The Wolverine

2018 Michigan Football Preview

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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78 ■ THE WOLVERINE 2018 FOOTBALL PREVIEW TIGHT ENDS BY CHRIS BALAS N ew Michigan tight ends coach Sher- rone Moore knew he'd be moving to greener pastures when he arrived in Ann Arbor from Mount Pleasant, where he served as a Central Michigan assistant in the same capacity from 2014-17. Even he was surprised, though, when he found out what he'd inherited during his first few weeks of spring ball. It got to the point that U-M head coach Jim Harbaugh would ask him what he was smiling about every day. "I'm younger, probably the youngest coach on the staff," Moore said this spring. "I'm blessed to be here, excited about his op- portunity. … I'm only 32, so I'll try to make everybody smile." His tight ends group will, too, and they've got a good shot to succeed. There is a quartet of talented pass catchers that are still tapping into their great potential, a true freshman that ranked among the best at his position in high school and a head coach that loves to use the tight ends. Added up, the sum could be the best col- lection of talent Michigan's had at the posi- tion since the mid-2000s, or before coach Rich Rodriguez was hired and shifted the emphasis to tiny, speedy slot receivers in 2008. "It's a great group," Moore said. "First of all, they're great kids. The staff has done an outstanding job recruiting quality kids, very smart individuals. From a skill standpoint, playing the tight end position, the sky is the limit with this group. "Each kid presents a different issue for different defenses. All of them have their strengths, all have their weaknesses, but as a group they're going to be really dangerous." Redshirt junior Zach Gentry and junior Sean McKeon will likely lead the group in receptions. U-M pass catchers hauled in 2,226 receiving yards last year and the duo caught just more than a quarter of them, combining for 48 catches, which gained 604 yards and five touchdowns. For a comparison, the Wolverines' top two wideouts — Grant Perry and Donovan Peoples-Jones — combined for 47 catches, 584 receiving yards and just one touchdown grab. Gentry and McKeon weren't perfect — both of them dropped a few — but they each have All-Big Ten potential and earned hon- orable mention honors from the media last year. Gentry caught 17 passes for 303 yards and two touchdowns, while McKeon hauled in a team-high 31 passes for 301 yards and three scores. "They're both outstanding threats in the passing game," Moore said. "Zach is 6-7 5 ⁄8, I think they measured him at, and he's a mis- match nightmare with his size, his strength and he's 265 pounds right now. "Sean — he's just so cerebral, and he's strong for a guy his size. He's so athletic. They both bring a different premise to the group." Both can play multiple positions in the offense, he added, and both will be asked to elevate their games this fall, especially in the blocking department. Former Michigan All-Big Ten offensive lineman Doug Skene watched that aspect of Gentry's game closely last year and saw some vast improvement. "I thought Gentry got better as the season wore on in blocking," Skene said. "That's a challenge when you're almost 6-8, but he got better and showed a willingness to stick his nose in there far more often than he did the previous season, for sure. I thought he made nice improvements." His huge frame gives him an obvious ad- vantage in the passing game, Skene added. "He's just a massive mismatch down- field," he said. "That kid can be an absolute superstar. His improvement, the speed with which he improved, was the most of all tight ends last year. He's got all the tools, can ab- solutely be an NFL guy, even a higher pick NFL guy. "You can't coach a legit 6-7, 260 pounds. How do you defend that going down the hashes of a football field?" McKeon, too, has shown great hands at times, and fellow tight end Nick Eubanks marveled this spring at how far his teammate has come as a blocker. The 6-5, 248-pounder has continued to add weight, and his team- best 31 receptions in 2017 have many won- dering how good he can be. "He has great hands," Skene said. "He's still got to improve his blocking, get stronger in the forearms. There were a couple balls he QUICK FACTS Position Coach: Sherrone Moore (first season). Returning Starters: Zach Gentry (11 career starts), Sean McKeon (10). Projected New Starter: None. Top Reserves: Tyrone Wheatley Jr. (3), Nick Eu- banks. Wait Until 2019: Mustapha Muhammad, Luke Schoonmaker, Ryan Hayes. Newcomers: Muhammad, Schoonmaker, Hayes. Moved In: None. Moved Out: Ian Bunting (transferred to Cal). Rookie Impact: None. Most Improved Player: Eubanks. Best Pro Prospect: Gentry. Ready FoR MoRe Michigan's Talented Tight Ends Look To Take The Next Step PRESEASON ANALYSIS: TIGHT ENDS Starter ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ Redshirt junior Zach Gentry and junior Sean McKeon provide an outstanding one-two punch as receivers, and there will be games in which redshirt junior Tyrone Wheatley Jr. starts because of his blocking ability. A bit more consistency could easily make this a four-star group. Depth ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ The Wolverines have four capable tight ends with different skill sets, one of the most unique combinations Michigan has ever seen. Gentry, McKeon and redshirt sophomore Nick Eubanks can all put up big receiving numbers, while Wheatley has that potential along with great blocking ability. X-Factor Eubanks showed his ability to stretch the field early last year, hauling in a 48-yard bomb against Florida in the first game of the year, a 33-17 win. If he can stay healthy — and he appears to be in great shape — he could become a hybrid type matchup problem for defenses. Overall ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ Head coach Jim Harbaugh loves his tight ends, and he has plenty to choose from this year. This group dropped a few balls last year, but it's a talented bunch, and we have yet to see their best. Wheatley, in particular, has another gear we haven't seen yet.

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