Unless you’ve been paying really close attention, this stat will surprise you. Maybe even shock you.
The Arizona Wildcats had a tight end on the field more than 60 percent of the time last season, UA coach Rich Rodriguez said. They were in what’s called “11 personnel” — one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers — most of the time. And that will continue to be the case in 2016.
Yet Arizona’s leading receiver among tight ends, Josh Kern, caught only eight passes. That accounted for all but one of the Wildcats’ receptions by tight ends. (Darrell Cloy Jr. had the other. He’s now playing defensive end.)
It’s not that Rodriguez doesn’t want to use his tight ends in the passing game. He has done it before — although it’s been more the exception than the rule during his 14 seasons as a college head coach.
It just hasn’t happened very much or very consistently at Arizona for a variety of reasons. Among the questions facing the Wildcats entering 2016 is whether that will change.
“Hopefully. I’m optimistic,” said Kern, who enters his redshirt-senior season as the favorite to start. “But like I’ve always said, I don’t really care what we’re doing as long as I’m playing. Obviously I’d like to be getting the ball as much as possible. But if all they need me to do is block, I’m willing to do that.”
Regardless of his catch count, Kern is the product of a successful personnel experiment. He arrived on campus in 2012 from San Antonio as a quarterback.
“A skinny quarterback,” Rodriguez said. “Had never blocked anybody.”
Kern, who’s listed at 6 feet 5 inches, weighed 195 pounds as a freshman QB. The coaching staff moved him to tight end in the spring of ’13 after he had spent some time at receiver for the scout team. Thus began a crash course on how to play tight end.
“I had never played anything in my life besides quarterback,” Kern said. “My job was to stay away from guys. My new job was I had to go find guys to block.”
It took time, patience and the prodding and encouragement of the coaching staff for Kern to learn a new set of skills and to build his body into its current 235-pound form. Tight ends coach Charlie Ragle said he barely could recognize Kern in a photo from signing day. His game has come a long way as well.
“This guy is a piece of work,” Ragle said. “We’ve got to do some things to utilize Josh’s athleticism in the passing game, and I think we’re going to do that.”
The benefits are obvious. A multifaceted tight end gives an offense versatility, making it less predictable. If defenses view the tight end as a legitimate receiving threat, they must account for him. That shifts coverage resources away from other areas.
Ragle and Rodriguez envisioned redshirt freshman Brion Anduze in that role. But Anduze suffered a knee injury during the first practice of spring and is expected to miss the 2016 season.
That leaves Arizona with four tight ends: Kern, redshirt senior Matt Morin, redshirt sophomore Trevor Wood and freshman Jamie Nunley. Wood has the most Gronk-like frame at 6 feet 5 inches, 261 pounds, and therefore the most upside. But he missed last season and has been limited this spring because of shoulder issues.
“Trevor Wood is as good a tight end as you can bring in here, but he’s got to be healthy to play,” Ragle said. “So we’ve had some breaks go against us in that realm.”
The only tight end who has played a prominent role in the passing game under Rodriguez — here or anywhere — was Terrence Miller, who caught 40 passes in 2013. Miller began his UA career as a wide receiver.
Some would argue it happened in 2014, when Austin Hill often shifted to the “Y” position. But Hill was really a wideout lining up at tight end. So he doesn’t really count. The best hope for 2016 could be a converted quarterback.
“He’s having a really good spring,” Rodriguez said of Kern. “He’s one of the hardest workers we’ve got. Great, great young man. I think he’s poised for a big year.”