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2015 Clemson Football Season Preview: Tight Ends

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Leggett's finally putting it together? Milan is an X-Factor that we should expect big things from? The redshirt and true freshmen are coming on strong? Do we buy any of it? After last year, it's hard to get excited about our tight ends.

Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

To start, let me admit to my foolishness in last year's preview. We had just come off the Orange Bowl win, and reports out of camp were promising. It was confusing and intoxicating, but I should have known better. Since my first Clemson memories were in the mid-90s and I was a student during the Bowden era, I have been the consummate Clemson pessimist for my whole life. You tell me how we beat Miami and Florida State, and I'll explain how we lost to Duke and Wake Forest. Heck, I'm not even ready to put Wofford and App St. in the win column this year quite yet.

On top of my general pessimism, I know how Dabo likes to talk guys up during camp. When you add in the hard data that pointed to a decline in our TE production over the last few years, I should have known better than to buy into the late-summer optimism last year and call the TE position a strength. This year's tight end preview article is a little more down to earth—as in last year my hopes took a nose dive, crashed hard, and are still smoldering on the ground. With that admission out of the way, let's turn to the tight end position for your 2015 Clemson Tigers.

Key Losses

Key losses? How about the loss of trust in any of our TEs to block anyone? Or the loss of the threat our TEs posed in the passing game just a few years ago? Yeah, it hasn't been good. I could list a few more emotional and psychological losses, but this section of the article is supposed to be about key personnel losses. Sadly, the news isn't any better on that front. Unfortunately, we only lost two guys from last year's squad. (That's right, I think it's unfortunate we didn't lose a few more guys.) Sam Cooper graduated, and Roderick Byers moved back over to the defensive side of the ball.

Sam Cooper broke his leg in pregame warmups before the first game of the season last year. He played in nine games and totaled a whopping 1 reception for a whole 2 yards. He was generally regarded as our best blocking TE, but that was more of a slam on the rest of our TEs than it was a compliment to Cooper. For his career at Clemson, Cooper played 956 snaps over 48 games, started 11 times, caught 18 passes for 163 yards and three TDs, and suffered two leg injuries (broken fibula and a torn ACL—neither in an actual game). He was a good kid that didn't cause any problems, but his presence on the football field won't be missed much.

Roderick Byers played 24 snaps over 6 games, and started once, at TE. After redshirting his freshman year, Byers spent 2012, 2013, and the first three games of 2014 buried on the depth chart at DT before moving over to become our fourth option at TE, beginning with the Boston College game last year. He didn't register a catch all season, didn't show anything special with his blocking, and, therefore, I don't think anyone is mourning his move back to the defensive side of the ball.

Returning Players

Player


Year


Height


Weight


Snaps Played


Games Played


Games Started


Receptions


Receiving Yards


Receiving Touchdowns


Stanton Seckinger


Redshirt Graduate

65"

238 lbs

255

12

1

9

122

1

J.J. McCullough


Redshirt Junior

63"

249 lbs

242

9

2

7

96

1

Jordan Leggett


Junior

65"

252 lbs

366

11

7

14

161

1

D.J. Greenlee


Redshirt Sophomore

61"

242 lbs

28

4

0

0

0

0

Of our returning players, Stanton Seckinger is the elder-statesman. Seckinger is a redshirt graduate in his fifth year with the program. He redshirted his freshman year and played sparingly his sophomore year (88 snaps over 8 games, 4 receptions for 35 yards). He became the starter at TE for most of 2013 (394 snaps over 13 games with 10 starts, 21 receptions for 244 yards and 4 TDs). His playing time was reduced last year because of the "rise" of Jordan Leggett. In 2014, Seckinger played 255 snaps over 12 games with only one start. He caught 9 passes for 122 yards and 1 TD. Seckinger has had his moments, but they are few and far between. His lack of blocking abilities were overlooked, initially, because of the perception that as a tight end/wide receiver hybrid type, he would be a force in the passing game. That hasn't panned out, and he continues to struggle as a blocker. Seckinger has been extremely mediocre over his entire career. Add some nagging injuires to his struggles, and it's hard to believe he's improved much over what we've already seen. Also, I still haven't forgiven him for this.

