This position is one that is going to be very closely watched during the upcoming spring practices as it doesn’t have a deep existing roster at the position where a sure starter will jump right into the void.
And it is a void considering one of our most productive TEs of all-time, Scott Orndoff, has just left. He was a good one, very efficient and productive, and could block just fine for a guy who is 6’5″ and 265 lbs. The surprising thing with Orndoff was how fast he was in getting out on the intermediate and deep routes. Because of that he had an excellent yards per catch production especially in his last two seasons as a starter.
A 17.1 ypc over 48 receptions is up in the Wide Receiver airs and is a true added weapon to the offensive game plan. 10 TDs over that time isn’t chopped liver either for a TE.
So how does Orndoff stack up historically and how will we replace him?
When Pitt fans think of our more well-known TEs we have to cast back to Mike Ditka as the standard-bearer. He was the best TE in college ball at the time back when Pitt football’s rosters were populated by the sons of mean SOB Miners and Steelworkers and who were told by their parents that the only way they would get ahead in life was to get a football scholarship to play college ball.
I don’t think anyone is going to argue that Ditka was a tough-as-nails man-child at Pitt or further on into his NFL career… hell, even now actually. But his playing at Pitt was in a different era and in a different focus of the offenses. TEs were not “bigger WRs” as they are now. They were more like fifth offensive linemen who sometimes went out for passes.
Here you go; it wasn’t by chance that his nickname was “Iron Mike”.
So as you can see Ditka pulls in at #56 on Pitt’s All-Time Receiving list. But what really shines through is that even with the relative lack of passes thrown to him he kicked in with a 16.3 yards per catch. That would, in this list, place him in the #2 spot behind Kris Wilson’s 16.3 ypc. That is pretty amazing as Ditka wasn’t an Orndoff type with speed in his legs – he gained those yards in fighting for every inch of forward progress after the catch he could and it paid off.
More recently you can see our different Head Coaches’ influence on how they ran their offenses. In the listing above we have the TEs by receiving yards in their career. For that the Top Two TEs make perfect sense.
Kris Wilson was a mainstay in Walt Harris’ offensive planning and with that had wide receiver type numbers (as seen by his 21st ranking in overall receiving yards with WRs included). Harris liked airing it out because he had the QBs to do it in Rutherford and Palko.
This is interesting; in Wilson’s best year, 2003, he had 44 catches for 643 yards and nine TDs which for a TE is outstanding. Now if we take one player off that ’03 roster, Larry Fitzgerald, with his 92 catches and 22 TDs just think how much more work would have came Wilson’s way.
Right there is a case of one player probably loving the other as a teammate and still cursing him for being on the roster at the same time.
Our #2 TE in yardage, Benji Pryor who played from 1977 to ’80, had a great 101 receptions over his career for a total of 1,267 yards yet only eight TDs. He had Rick Trocano as QB in 1977-78 then Danny Marino his last two seasons. With Marino Pryor was our leading receiver in both 1979 and 1980.
With out getting to far into the weeds I can’t remember off the top of my head any other years where our true TEs were our leading pass catchers. The closest was probably in 2009 when Dorin Dickerson (as a H-Back and not a true TE) had 49 receptions which was behind Jon Baldwin’s 57 catches for 1,111 and eight TDs. Dickerson beat Baldwin in TDs though as Dorin had 10 that season.
OK, that was then – what about now and what should we look for going into the spring drills and fall camp for 2017? Right now I think our only scholarship TE on the roster is returning Chris Clark who upon his transfer to Pitt had to sit out this last season (he was also injured). At 6’6″ and 255 (hey, same as me!) he’s cut along Orndoff’s lines.
Clark has had a traveler’s mindset before coming to Pitt but is being looked at as a possible starter as soon as possible – I’d think in the opener this season. But he’s the only viable starter in the current returnees. He was a big hit in HS though as the #1 TE in the 2015 recruiting class:
Rated the nation’s No. 1 tight end by Rivals and Scout as a senior at Avon Old Farms and had more than 40 scholarship offers…averaged 19.4 yards per catch his senior year with 32 receptions for 621 yards and seven touchdowns…had 33 catches for 417 yards (12.6 avg.) and six TDs as a junior…selected to play in the Under Armour All-America Game…named to the Scout 300 (No. 23), Rivals 100 (No. 79) and ESPN 100 (No. 111)…played under Coach Bill Mella.
In our 2017 recruiting class we landed two kids who may make and early impact. Charles Reeves at 6’5″ and 265 has the build for college TE play and was very highly recruited. This may be the kid who plays opposite Clark or if good enough surpasses Clark on the depth chart – that is if there even exists a TE depth chart at this time.
Here is a great 12+ minute clip on Reeves that shows his speed and catching ability. Note that in his JR year he was split out as a WR most often. He was a big ‘get’ in this last class and a lot of hope is riding on him – especially since Chris Clark is also an unknown quality at the position.
In addition we got two other TEs in this class Grant Carrigan and Tyler Sear – both 3* players local ties. Carrigan looks to be a project and depending on out TE recruiting for the future, Sear at 6’5″ and 255 in HS may end up as an offensive lineman. Either way I don’t think we’ll see these two on the playing field for some time.
Another factor which could come into play is our new OC’s use of the TE in his offense. Matt Canada went to non-WR receivers a lot last year. Out of his 189 completions those TEs and RBs and Henderson (who was jack of all trades) had 114 of them.
However Shawn Watson’s use of the TE at Louisville and Indiana (his two OC gigs) was minimal. In 2013 at UL Watson used his TEs for 43 receptions of only 12.4% of all catches.
Later on while at Indiana last season his TEs only had 10 total catches out of 248 or about 10%. Remember – last season Pitt’s true TEs (Parrish and Orndoff) had 39 catches out of 189 or 21% of the total. So it looks like we may see a shift in our offensive targets in 2017.
Going to an H-Back might be a way to go until one of our new TEs really gets their legs under them. George Aston – everyone’s favorite fullback – handled his role in the offense very well last season even though he didn’t get all that many touches. Right is his two-year total and as you can see he made the most out of every touch he had. What is really outstanding is his TD:Touch ration where he had the ball in his hands 44 times and scored 10 TDs.
That is a TD every 4.4 times he was called to duty. add to that his tough as nails blocking and you have the making of an excellent hybrid back you can run short and intermediate routes and catch the ball with consistency.
I would use him as often as possible in 2017 as he’s a proven commodity and the other TEs aren’t. Parrish did OK when bumped out of the FB spot by Aston in 2015 but he was then a singular TE and not having the ball in any rushing situations. Aston can do both and do it well (even if he didn’t want to switch from LB…).