Sunday, February 1, 2009

2009 Nebraska football position outlook: tight ends

One story in a Wine Country Husker series, looking at position breakdowns for the Nebraska Cornhuskers for the 2009 season. Today, we look at tight end:

Looking back: The Huskers entered the 2008 season looking to make the tight end position a more integral part of the passing game as well as establishing a physical presence in the running game. Nebraska succeeded on the former but the latter is a work in progress and will likely remain such in 2009.

Nebraska brought back Ron Brown to coach the tight ends. Brown was Nebraska’s wide receivers coach from 1987-2003 but was let go when Bill Callahan replaced Frank Solich as head coach in 2004. Husker receivers were particularly known for physical downfield blocking in Brown’s time as an assistant coach.

In 2007, Nebraska tight ends caught 25 passes for 355 yards and four touchdowns with Sean Hill accounting for 18 of those receptions. In 2008, Nebraska tight ends nearly doubled the pass catching output by hauling in 47 passes for 618 yards and eight touchdowns with Mike McNeill accounting for 32 of those catches.

While the tight ends were a bigger part of the passing attack, they were not as much of a factor in Nebraska’s running attack improving from 144.4 yards per game (4.2 per carry) in 2007 to 169.8 yards per game (4.5 per carry) in 2008. As far as the passing game was concerned, Nebraska’s scheme had much the same appearance of the West Coast Offense from the Callahan era. The running game, however, had most of its success out of the Spread formation but not out of the I-formation that fans clamored.

Looking ahead: With Todd Peterson and Nate Swift graduating, the wide receiver position takes a hit. Those departures open the door for McNeill, who enjoyed a breakout sophomore season in 2008, to be the go-to receiver in the passing game in 2009. Nebraska will need McNeill since it will be breaking in a new starter at quarterback with the loss of Joe Ganz to graduation

The only loss at the tight end position will be Hunter Teafatiler. Everyone else, however, returns more experienced with McNeill, Dreu Young and Ryan Hill along with redshirt freshman Ben Cotton.

McNeill will be at the top of the depth chart but as good as he and Young are as receivers, they need to progress as blockers if the Husker ground game wants to establish a physical mentality. Hill is a hybrid wide receiver tight end. Cotton and fellow redshirt freshman Kyler Reed should help as blockers.

The Huskers should continue to have strong threats as receivers at this position with Brown’s influence continuing to take effect in developing physical blockers.

Regardless of what Nebraska takes on from a formational perspective, McNeill is likely to be the lead man of this unit.

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