yards but torched the Aggies with four scores.
Without Malcolm Kelly to open the field, Gresham should expect more attention entering 2008, and the added pressure will truly test the twenty-year-old. His biggest hurdle entering the season will be the expectations heaped upon him by Sooner nation and the national press.
Jermaine Gresham is the traditional tight end—a red zone threat who blocks well and understands his role on the team.
Travis Beckum is a new, hybrid tight end—Wisconsin's primary receiver who poses mismatches across the board and punishes defenses with his speed and athleticism.
While Beckum's numbers are gaudy in general, his lack of scoring production and inability to be a quality blocker leaves much to be desired. He lacks the tenacious, aggressive approach to blocking that solidifies a tight end and would be better suited losing weight and playing full time at wideout away from the chaos of trenches.
Gresham is the nation's best tight end, without a doubt. He blocks, he catches, and he is the most dangerous red zone threat in the nation. As a player, he's a guy who seems to be as happy stymieing defensive ends at the goal line as he is skying over safeties to score six.
Sam Bradford has a security blanket most of the nation's quarterbacks envy in Jermaine Gresham, and I fully expect the junior TE to improve upon his already impressive numbers.
With the absence of an established deep threat opposite Joaquin Iglesia, don't be surprised if Gresham takes on a larger role in the passing game and again leads the Sooners in touchdown receptions.
Jermaine Gresham, college football's best tight end for 2008.