Spring football for the Arizona Wildcats is starting a little later than it has in recent years, but it’s almost here. With Kevin Sumlin’s first full practice as UA coach scheduled for March 19, we will examine the state of his team over the next several weekdays. The series continues with a look at the tight ends.
Who’s here: Bryce Wolma (6-3, 229, SO), Jamie Nunley (6-5, 230, RS SO)
Who’s coming: Jake Peters (6-4, 240, FR), Zach Williams (6-3, 230, FR)
The big question: How will the new coaching staff utilize tight ends in the passing game?
Last season signaled a breakthrough for Arizona. Rich Rodriguez finally made good on his annual campaign promise to get the tight ends more involved.
Wolma caught 28 passes, which ranked third on the team. Nunley caught six. Trevor Wood and Jack Banda accounted for three more.
All told, the tight ends’ 37 receptions represented a 950 percent increase over the average of the previous five seasons. (I’m exaggerating here … or am I?)
Now that Rodriguez is gone – along with top aide Calvin Magee, who added tight ends to his duties last season and always had RichRod’s ear – we’re back in the curiosity phase, wondering what the future holds for the position.
An examination of the past suggests they will not play a prominent role in the pass game – although that can’t be stated definitively. I’ll explain in a bit.
For the purpose of this exercise, I looked back at tight end usage under Sumlin and new UA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. I surveyed Texas A&M’s stats over the past six seasons (Sumlin’s entire tenure, which included two years with Mazzone), plus Arizona State and UCLA’s numbers when Mazzone was the OC at those schools.
I found … minimal production by traditional tight ends. No traditional tight end on any of those 12 teams caught more than seven passes in a season.
I say “traditional” tight end because there were tight end-like players on those teams who played big roles as receivers.
Ricky Seals-Jones – technically a wide receiver at A&M – caught 123 passes for 1,442 yards and 10 touchdowns over four seasons under Sumlin. Seals-Jones was listed at 6-5, 240 pounds. He’s now a tight end with the Arizona Cardinals.
Thomas Duarte – technically a wide receiver at UCLA – caught 97 passes for 1,626 yards and 17 touchdowns over three seasons under Mazzone. Duarte was listed at 6-2, 225. He’s now a tight end for the Miami Dolphins.
You have to go back to 2012 to find a “traditional” tight end who put up big numbers under Sumlin or Mazzone. That would be Joseph Fauria, who caught 46 balls for 637 yards and 12 touchdowns in Mazzone’s first year with the Bruins.
Duarte is referred to as a “Y” on past UCLA rosters – the letter commonly used for tight ends in offensive playbooks. Not that Duarte was used that way. He wasn’t an in-line blocker.
Based on what Sumlin told me recently about the offense – that it will adapt to its players’ strengths – I would expect the coaches to carve out pass-catching roles for Wolma, Nunley, Peters and/or Williams if it’s determined that they deserve them.
Of the four, only Peters fits that “traditional” mold. (His UA bio refers to him as a “prototypical tight end.”) Wolma and Nunley are capable of lining up in the slot. Nunley flashed big-play promise last year, with his six catches going for 159 yards. Williams primarily played wide receiver in high school.
Sumlin said he’ll be in charge of the tight ends, so he’ll have intimate knowledge of their skills by the time Arizona kicks off against BYU on Sept. 1. Don’t expect him to make any public promises about their usage. That didn’t go well for RichRod.
ARIZONA SPRING PREVIEW SERIES