Establishing a comically low over/under for annual tight end receptions has been a favorite pastime among Tucson media covering Arizona Wildcats football.
We’re a skeptical lot by nature, and unfulfilled promises by recent coaching staffs about tight end usage only amplified that sense of doubt.
Even if set at a catch a game, the under came in easily in two of the past three seasons. In 2018, four tight ends combined for nine receptions. In ’19, Bryce Wolma had five — and that was it for the group.
Wolma and Zach Williams teamed up for a whopping six catches in five games last season. Wolma’s four receptions netted four yards; he seldom was put in position to threaten the defense.
You have to go back to Wolma’s freshman year, 2017, to find the last time tight ends played a substantial role in the passing game. Wolma had 28 catches for 241 yards and two touchdowns; the group combined for 36-414-4.
The total will swell and the over bets will be bountiful in Jedd Fisch’s offense. The degree to which tight ends will be involved — and how that might impact wide receiver usage — is the subject of our latest positional preview heading into training camp, which begins Friday.
Wide receivers/tight ends
Position rank: Second (out of eight)
Biggest camp question: How big of a role will tight ends play in Fisch’s offense?
In 2017, the last time he coordinated an offense, Fisch orchestrated a prolific passing attack at UCLA. With Josh Rosen at quarterback, the Bruins finished second in the Pac-12 in passing yards and efficiency.
UCLA’s three leading pass catchers were wide receivers. But the next two were tight ends. Three players — Caleb Wilson, Austin Roberts and Jordan Wilson — combined for 73 catches, 865 yards and five touchdowns in 13 games. Those are Gronk-like numbers.
Just because tight ends accounted for more than 20% of the receptions that season doesn’t mean it will happen again. Fisch spent the next two years working under Sean McVay, and if there’s an offense Arizona’s most closely resembles, it’s probably the L.A. Rams’. Personnel and coverages also influence target distribution.
But based on the Wildcats’ heavy use of “12 personnel” — one running back, two tight ends, two wideouts — during spring practice, it wouldn’t be surprising if UA tight ends produced at the same level as UCLA’s did under Fisch.
Arizona bolstered the position by adding Alex Lines, who played for tight ends coach Jordan Paopao at UNLV, and making Williams and Roberto Miranda full-time tight ends. Those three, plus freshman Colby Powers, join veterans Bryce Wolma and Stacey Marshall to form the deepest group of tight ends Arizona has had in ... decades? Marshall was on the receiving end of the spring game’s highlight play — a 40-yard touchdown pass from Gunner Cruz after some trickery in the backfield.
One of the upshots of involving tight ends more is that it takes some pressure off the wide receiver corps. With two or three playing at a time — as opposed to three or four in each of the previous two offenses — fewer viable wideouts are needed. They also have another entire position group with which to share the burden.
That’s probably a good thing, as the wide receivers enter training camp with some question marks.
Stanley Berryhill III has emerged as the group’s leader and should be in line for a stellar season. Brian Casteel and Tayvian Cunningham offer experience and versatility.
Boobie Curry appeared ready for a breakout after a sharp uptick in play late in spring, but he still has to prove he can separate against top corners. Jalen Johnson possesses perhaps the best combination of size and speed, but he’s far from a finished product.
Jamarye Joiner would be in that top group if not for offseason foot surgery. He won’t be full go at the start of camp but has been “moving well,” Fisch said. He also expressed optimism about slippery slot receiver Jaden Mitchell, who’s on the mend from his second ACL surgery since 2018.
Any concerns about receiver depth are mitigated by the burgeoning tight end room. They’re all going to be involved in Fisch’s system.