"Plowing the road," Seckinger-style.

Next up, in terms of seniority, is redshirt junior J.J. McCullough. After a redshirt year, J.J. played in nine games in 2013, catching 4 passes and carrying the ball 6 times. Last year, J.J. also played in nine games, starting two of them, and played a total of 242 snaps. He had 7 receptions for 96 yards and caught a touchdown against S.C. State. Though J.J. hasn't made many headlines with his play on the field, he's gotten quite a bit of press for his off the field issues. He was suspended just before the Georgia Tech game last year and wasn't reinstated until this spring. Like Seckinger, McCullough has had his moments, but he's been pretty mediocre. He has been a career backup to this point, and that may be his role this year as well.

These back-to-back plays from McCullough show the Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde (as in, "the quarterback better hide because I can't block anyone") play of all our TEs.

Then we have the enigmatic junior, Jordan Leggett. Leggett is entering his junior year and, yet again, hopes are high. As a freshman, he played 166 snaps over 10 games with 1 start. He caught 12 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns. In the 2014 spring game, Leggett showed what he is capable of, and expectations started to rise. Even I was caught up in the hype when the word out of camp last year was that Cole Stoudt and Leggett were developing some good chemistry. Unfortunately, we were all wrong and left disappointed. Leggett played more than double the snaps from the year before, 366 over 11 games with 7 starts, but his receiving numbers didn't increase at the same rate. He finished the year with 14 receptions for 161 yards and a touchdown. He had a great spring game, again, and, again, word out of camp is that he has finally put it together and is living up to his potential. Remember that catch against Ohio State in the Orange Bowl? We need that Leggett to show up every week. Will he? Excuse me if I need to see it before I'll believe it. And let's not even talk about his blocking abilities. He has more than earned his STS nickname"Whiffles."

This play gives us a good look at two disappointing players from last year, Whiffles and GDrop, whiffing on the same defender.

The youngest of those who played last year is redshirt sophomore D.J. Greenlee. D.J. only played 28 snaps over four games last year, 20 of them against SC State. He tore his ACL in practice last November, but hopefully he's able to go this year (mainly so that he doesn't get a medical redshirt and stay on the roster another year). Greenlee seems to be another 5-heart Dabo that's just taking up space—his father is the assistant director of strength and conditioning, STS's favorite division of the athletic department. D.J. doesn't offer much and will likely continue to hold down a spot at the end of the bench.

New Additions

Player


Year


Height


Weight


High School Rating


Cannon Smith


Redshirt Freshman

64"

264lbs

4*

Milan Richard


Redshirt Freshman

62"

248lbs

3*

Garrett Williams


Freshman

64"

236lbs

4*


The three young guys left on the roster are intriguing. Cannon Smith is a redshirt freshman who is ready to see some live action. He came in as the number 7 and number 3 tight end as rated by Rivals and ESPN, respectively. He also has a great pedigree—his father was a starting defensive end for the '81 Tigers. There hasn't been a ton of chatter about Cannon, and what has been said is a mixed bag. On the one hand, Dabo claims that even at 260+lbs, Canon ran a 4.6 in the 40. If true, that's pretty impressive. He is also one of the few TEs that people have spoken of positively in regards to blocking ability. Let's hope and pray that is also true. Unfortunately, rumor has it that he has hands of stone. While we need some reliable blocking from a TE, everything works better if he is also a threat in the passing game. Hopefully, his struggles with catching the football are overblown.

The other redshirt freshman is Milan Richard. Richard was ranked just ahead of Cannon in the recruiting rankings, coming in as the number 6 and number 2 tight end in the nation as rated by Rivals and ESPN, respectively. He, like Cannon, also has a great pedigree, being the nephew of Herschel Walker (who still hasn't won a game in Death Valley). Metal Tiger did a great article about Milan in the X-Factor series a couple weeks ago. If you read through that article, you'll read a lot of disappointment in our tight ends from last year and a lot of hope that maybe Milan can add some life to a near-dead position group. He seems to have the tools, but until he shows it in an actual game, we're just hoping.

