June 20, 2008

SEC position rankings: Tight ends

BamaOnLine.com's annual Southeastern Conference position rankings return this summer with a special emphasis on the SEC West, and rankings now divided by division. True freshmen are not listed. The series continues with a look at the tight ends around the league.

Tight ends

SEC West

1.] LSUProjected starter: Richard Dickson.
Next up: Jordon Corbin.
Best of the bunch: With 32 receptions for 375 yards and five touchdowns, Dickson emerged as one of the most prolific tight ends in the league last year.
Key loss: Keith Zinger[db].
Round Table Ranking: 1.
2007 By the numbers: 69 (Dickson's season-high in receiving yards, against Arkansas).
2007 high point: Dickson pulled in two touchdown receptions in a national championship win over Ohio State.
2007 low point: LSU tight ends were held without a catch against Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Virginia Tech.
Spring postcard: It was a quiet spring game for LSU's tight ends as Dickson and reserve [db]Alex Russian pulled in just one pass each.
Biggest concern: With the tight end usually being a secondary read on pass plays, it is hard to imagine LSU's new quarterback finding Dickson as frequently as Flynn did a year ago. While Zinger wasn't much of a loss as a receiver, his blocking ability will be missed.
Biggest reason for optimism: Dickson has excellent hands and will command attention from safeties in the middle of the field. As LSU works through it's inexperience at quarterback, Dickson will be a constant as a big, reliable target.

2.] AlabamaProjected starter: Travis McCall.
Next up: Nick Walker, Chris Underwood, Preston Dial.
Best of the bunch: Although Walker posted the best receiving numbers among UA tight ends last year, McCall's blocking prowess and improvement as a receiving threat ensures he will play as many snaps as anyone.
Key loss: None.
Round Table Ranking: 2.
2007 By the numbers: 23 (Walker's season total for receptions).
2007 high point: Walker caught four balls for 38 yards in the bowl win over Colorado.
2007 low point: Walker and McCall were shut out in the Louisiana-Monroe loss as Dial made the only reception by a UA tight end all day.
Spring postcard: Georgia Tech transfer Colin Peek impressed with his spring performance. Though initially denied eligibility for 2008 under transfer rules, Peek has an appeal pending. If that appeal fails, he won't be eligible until 2009.
Biggest concern: None. There is as much experience and depth at this position as any on the field for UA.
Biggest reason for optimism: Based on what fans witnessed on A-Day, McCall and Walker could find themselves on the field together in two-TE sets frequently. Early in their careers they were known respectively for receiving (Walker) and blocking (McCall), but both enter their senior seasons as more well-rounded players.

3.] AuburnProjected starter: Tommy Trott.
Next up: Gabe McKenzie.
Best of the bunch: Although McKenzie led the unit in receiving last year, Trott is the better blocker and isn't bad as a receiver himself.
Key loss: Cole Bennett[db].
Round Table Ranking: 3.
2007 By the numbers: 2 (TD catches for McKenzie, which tied for second on the team).
2007 high point: McKenzie posted his best game with a 4-for-42 night with a touchdown against Kansas State.
2007 low point: The only game AU's tight ends failed to catch a pass was against LSU.
Spring postcard: Trott had 55 yards on four catches in the spring game.
Biggest concern: How big of a role will the tight end play in Auburn's new spread offense? New offensive coordinator Tony Franklin will find a way to get AU's tight ends on the field, but how often and how effectively?
Biggest reason for optimism: Trott and McKenzie give AU a nice duo that have different strengths and skills to complement each other. Trott is a load as a blocker and tough to tackle when thrown to, while McKenzie gets open more easily with his athleticism.

4.] ArkansasProjected starter: [db]D.J. Williams.
Next up: Andrew Davie.
Best of the bunch: Williams is the best athlete among Arkansas' tight ends, and will pressure defenses with his ability to run after the catch.
Key loss: None.
Round Table Ranking: 4.
2007 By the numbers: 14 (Davie's 14 receptions last season led all Hogs at the position).
2007 high point: Davie pulled in two touchdown passes in a blowout win over Ole Miss.
2007 low point: Arkansas tight ends caught just one ball against Auburn and weren't helpful to a stagnant running game, either.
Spring postcard: Petrino said both Williams and Davie will be more heavily involved in the offense than they've been in the past, with plans to use both in multiple sets and roles.
Biggest concern: None.
Biggest reason for optimism: Though Davie is the better blocker, Williams could be primed for a breakout season as one of the league's top pass-catching tight ends.

