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2015 Virginia Football Previews: Tight Ends

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"Tight End U" is a thing of the past, as the Hoos haven't had a TE drafted since 2009. Production at the position has dropped dramatically during the Mike London era, culminating in a 2014 season that was essentially devoid of any impact TE. Is there any chance that changes in the near future?

Burns (89) is the only TE on the roster with any experience.
Burns (89) is the only TE on the roster with any experience.
Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

For a while now, UVA has been known as Tight End U. The idea being that it was a great place for TEs to come play football and end up in the NFL. The big name, of course, is Heath Miller. And really, he's the main reason the school got that moniker. Heath won the Mackey Award as the nation's best TE in 2004 and then was a first round draft pick. He's getting ready to begin his 11th NFL season, and he's putting together a solid Hall of Fame argument.

Other Virginia TEs who've played in the NFL over the past 20 years include Tyrone Davis, John Phillips and Jon Stupar. There's a handful of others who had a brief NFL career, but the four named so far are the guys who've had any impact in the NFL. Patrick Estes was also a UVA TE who played in the NFL for a while, but he moved to OT once entering the NFL. Chris Luzar and Billy Baber were both drafted, but neither had much of a career.

You may notice that none of these guys are recent. The most recent is Phillips, who was drafted in 2009. Six years without a Wahoo TE in the NFL draft. I think the Tight End U moniker needs to be withdrawn.

In the Mike London era, only Jake McGee has ever finished in the top 5 on the team in receiving. That was 2013, when he led the team in receiving. Thing is, as we've discussed this week, everything about 2013 is an aberration because of David Watford. Still, over the 5 years of the Mike London era, TEs have totaled 185 catches for 1845 yards and 18 TDs. Heath Miller alone totaled 144 catches for 1703 yards and 20 TDs in just 3 years.

The TE position has been an afterthought on Mike London's Hoos. Last season was the culmination of that, as just 2 TEs received any playing time and Zach Swanson led the group with just 14 receptions, good for 8th on the team.

A big part of the problem has been the overall poor play of the OL, which has necessitated keeping TEs in to block on many passing situations. Another problem has been lack of talent at TE. Other than Jake McGee, there hasn't been a TE on the roster who even got a sniff from the NFL. And Jake left the Hoos due to lack of opportunity.

So, is there a change coming? Do the Hoos have a TE that can help the team return to the glory days of Tight End U? Well, probably not. Not this year, at least. With Swanson moving on, the lone TE on the roster with any playing experience is Rob Burns, who is a converted DE with 3 career catches to his name. And he's a redshirt senior. Burns, though, is a decent blocker, and his 6'7" frame makes him a good target in the red zone. He isn't going to stretch the defense and he isn't much of a route runner. But he has shown decent hands in the few opportunities he's gotten and he would be tough for a DB to handle at the goalline.

Behind Burns on the depth chart is redshirt freshman Evan Butts. Butts, unlike Burns, is a real honest-to-god TE. He played the position in HS. He's a willing blocker, even if his small-ish frame (just 240 pounds) keeps him from being a real impact blocker at the LOS. Where he excels, though, is in the intermediate zones. He's got a good feel for finding the soft spots in zones, and using his 6'4" body to provide a big target. He'll likely be the primary TE in passing situations, with Burns playing on earlier downs. Butts needs to continue to develop his body (he's already put on nearly 20 pounds of muscle since enrolling), and work on running routes. He's never going to be a true stretch-the-field TE, but he can be a dangerous underneath receiver.

As with QB, RB and WR, there is a transfer in the program who is a wild-card. In this case, it's Stanford transfer Charlie Hopkins. Hopkins, like Rob Burns, began his career as a DE. Hopkins didn't move until his redshirt sophomore season. In 2013, he played in 14 games for the Cardinal, recording 2 catches for 10 yards. Last year, he missed most of the season due to an injury. He is eligible to play this year as a senior. He's more like Burns than Butts, in that he's an adequate in-line blocker. He's a bit more athletic than Burns, but has very little feel for route running. Like Burns, his best chance for catches is on the goalline or in short yardage, where he can use his big body to hold off defenders and make a short grab.

There are 2 other TEs on the roster, freshmen Richard Burney and Tanner Cowley. Many people thought Cowley would be slotted at WLB or even DE, and there is still time for him to move, but for now he's a TE. Both Cowley and Burney are undersized at this point (Cowley especially, at just 210 pounds), so neither of them are going to see the field this year.

Cowley is very athletic and has the ability to be a real pass-catching threat at TE. He's also shown very good technique as a drive blocker in-line. However, he's just not big enough nor strong enough to play there right now. In a couple of years, he could be a very good TE for the Hoos.

Similarly, Burney is a good athlete who can be an asset in the passing game. He's not as accomplished a blocker as Cowley, but then again he's bigger. He's not a burner, so he likely won't ever be a deep threat, but he's likely to become a good target in the intermediate passing game.

So, sadly the down years at TE will likely continue in 2015. For one thing, as we saw yesterday, the team is loaded with WR talent. Combine that with a guy like TaQuan Mizzell, who is a very good pass catching RB, and you have trouble finding a spot for a TE in the passing game. After all, why would you play Evan Butts in the slot, when you could play Smoke or Andre Levrone there. That said, there is more TE talent on the roster right now than there has been in quite some time. In 2016 and beyond, a return to Tight End U could be in the cards.