The final tight end on the roster is freshman Garrett Williams. Williams was rated even higher than Smith or Richard coming out of high school. Last year in this article, I mentioned Williams and wondered if this could finally be the guy that fills the TE/H-back role as it was meant to be played in our offense. As a senior in high school, he saw most of his action coming out of the backfield, rushing for over 1200 yards and scoring 21 touchdowns. While he didn't play a large role in his high school's passing game, QuackingTiger claims Williams "has proven a viable passing threat" in fall camp. QT also reported that Williams is "quickly and quietly asserting himself" and is "at times the best blocking TE on the field." Again, saying he's a better blocker than Seckinger and Whiffles isn't necessarily a great compliment, but thank goodness he's no worse. While many of our TEs are athletic, Williams may be the best combination of size, speed, and talent. With so many TEs already in the program, you would hope a true freshman would have the luxury of a redshirt year. However, given the level of play we've seen out of our returning stable of TEs, Williams has a chance to work himself into the lineup.

Strengths & Weaknesses

The biggest strength of the group is their athleticism. We've seen flashes of what could be from the returning players. Seckinger isn't the most athletic, but he's had his moments. J.J. McCullough is, according to Dabo, the fastest of the TEs, and he's used that speed to make a few plays for us. Leggett has shown the ability to be a real threat in the passing game. Whether it's galloping down the sideline against Ohio State or going over UNC defenders for a jump ball in the end zone, he has the physical tools. If Canon, our heaviest TE, is also one of the fastest, then he should be another match-up problem. Milan was chosen as an X-Factor largely because of his athleticism, and though he isn't the biggest or fastest, Garrett Williams seems to be holding his own as a true freshman. In terms of passing threats, we have four or five TEs that have the potential to really scare opposing defenses.

The biggest weakness of the group, by far, is their blocking ability. Whether it's run blocking or pass blocking, they stink. It was very easy for me to find multiple instances of our TEs completely whiffing on a block or being completely blown up by a defender. A lot of times, they looked completely lost. In the Seckinger clip posted above, he let two guys go by him without even trying to slow or redirect them. Maybe his assignment was someone in the secondary, but it doesn't matter how well you block ten yards downfield if the guy you're supposed to be protecting is wrapped up behind the line of scrimmage by guys you ignored. In the clip of J.J. above, I'll grant that the defender he was responsible for was on a blitz. However, J.J. is supposed to be the fastest TE we have. He couldn't get over quickly enough to at least shove the guy off his collision course with DeShaun? Geez. Don't even get me started on Leggett. Whether or not the new guys are an upgrade in this area, we'll have to wait and see. I know I've said it a few times already, but when the new players are complimented by saying they're better than the other TEs, it doesn't carry a lot of weight to me. You could wheel my poor old Granny June out to the end of the offensive line in a wheelchair, and she would provide more protection for our QBs and RBs than they got from our TEs many times last year.

Summary Outlook

In summary, let's zoom out for a second and see what we've gotten out of our tight ends the last few years.


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

560

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

2014


5308

539

451

292

3404

23

30

379

3

10.3

11.1

13

I'm sure it comes as no surprise that last year was the worst year for any Chad Morris coached offense at the collegiate level. When DSW wasn't in the game, we were simply horrible, and since Stoudt took about twice as many snaps as Watson last year, that means we were simply horrible about two thirds of the time. This is not news to anyone. It's also not going to shock anyone that with Cole Stoudt at QB, we leaned on the run game more than usual. Not only was the play call ratio more favored toward the run than any other year except 2012, but when you consider how many WR screens and jet sweep touch-passes we ran, which were extensions of the run game, then it may have been the most run-heavy offense of Chad Morris' career. Without DSW, we had no downfield passing game, which forced us to throw short and try to run the ball. Without a deep threat, defenses were able to consistently pack the box against us. We had no counter punch. Again, we were simply horrible for long stretches.

