Competition at tight end wide open

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Florida tight end Kemore Gamble (88) and Florida offensive lineman Fred Johnson (74) celebrate after the Peach Bowl win over Michigan last Saturday in Atlanta. Florida won 41-15. [Mike Stewart/Associated Press]

College football programs traditionally show significant improvement from year one to year two under a new coaching staff.

If that happens at Florida under coach Dan Mullen, the Gators could be College Football Playoff contenders next season after going 10-3 and rising into the top 10 in the nation in 2018.

For it to happen, the Gators will have to improve in some areas and some new, inexperienced players are going to have to come through at certain positions.

Over the next several days, The Sun is breaking down the team position-by-position, one position at a time:

Tight end

Who’s gone: C’yontai Lewis and Moral Stephens, who were the leading receivers among the tight ends last season. Lewis had nine receptions for 128 yards, while Stephens had eight catches for 106 yards and three touchdowns.

Who’s back: Redshirt sophomore Kemore Gamble, redshirt junior Lucas Krull, sophomore Kyle Pitts and redshirt freshman Dante Lange. Gamble had seven catches for 58 yards, while Krull had six for 75. Pitts had three receptions for 73 yards and a touchdown, but those catches came after he moved to wide receiver.

Who’s new: Lang, who redshirted as a true freshman this past season, and incoming freshman Keon Zipperer, a four-star prospect from Lakeland who appears to have the size and receiving skills combination Mullen is looking for in his tight ends.

What’s next: With Lewis and Stephens gone, the competition for the starting role will be wide open between Pitts, Gamble, Krull and Lang. The question is, with so few players at the position, will Pitts continue to see reps at wide receiver and tight end this spring, or will he focus on one position where the coaches can develop him.

If Pitts continues to work at more than one position, Gamble likely would be the front-runner for the starting role at tight end. He has shown in his two years at UF an ability to be a pass-catching tight end. He also has the size to develop into solid blocker.

Krull flashed some playmaking ability this past season, including an accurate passing arm. Like Gamble, he has some pass-catching skills and the ability to make plays down the field.

Lang, a four-star prospect, is a bit of an unknown after spending the fall on the scout team.

Zipperer, who will enroll this summer, was one of the nation’s top tight end prospects and will have a chance to work his way into the possible playing rotation during preseason camp.

Going into the 2018 season, one of the storylines on offense was how involved the tight ends would be in the passing game. As it turns out, the tight ends combined to catch only 32 passes for 440 yards and four touchdowns.

Whether the tight end position becomes more productive in 2019 depends on how development goes this spring and in preseason camp.

Possible scenario: A pass-catching tight end with some size, Gamble emerges as the starter in the spring, which gives Pitts an opportunity to concentrate on becoming a full-time wide receiver.

22 COMMENTS

  1. Would be good to see the TE become a more consistent threat next year. They did okay season one, but a lot of times the tight end can be matchup nightmare for opposing teams, and it seems there is room in this area for us to create additional headaches for opponents and improve our redzone numbers.

    Early in the season we also tried to get some passes to our fullback, but it seemed like after a few bounced off his hands that went bye bye. I am not sure we even used him much as the season progressed, with TEs lining up in that fullback slot. Do we still have a fullback?

    • The fullback really isn’t a full time position in Mullen’s offense. It would be great to see someone stand out at that position, but the reality is it’s a blocking position on almost every play they have one on the field. I cant wait to see the growth of the offense in year two though!!

      • There is no “tight end” in a spread offense. You have tight ends who will sometimes line up in the H-back position, and that position usually lines up on the edge first and will sometimes shift into the position some think of as the normal fullback lineup position on a given short yardage play. I believe you were referencing Raymond, who was a tight end and not a fullback. He switched over to the tight end position two seasons ago after first being a walk-on linebacker. But Raymond’s skills were mostly limited to blocking out of the H-back position, and he did that occasionally all year when Florida lined up with both Stephens and Lewis (or Gamble) on the line of scrimmage as conventional tight ends and Raymond lining up in the backfield as a H-back. He played in the Peach Bowl, in fact. He just was not fast enough, big enough, strong enough, or a good enough pass catcher to be consistently effective in the SEC and why we did not see him a lot during games. He was nowhere near as talented as Lewis and Stephens. And Stephens came on during the season as an in-line blocker, which further limited the playing time for Raymond.

          • Ah. That did throw me off. It does seem, in any case, like the TEs in Mullen’s offense are potentially very versatile, lining up in a lot of different positions and performing different functions. One of my favorite plays all year was against FSU where he had one of the TEs in a four point stance kind of hiding behind the online then he did a slight delay and slipped out to catch a wide open TD pass. That was probably the H back position, but it was a clever little play whatever the spot was called!

