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Clemson Football Season Preview: Tight Ends

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With youth and inexperience at WR and RB, can Clemson's TEs be its most reliable offensive weapons?

Streeter Lecka

Tight ends play a complex and important role in modern offenses. This is even more true in Chad Morris’ "smashmouth spread." They are an integral part of the blocking scheme on runs and a dangerous weapon in the passing attack. Before we get into this year's TE lineup, let's first take a look at what role the position plays in Chad Morris' offensive gameplan.

For an example of how important the tight end is in Clemson’s running game, consider one common play call–the power-read. This play is often run from one of Chad’s favorite formations, the pistol formation with the TE lined up on the hip of the tackle as an H-back. The TE is typically responsible for the defensive end on this play. If the defensive end crashes down, the TE can block down, sealing the corner, allowing the pulling guard to lead the running back outside, or the TE can get into the second level to take on a LB. If the defensive end stays home, the TE blocks him out and the pulling guard leads the back inside the TE and through the line. Since Clemson rarely uses a traditional fullback, on many runs, such as this one, the TE will fill the role of lead blocker.

To get an idea of the tight end’s role in the passing game, let’s look at the numbers put up by TEs over the four seasons Chad Morris has been calling plays at the college level.

Play Calls

Team Receiving Totals

TE Receiving Totals

Percentage of Passing Offense

Total Offense (yards)

Rushing

Passing

Receptions

Yards

TDs

Receptions

Yards

TDs

Receptions

Yards

TDs

2010 (Tulsa)

6573

537

469

280

3753

32

49

590

9

17.5

15.7

28.1

2011

6171

530

525

311

3952

33

65

782

10

20.9

19.8

30.3

2012

6665

588

474

318

4181

40

54

608

11

17

14.5

27.5

2013

6600

544

493

341

4330

39

43

487

7

12.6

11.2

17.9

Looking at the overall offensive stats, one is struck by the amazing consistency of Chad Morris’ offense from year to year. Chad splits the play calls almost evenly, slightly favoring the run game. Other than the small dip in 2011, Chad’s offenses have consistently put up around 6600 yards a season. Looking at the TE stats more specifically validates what most people already believed to be true. Chad had a lot to work with when he arrived at Clemson. The 2011 offense made use of the NFL-caliber talent of Dwayne Allen. The drop off in production between Dwayne Allen in 2011 and Brandon Ford in 2012 was noticeable, but not dramatic. However, there was a much more drastic fall from 2012 to 2013.

Though it’s a relatively small sample size to work with, it seems that TEs in Chad Morris’ offense should be expected to account for somewhere close to 20% of the receptions and receiving yards. Another consistent trend is that they play an even bigger role in the red zone. The percentage of TDs caught by TEs has been nearly double the percentage of overall receptions. Therefore, a talented tight end in Chad Morris’ system should account for about 30% of the receiving TDs.  With the departure of Sammy and Martavis, who together accounted for about half of the receptions, yards, and touchdowns last year, the TEs as a unit should reassert themselves and meet that level of production.

With general expectations set, the question becomes, "Do we have anyone at the TE position that can step up and meet them?" Looking back to last year’s performance, the answer would seem to be no. Morris had to make due with a tight-end-by-committee situation. Stanton Seckinger started ten games, but split snaps almost evenly with Sam Cooper, 394 to 384 respectively. Jordan Leggett was the third option and he played a total of 166 snaps. Jay Jay McCullough also logged 65 snaps on the year. The receiving numbers of the unit as a whole were down from previous years and well below expectations. On running plays, blocking from the TE position was inconsistent at best and almost nonexistent at worst. However, there are reasons to be hopeful. We return all of our TEs from last year, though who the long term starter will be is still unclear. There were flashes of brilliance from the unit last year and one can hope there was continued development in the off-season. So, who will see the majority of snaps at TE this year? And what should we expect from them?

Starts

Snaps Played

Receptions

Receiving Yards

Touchdowns

Seckinger

10

394

21

244

4

Cooper

3

384

6

50

1

Leggett

1

166

12

176

2

McCullough

0

65

4

17

0

Sam Cooper is listed at number one on the summer depth chart. He is entering his final year as a Tiger. He tore his ACL in the Spring Game last year, but because of the miraculous healing powers of Lake Hartwell’s water, was ready to play in week one. There didn’t seem to be any lingering effects from the injury and over the course of the season, he split snaps almost evenly with Seckinger. However, he only had six catches for 50 yards and one TD on the season. His one TD catch was even on a gadget play, though it was memorable for moving Tajh up in the record books. He’s not as athletic as the other TEs and was utilized more on running plays, though that shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement of his blocking abilities.

Cooper's sole TD from last season.

Looking forward to this year, it’s hard for me to believe that Sam Cooper is the top TE on campus. Though I could be wrong, I’m assuming his placement on the summer depth chart is due to seniority and/or for motivational purposes. I hope he has continued to work on his blocking in the offseason, because he obviously doesn’t factor into our passing scheme very much. His role in the blocking scheme will probably take on more importance, even on passing plays, because of our suspect and ever-thinning offensive line. Overall, I would expect to see his playing time drop in favor of Seckinger and Leggett unless he can prove himself to be a reliable blocker.