The fact that our passing attack was mainly focused on short passes makes our tight end production last year even sadder. Looking at The Chad's history at the college level, we can see that with the NFL talent of Dwayne Allen leading the way, our TEs accounted for about 20% of all receptions and yards, and 30% of the TDs on the 2011 Tiger offense. That was probably at or near the high-water mark for TE production in Chad's system. Averaging out the other three years, before last year, it was safe to assume that TEs would catch around 15% of all receptions for around 13% of all receiving yards and maybe 25% of all receiving TDs. Compare those expectations to last year's numbers. The 2014 tight ends fell short of expectations by 33% in terms of receptions, 17% in terms of yards, and by almost 50% in terms of TDs. Again, all this was in a year when you were more likely to find a Gamecock with some class than you were to see a completion of more than ten yards. Our TE play has been on the decline since Dwayne Allen left. Let's hope that last year we finally bottomed out.

So what should we expect this year? Honestly, it's hard to know. The first big unknown is what to expect out of ScElliot. Will they continue to call plays in a similar pattern and ratio to what Chad did? Obviously, one would expect them to show their own tendencies that will differ from Chad's. What's unknown, though, is whether those new tendencies will lead to an increased or decreased role for TEs in our passing attack. Another big unknown is our offense's overall production. Even if we assume that the tight ends will return to a more "normal" level of participation in our passing game—15% of receptions, 13% of receiving yards, and 25% of receiving TDs—it's hard to know what that will be in terms of actual catches, yards, and touchdowns. Does Watson go down with a season-ending injury early on thanks to our porous offensive line? If so, the offense will be lucky to replicate last year's numbers. Will Mike Williams continue to stretch defenses vertically? If so, the TEs ought to find some room underneath. Will Gallman continue to develop into a serious running threat? If so, maybe those safeties and linebackers will get caught looking into the backfield, letting the TEs run free. There are a lot of ifs, though. Especially considering the many question marks on the offensive line, it's hard to know how effective our offense can really be. And, finally, looking at the tight end position in particular, who will step up to take hold of the job, if anyone, is still unclear. The upperclassmen have underwhelmed, generally speaking. They haven't really been a factor catching the ball, and they're almost a liability when asked to block. Should we believe that Leggett is finally putting it all together? Or will Milan, Cannon, or even the true freshman Garrett Williams step in to that void? Knowing that news out of camp is always a little suspect, I refuse to believe the good news until I see results.

My prediction, based on the assumption that ScElliot call plays similarly to The Chad, and taking the rumors and reports we've heard out of camp with limited credibility, is this: I think our offense will improve over last year, but won't return to 2012 or 2013 numbers. Watson will stay healthy long enough for us to approach, but probably not eclipse, 4,000 yards passing. Without a Dwayne Allen or Brandon Ford type player, with both talent and experience, and with the electric wideouts we'll have all over the field, I don't believe that our TEs will play a major role in the passing game. So, of that total of 4,000 yards, our tight ends will only account for 425 yards, and they will only catch 5 touchdowns, under what has been normal for our offense over the last few years. In terms of personnel, we all know that Dabo favors experience. Because of that, expect to see Leggett and McCullough a lot early in the year. Seckinger won't see the field much, both because he's probably the worst of those three and because he's a little dinged up. However, I won't believe that any of them have improved as blockers until I see it myself. Therefore, with the younger guys as good or better in the passing game, and since the younger guys can't be any worse at blocking, you'll see Leggett, McCullough, and Seckinger less and less as the year goes on. I believe that Milan Richard will be the starter when Notre Dame comes to town, with Leggett being his primary backup on passing downs and Cannon Smith his primary backup on rushing downs. Williams may be the future, but with the two redshirt freshmen playing well enough, Garrett will get a redshirt and be ready for the tight end, and overall offensive, renaissance during Clemson's 2016 national championship run.