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2017 Virginia Depth Chart Preview: Tight Ends

With three talented tight ends on the roster, will Mendenhall use them more on the offense this year?

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

As we turn the corner into August, we continue looking at the Virginia Cavaliers, position by position. Tight ends have historically played a significant role in Virginia’s defense, until Bronco Mendenhall and company came in last year. The coaches have said that they intend to utilize the TEs more this year, so we may see a return to normalcy. Or we may not.

Last Year

The Hoos had just three tight ends on the roster last year, one of whom was converted quarterback Brendan Marshall. Though the depth chart each week listed a tight end, Virginia did not actually start a game with a TE on the field. The Hoos ran their offense almost exclusively out of three- and four-wide receiver sets. In other words, there wasn’t much place for tight ends on last year’s offense.

In total, the three TEs had 12 catches, with Evan Butts leading the way with seven. As a group, they averaged just 6.5 yards per catch. Of those 12 catches, two were touchdowns. By contrast, under former offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild in 2015, Butts had 16 receptions and the TEs as a group had 28.

The drop in production wasn’t surprising. Bronco Mendenhall’s coaching staff brought with it a fast-paced, spread offense. Multiple WR sets were expected. The TEs were used almost exclusively in short yardage and goal line situations.

This Year

The coaching staff has talked about utilizing the TEs a bit more in 2017. Though the WR corps is deep, there is talent at the TE position that could help the passing game. Certainly, a team that finished 113th in passing efficiency could use all the help it can get.

Once again, the Hoos have just 3 TEs on the roster:

Evan Butts (junior)
Tanner Cowley (sophomore)
Richard Burney (sophomore)

Cowley was listed at WR last season, though by the end of the season, he was listed on the depth chart at TE (due to injuries). He saw limited action. Burney was the team’s long snapper, and caught a touchdown pass against Duke. He missed the final four games after suffering an injury against Louisville. Butts also missed the last 4 games of the season with a “lower-extremity” injury.

Though the coaching staff did include TE on the depth chart, they did not actually denote a starter. Each iteration of the depth included either 2 or 3 TEs as “OR” for the starter. That may continue this year, but even so let’s take a look at a projected depth chart. As the Hoos are not likely to use an in-line TE, this depth chart is based almost exclusively on pass receiving skills. Blocking is a secondary concern.

2017 Projected Tight Ends Depth Chart

Position First Team Second Team
Position First Team Second Team
Tight End Evan Butts Tanner Cowley

Butts, the eldest of the TEs, seems like the obvious starter. He is also (by far) the most accomplished of the trio. He’s proven that he can be a reliable red zone option (three TDs in 2015) and that he can stretch the field a bit. He’s also a decent blocker, whether in-line or in space.

Looking to bounce back from his season-ending injury, Burney figures to return as long snapper and may also get some time as a TE. He’s a very big target, has very good hands, and is the best in-line blocker of the bunch, which means he’ll probably get some short yardage opportunities.

In my opinion, Cowley is the most intriguing tight end on the roster. He’s significantly faster and more athletic than Butts, and he has a real ability to make big plays happen. He’s 6’4”, 230 pounds and runs well enough that he was seen as an OLB by some schools out of HS. Cowley is not a particularly good blocker at this point in his career, though he’s better in space than he would be in-line.

Cowley, is still learning to be a pass catcher. That is where Butts separates himself. He runs good routes, and he seems to have a decent feel for the soft spots in zones.

Despite what the coaching staff has said about TEs this year, I suspect that we won’t see very much out of them again. The group of WRs includes bigger guys, such as Andre Levrone (6’3” 225), who provide similar matchup problems to the TEs, with far more polish and ability catching the ball. The TEs will get in games for short yardage and other situations. And they could be useful in certain matchups, depending on the defense’s strengths.

Future Years

It will be interesting to see if Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae actually follow through with their talk of utilizing tight ends more. Virginia didn’t sign a tight end in its 2017 recruiting class. The Hoos have a 2018 commitment from New Jersey tight end Bobby Hopkins, but it looks like he’ll be slotted at offensive tackle. Recruits getting interest from Virginia at the TE position will be watching closely this year to see how much playing time the Hoos’ three fairly talented tight ends will see this year.