The University of Pittsburgh fanbase loves a good Tight End. Maybe it’s because Mike Ditka helped to define the position in the late 50’s when he played at Pitt (’58-’60) and in the 60’s when he played for Bears, Eagles and Cowboys. Maybe it’s because we were spoiled by Paul Chryst’s fine recruiting of the position and Matt Canada’s outstanding usage of it. Maybe it’s because we just love power football.
Either way, Offensive Coordinator Shawn Watson’s usage of the Tight End position has been a sore topic for Pitt fans since Watson took the controls in 2017. The fanbase’s disgust seemingly manifested itself over the off-season when four-star Tight End Charles Reeves transferred, and then again mid-season in 2018 when starting Tight End Tyler Sear had a supposed disagreement with head coach Pat Narduzzi, which ended with Sear leaving the team for “personal reasons”. There was also the Chris Clark debacle, where the seemingly talented but also seemingly-troubled four-star UCLA transfer stepped away from the program for personal reasons.
When you combine Sear, Reeves’ and Clark’s departures with the fact that Watson & Narduzzi had two tight ends de-commit from the 2018 recruiting class – Matt Alaimo and Jay Symonds, and one from 2019 – Travis Koontz, you can see why the fan base is concerned.
The crux of the issue, for both the fans and the players, is that that TE does not seem to be featured in the passing game. Featured may not even be the right word. “Used” is probably better, and “Considered” might just be the most accurate term, at least right now.
Take a look at this graph. It shows Pitt TE receptions as a % of the total receptions on the team, year over year. As you can see, they have declined.
The data tells us that Pitt TE’s caught 6% of total receptions in 2018, a five-year low. Even more telling is that 6% is a whopping 10 full percentage points lower then the next lowest totals on record (2014 and 2017 were 16% each). No wonder Tyler Sear was complaining.
But did he have a right to?
Here is a breakdown of Pitt receptions by position in 2018. Take a look at the Fullback Position. Given that our (outstanding) Fullback George Aston frequently lined up as an H-Back in 2018, it’s plausible that the “TE receptions” went to him (although I’ll admit we rarely saw Aston go over the middle, but then again we rarely saw Pickett throw over the middle…) Also while we are talking about Aston and receptions shifting from position to position, can you guess how many receptions Aston had in 2017? That is right, the answer is “none”.
So a few things have become apparent.
One: There is a good chance that Aston was taking the Tight End’s target share in 2018.
Two: There is a probable chance that Watson was protecting Pickett by not having him throw over the middle, and this impacted TE production.
Three: There is a good chance that Tyler Sear was “not being a team player”, when he had his supposed argument with Narduzzi. Now I don’t know that for sure, but I do know that there were no public complaints from George Aston when his target share shifted to transfer Tight End Matt Flanagan in 2017. (Aston had 22 receptions in 2016. Flanagan had 17 in 2017.)
But I am not writing this piece to tilt public opinion of young Pitt Men (or Former Pitt Men) one way or the other. I am writing this piece to try to ascertain if Shawn Watson actually has a purebred dislike for throwing to the tight end.
My conclusion is that he probably does not, for a few reasons.
1. As I mentioned, some of the 2018 “TE” passes went to Aston, and it was clear that Pickett was generally being coached to avoid throws over the middle.
2. The TE was probably kept in on passing plays to protect more often.
3. It can probably be assumed Watson did not have a ton of talent or experience to work with in 2018.
4. Believe it or not, Watson has featured the Tight End in the past, and he has certainly used TE more than 6% on average throughout his career.
Now before you go skewering my Support of Watson (because I know it’s not a popular position right now), hear me out.
First of all, there is 2017. In 2017 Watson’s TE usage was 16%, which was on par with Paul Chryst’s 2014 TE usage, which was also 16%.
Editor’s Note: In 2014, under Paul Chryst, TE JP Holtz was second on the team in receptions with 21. 2014 was Tyler Boyd’s big 78 catch, 1261 yard year, and remember, 2014 quarterback (Chad Voytik) was not exactly prone to looking for his second or third receiver.
Second, it’s clear that Watson is looking for experience. Right, wrong or indifferent, we all know Pat Narduzzi (and by extension his coaching staff) love experience. Check out this chart below, and tell me why you think our TE’s were not thrown to.
Lastly, I am going to circle back to Watson’s historic usage of the Tight End. If he had a really good Tight End, would he just use him for blocking? History suggests he would not.
Watson has actually utilized the Tight End as an effective receiving weapon in several offenses. Of course it’s usually a Junior or a Senior with NFL-type talent. Pitt has had neither in the last two years, and the top TE recruits are probably unwilling to wait that long (Travis Koontz???) Nonetheless, if we can reel somebody in, and they can just be a little bit patient, good things await:
Case #1: Colorado 2001: Tight End Daniel Graham caught 51 balls for 753 yards and 6 TD’s. He was drafted 21st overall in the 2002 draft.
Case #2: Colorado 2004 / 2005: Tight End Joe Klopfenstein (what great name for a TE) caught 33 balls twice in a row. That’s three catches per game. He was drafted 46th overall in the 2006 draft.
Case #3: Nebraska 2008 / 2009: Tight End Mike McNeil averaged 30 catches per yer and 5 TD per year. He was not drafted into NFL.
Case #4: Louisville 2013: Tight End Gerald Christian (a transfer from the University of Florida) caught 28 balls and 4 TD’s. He was drafted in the 7th round of the 2014 draft.
So where does this leave Pitt? Well… without a top-flight Tight End for the time being. Apparently we are busy trying to sell JUCO pass-catching TE and former Pitt commit Travis Koontz on the running game. He would be plug-and-play in the passing game, but he certainly doesn’t seem interested in blocking. In fairness, it doesn’t sound like TE coach Tim Salem has his recruiting pitch dialed in. (Here is the PSN article in case you haven’t read it yet). Although you can argue that at least Salem is keeping it real.
We do have three-star Jason Collier in the fold. At 6-7, 280 sounds like he may be destined for Offensive Tackle. I’d wager he has no problem with blocking, although I wonder if he’d be a weapon is the passing game.
The rest of the current roster looks like this:
|81||Jim Medure||TE||6′ 2″||235||4|
|10||Will Gragg||TE||6′ 4″||250||4|
|87||Carson Van Lynn||TE||6′ 5″||290||2|
|84||Grant Carrigan||TE||6′ 7″||280||2|
|98||Kaymar Mimes||TE||6′ 5″||235||1|
- Medure is a former walk on who will probably move to Fullback.
- Gragg is a transfer who is a bit on the lighter side and looks like another four star who maybe isn’t quite a four star. Have a look at his junior highlights and decide for yourself.
- Van Lynn is an Offensive Tackle.
- Carrigan will be a Junior but is more of a blocker than a pass catching threat.
- Mimes is a converted Defensive End and is coming off of a redshirt.
Ironically converted DE Kaymar Mimes could be the position’s savior if he can be developed. He’s got plenty of height, speed and athleticism, and probably very few bad habits since he’s never really played the position. Of course developing him is a three year proposition at best. The simple fact of the matter is that unless the staff can miraculously reel in Travis Koontz (again) we are going to be looking at a lot of 6% – 16% usage over the next few years, and probably a steady flow of transfers both into and out of the program.
Hail to Pitt