Jordan Leggett, a sophomore, is listed as the number two TE on the summer depth chart. He played less than half the snaps of Cooper last year, but managed to double his number of catches. He had 12 catches for 176 yds. and two touchdowns. His most memorable play of the season was the 43 yd. catch and run against Ohio St. in the Orange Bowl. That play was what we had been waiting to see out of Leggett all year. He has all the athleticism you could want from a TE, but was admittedly lazy in practice, and it showed.

Leggett finally showing some of his potential.

With all that being said, Leggett is poised, in my opinion, for a breakout year. He has the athleticism and the hands to be as big of a threat as Dwayne Allen and Brandon Ford were. Publicly admitting that he had been lazy in practice was hopefully a sign that he not only recognized his problems, but has moved to address them. If "Lazy Leggett" will put in the work, I think his ceiling is extremely high. He’s a terrible match-up problem for almost every defense, and with our wide receivers still unproven, I could see Leggett becoming a security blanket for Stoudt. I'm so enthusiastic over Leggett, that I want to project him to be our top receiver, but that’s probably not likely. However, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Leggett could be the difference between a sputtering offense and one that moves the ball down the field consistently. My expectation is that with the question marks at WR and RB going into the season, the TEs will not only return to a fairly prominent place in the passing game, but may actually carry more of the load than usual. If Leggett really does have his act together finally, I look for him to have a Dwayne Allen/Brandon Ford type impact this season. After writing this, I got a tip from Brian to check a yet-to-be-published piece by my favorite STS writer, QuackingTiger, that says Leggett has been "on fire" in camp. That’s an incredibly encouraging report that gets my hopes for him up even higher.

Stanton Seckinger, a junior, is the returning starter, but currently listed as the third TE on the summer depth chart. He had 21 receptions for 244 yds. and four TDs last year. His four receiving touchdowns are, surprisingly, the most by any returning player. He started the season with a beautiful, tight-roping-the-sideline TD grab against Georgia that wound up being the game winner.  He then ended the year with a TD against Ohio State in the Orange Bowl on a beautifully executed throw back play, which, again, proved to be the game winner. His best game, statistically, was against Syracuse (wasn’t everyone’s?), when he caught 3 balls for 48 yds. including one pretty TD grab. He showed his athleticism at times and it's hard to know if his low number of catches was due to his lack of ability or more due to the favor showed to the other, more explosive playmakers. Seckinger played wide receiver in high school and, as can be expected, has struggled to pick up the blocking part of being a tight end. He is the lightest of our tight ends, so even when he can engage his block, he has a hard time moving anyone around. While it may be overly harsh to call him a liability in the run game, it’s fair to say he’s not a strength for us either.

McDowell slammed thanks to a Seckinger whiff.

Though he is the returning starter, Seckinger was listed third on the summer depth chart. It’s hard to know if that is actually an indication of his ranking among the unit or if he was listed there for some motivational purpose. On Aug. 4th, he tweaked his ankle in practice. Dabo says he should be full speed by the UGA game, but it’s unclear what missing so much practice will do to his playing time. From what I can tell, Seckinger is unlikely to be the starter against Georgia. Looking farther down the road, it may be difficult for Seckinger to reclaim his starting spot if Leggett emerges as I believe he will. One hopes that he has continued to work on his strength and skills as a blocker. If he is not the starter and sees his number of snaps drop, it is hard to imagine him becoming a bigger part of the passing game than he was last year. However, matching his modest production from last year should be expected.

Jay Jay McCullough is a redshirt sophomore and the fourth returning tight end. Jay Jay played very few snaps and those were mostly in garbage time. He only had four catches on the year for 17 yds. Also, in the blowout win over the Citadel, Jay Jay rushed the ball six times for 43 yds. Just like last year, barring injuries to Leggett and Seckinger, I think it will be hard for Jay Jay to see the field much in 2014.

The rest of the TEs listed on the roster are Justin Miller (redshirt FR), DJ Greenlee (redshirt FR), Milan Richard (FR), and Cannon Smith (FR). Justin Miller is a former walk on and doesn’t seem to be pushing for any playing time currently. DJ Greenlee was a questionable recruit at LB and was moved over to TE, where I don’t see him making much of a fuss at this point either. The two true freshman were both highly rated coming out of high school. Richard was rated the #6 TE in the nation by Rivals and #2 in the nation by ESPN. He comes from a very athletic family as well, with both his father and mother being All-Americans in track at UGA. His uncle played football for the Dawgs too. His name is Herschel Walker; you may have heard of him (though he still hasn’t won a game in Death Valley). Cannon Smith was the #7 rated TE by Scout.com and #3 TE according to ESPN. His dad started for the Tigers at DE in the ’82 Orange Bowl. Both of the two true freshmen were highly rated and seem to have a lot of potential. With all the returning guys ahead of them, they’ll have a couple of years to work and prepare before they’re called upon.

The only TE we’ve recruited in this most recent cycle is Garrett Williams out of Orlando. He’s a four star recruit that is rated the #3 TE by Rivals and the #2 TE by ESPN. From everything I’ve read and from the little bit of info I have from a friend who works at his high school, this kid has all the athletic ability Chad wants out of his TEs/H-backs. I’m hoping and expecting that Jordan Leggett will show how versatile and dangerous the position can be in our offense and Williams can then follow in his footsteps. With the freshmen already on campus and Williams, who appears to be even better, committed to joining them, the tight end position should be a strength at Clemson over the next 4-5 years.