    • Assuming our qb progresses I hope the te’s will be more successful and utilized. We were too focused on primary targets and missed too many opportunities. If the te’s can win contested battles we can be more multidimensional within Mullen’s offense. Some of the plays we ran against Michigan looked like they could set some of that up. Executable options are the key not overly complex that keep defense from committing to one dimension and becoming predictable. We have lots of weapons can’t wait til….

      • Gator65. Lewis and Stephens were most often not immediately sent out in pass patterns and were generally held in to provide more protection for Franks on second and third and long. They mostly were secondary and check-down receivers this year and why the receiving numbers for the tight ends were so low. I think you will see Zipperer lining up next year in the H-back position (that Raymond mostly played this year) and becoming a serious and playmaking immediate passing option next season. I think Krull might develop there as well. But, again, a lot of more inclusion of the tight ends in the passing game depends on the pass protection develop of what will be a mostly new and very unproven offensive line next season. The OL will be the key to continued progress of the Florida Gators next season. That part of the offense is the biggest concern looking forward, no doubt. Why didn’t Forsythe play more this year? Will Couriage put on the weight and get strong enough to be effective in the SEC at either LT or RT? If Forsythe is not good enough, or does not get better, who plays OT in his place? Banks? Delance? Neither played much this year, and Delance did not see the field much when he was at Texas. Will a freshman come in and start? If so, that could spell issues on the OL. And will Heggie stay healthy next year at guard? And who will be the starter at the other guard position? Bleich did not play much this year. Again, does a freshman start at guard? The only OL position seemingly settled is the center position with Buchanan, and he will no longer be surrounded by seasoned OL. He therefore needs to step up his game as well. Many, many questions heading into the spring on the OL. Athlon’s way too early preseason top 25 had Florida ranked at #7. I would say that preseason prediction is way too high when you consider the unsettled situation on the offensive line.

  2. For TEs to be more productive in the passing game, two things have to happen. 1st, as Swampy just dicussed, the OL has to be rebuilt and must get consistently good pass protection from the 5 main blockers before TEs may release into pass patterns on a regular basis. 2nd, our QB has to target the middle third of the field (sideline to sideline) more often than Franks did last season, since TEs make most of their living by beating LB coverage over the middle third of the field.

    Regardless of who wins the QB competition this spring and summer, don’t expect too many passes to be thrown to TEs as the OL gets their pass blocking act together during the 1st half of next season.

    Go Gators!!!

  3. All of these guys sound exciting. mr. gamble is a bit of a risk due to his minor fake weapons charge, lets hope he has learned his lesson, but this program needs to continue to improve in the offseason conduct area. blocking will have a lot to do with playing time, everybody knows that. also, these guys are good athletes that can hopefully contribute on special teams even more.
    i can see 10 wins maybe for the guys again if their is improvement in both lines from where it stands now (some of the competition is going to improve i guarantee), but next decade i think is going to be a full return to the way things should be, instead of worrying about what went wrong in the past. this tight end group is still young, hopefully one elite leader emerges from the pack this year and at least one very good player from this group as well.

    • Interesting that Reed started out as a QB for the Gators, though with not a lot of game action at that position. He is a great pass receiving TE in the NFL but has had a lot of injuries as he is undersized to be effective as a blocker. Now that I think about it, Cris Collinsworth also started out as a QB before moving to WR. I think he still holds the Gator record for the longest TD pass in a game (99 yards). Amazing how much useless trivia remains embedded in the mind of us old guys!

  4. As the skill level and depth continues to improve at all positions, it really opens up possibilities in Coach Mullen’s offense. We’ve already seen in year one (and obviously in his career body of work) that Coach can game plan and uniquely attack each week’s opponent with the best of them. It was refreshing this year to see the formations and play calls and overall strategy change from game to game depending on what the opponents looked like, unlike the play calling and game planning in the prior 8 or so years. So, couple Coach Mullen’s special brand of genius with an increasing and improving skill level and depth and the future of this offense is very bright.

    I love seeing the TE/HBack position being added to the mix. Having six viable weapons to choose from on each play is what’s going to make this offense great again. That said..I agree with others that the key first and foremost will be the rebuilding of the OL. Champ liked to say it and I agree with him that the SEC is still a line of scrimmage league…..if you’re solid there then you’ve got a chance elsewhere. I have a LOT of confidence that Hevesy will have a great OL in 2019…… look what he did with this year’s line, which was basically the same line that under-achieved so greatly in 2017. MGGA!

  5. StL Gators called it right. The first few games of this year, our TE’s will need to stay back and pass block to help a young OL. Look for that to change later though, especially against the top SEC competition. We will then need our TE’s to release and become secondary receivers, and bust coverages.