5.] Ole MissProjected starter: Gerald Harris.
Next up: David Traxler.
Best of the bunch: Harris, a junior college transfer, wasted little time winning a wide-open job.
Key loss: Robert Lane[db].
Round Table Ranking: 6.
2007 By the numbers: 7.8 (Lane led all Ole Miss tight ends with 19 catches last year, but averaged just 7.8 per catch).
2007 high point: Lane pulled in a season-high five passes against the Georgia Bulldogs, more than a fourth of his season total.
2007 low point: Ole Miss went a three-game November stretch with just two completions to a tight end.
Spring postcard: Reserve [db]Reggie Hicks turned in a strong spring effort and figures to challenge for the backup job in fall camp.
Biggest concern: Whether or not this group of tight ends can help a consistent running game will be Nutt's first priority, not whether or not they can stretch the field in the passing game.
Biggest reason for optimism: Harris is a cut above what the Rebels usually have at the position, and could provide a consistent target for new QB Jevan Snead.

6.] Mississippi StateProjected starter: Brandon Henderson.
Next up: Marcus Green.
Best of the bunch: Henderson emerged from the spring as the starter but the battle could be waged further in fall camp as inexperience abounds at the position.
Key loss: Jason Husband[db].
Round Table Ranking: 5.
2007 By the numbers: 193 (Husband led the Bulldogs' tight ends with 193 yards).
2007 high point: Husband burned Arkansas for six grabs, 78 yards and a score in what was by far his most productive game.
2007 low point: MSU's tight ends were shut out of the reception column against Auburn.
Spring postcard: Henderson and Green didn't make a catch in the spring game, but combined for three grabs for 36 yards in MSU's second scrimmage of the spring.
Biggest concern: With left tackle being a question mark, can MSU's new faces at tight end provide the blocking help that may be needed on that side?
Biggest reason for optimism: At 250 pounds, Henderson may be able to overcome his inexperience with his size and leverage. At 6-1, he's not exactly a tall target for the passing game, but if he can provide solid blocking he can be an asset.

SEC East

1.] FloridaProjected starter: [db]Cornelius Ingram.
The bottom line: The Gators have the most athletic tight end in the league in Ingram, bar none. With 34 catches and seven touchdown receptions a season ago, he and LSU's Dickson are the two most prolific receiving tight ends the SEC has returning in 2008. There is no tight end on the field in the purest form of Urban Meyer's spread option look, but Ingram is such a mismatch for most linebackers that he commands a regular lineup presence. Aaron Hernandez provides solid depth, and his 16.8 yards-per-catch average was second on the team last year.

2.] South CarolinaProjected starter: Jared Cook.
The bottom line: Cook gives the Gamecocks one of the best receiving tight ends in the league (30 rec., 421 yds., 3 TD in '07). At 6-5, 240 pounds, he is a sizeable target who will command attention from safeties, not just linebackers. Backup Weslye Saunders chipped in 12 receptions as a freshman last season to earn Freshman All-SEC honors from The Sporting News. At 6-5, 270, Saunders gives USC a more physical presence in the run game as well.

3.] GeorgiaProjected starter: Tripp Chandler.
The bottom line: Although Chandler may not fit the bill of UGA's long history of elite tight ends, he finished third on the team in catches (21) and receiving yards (283). And when UGA played one of its worst games in a 35-14 loss to Tennessee, Chandler played one of his best with a season-high four grabs. With an ankle injury from the Sugar Bowl fully healed, Chandler enters the season as the clear-cut starter. Reserve Bruce Figgins is capable as well.

4.] TennesseeProjected starter: Jeff Cottam.
The bottom line: Cottam gives UT a road-grader of a blocker up front but wasn't active in the passing game last year with four catches for just five yards. Backup Luke Stocker saw some action as a freshman, but could be looking over his shoulder as transfer Brandon Warren, formerly of FSU, could make a quick impact if eligible. Warren's eligibility is pending after FSU opted against providing a waiver. UT is ranked here without assuming Warren's eligibility, but his addition would give the Vols a significant boost, especially in the passing game.

5.] VanderbiltProjected starter: Jake Bradford.
The bottom line: Bradford pulled in four passes for 80 yards last year, and a team-high of 20 yards per catch. His more impressive skill is blocking, however, and that's exactly what the Commodores need from him. Reserve Justin Green caught four balls last year as well. Vandy could get a nice boost from Brandon Barden, a transfer from Virginia Tech who left the Hokies program amid the tragic shooting spree last year. Barden sat out the 2007 season under transfer rules.

6.] KentuckyProjected starter: T.C. Drake.
The bottom line: This position endures a steep drop from a receiving production standpoint, as Drake (1 catch all of last year) replaces Jacob Tamme, who made 56 catches for over 600 yards and six touchdowns in an All-SEC season. Drake is a rangy target at 6-6, 240, but in a season where UK is expected to lean more heavily on the running game, it's Drake's blocking that will be more critical to team success. Ross Bogue and Maurice Grinter, who could be switched from fullback, are the primary reserve options.

BOL's top five overall

1. Cornelius Ingram (Florida)

2. Richard Dickson (LSU)

3. Jared Cook (South Carolina)

4. Tripp Chandler (Georgia)

5. Nick Walker (Alabama)

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