With great power comes great responsibility. UNC junior tight end Eric Ebron is not Spiderman, but he could be the best tight end in the country this year. If he wants to be.
After just two years, he is already third in the ACC in career tight end receiving yardage. His 40 catches for 625 yards last season were the most by a tight end in UNC history, too.
Ebron was given great power, though, genetically. He’s a physical freak — 6-foot-5, strong and powerful, but with wide receiver speed. This summer, he put on 20 pounds of muscle — “stone cold”, he said — and he still has the speed, too.
“Same speed, same speed,” Ebron said, nodding. “It looks illegal. It looks like it shouldn’t be on the field, but it is.”
He punctuated it with a grin.
Ebron is constantly joking around — making faces at teammates, teasing his coaches, or just yelling about something — all to try to get a laugh. And that’s not just Ebron after practice. That part of his personality is irrepressible, on or off the field.
“Obviously, he’s very jovial. He loves to play. And that’s a great thing. Every day he comes out here, he loves it. It’s more like a recess to him,” UNC tight ends coach Walt Bell said. “It’s narrowing the focus. You’re reducing all the variables for him. That’s the biggest thing. We talk about the mental issues and it’s just reducing the variables.
“Don’t worry about anything you can’t control. … The athleticism will kind of handle everything else.”
Teammate and fellow tight end Jack Tabb has been praised more than once by head coach Larry Fedora for his football savvy. But seeing Ebron up close the last few years on the field, he knows Ebron’s gifts are rare.
“Honestly, there’s no limit for Ebron,” Tabb said. “The kid is very special. He’s very talented. He knows it. … The coaches are hard him because he is that good. I just want him to be as great as everyone else wants him to be.”
Watching Ebron run off the line at full speed past a hapless linebacker and leap up high to snag a ball from midair with a huge hand, it looks easy. And for him, at times, it is. Sometimes, outside observers think what Ebron does — with his physical gifts, anyway — is easy, and should be easy.
But it isn’t easy for Ebron. Tight end is a cerebral position, and it was a huge departure from what he was used to as a high school defensive end. “Defense? See ball, get ball. That’s all I knew. See ball, go get ball, and I went to go get it,” Ebron said. “Playing tight end, it’s about details. It’s about little things. It’s about inches. It’s about steps.”
The child in Ebron always wants to play, and he admits he can be easily distracted. It’s shown itself on the field, when Ebron had a few too many false start penalties last year. He was what Bell would call a mistake-repeater. And that’s not what he wants to see from Ebron this year.
Fans would see mistakes like that and think Ebron wasn’t concentrating. But to Bell, he wants to take Ebron’s focus — which is there — and narrow it, considerably.
“Take a flashlight up against the wall and that focus is really, really, really, really broad. If you take a little laster pointer and point it against the wall, the focus is much tighter. That’s what we’re trying to do,” Bell said.
Bell and Fedora work each day to convince Ebron that he still has a long way to go, in spite of all the preseason accolades he’s received. He’s made some Preseason All-America lists and was First-Team All-ACC at tight end by a wide margin.
At some point, though, Ebron decided he was over the hype. He disconnected from Twitter and Instagram (“I have Facebook, but no one goes on that,” he added.) It was his way of narrowing his focus on the field to a laser beam rather than a flashlight.
“I’d rather live my life in the dark and improve without people telling me I’m improving or telling me I’m this or telling me I’m that. I’d rather see it for myself or hear it from the people that actually matter,” Ebron said.
“You get tired of everyone telling you what you are. … I don’t like to listen to All-ACC this and All-American that. I’d like to go out and prove it instead of having it all come to me.”
He has already narrowed his focus in other areas of his life. He couldn’t play in the Independence Bowl his freshman year because of academic issues. The look on his mother’s face when he gave her the news was the moment he realized it was time to grow up.
“Seeing her face, with her being upset…. my mom is my biggest influence, my biggest fan, my biggest critic, my biggest everything,” Ebron said. “I came to college just to play football, just like every other freshman. It smacked me in the face, karma did, when you realize it’s not only about football. It’s about school, it’s about life and it’s about moving forward through life.”
Once he got that together, it was easier for him to translate his personal growth into growth on the field. Which is what led to his record-setting season a year ago. And he’s still going.
“I think he’s really matured. In the three years he’s been here, this is the most mature he’s been as far as wanting the ball and getting open and playing a whole practice and a whole game,” quarterback Bryn Renner said. “You really see him stepping up as a leader and doing the little in his routes and getting in my hip pocket and watching film with him.”
Despite his easygoing demeanor, Ebron is hard on himself. He’s confident in his own abilities — very confident, in fact. But he is pushing himself to do more, too. To study more film with Renner and to make the fundamental parts of playing tight end — Bell says those are “alignment, assignment and first step” — second-nature.
But he’s still raw, relatively speaking.
“He’s still a 20-year-old and he’s really only played two seasons of football. This will be just his third season of football and really his third season of being a tight end,” Bell said. “In high school, he was mainly a defensive end. So just repetition alone — like Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell, the 10,000-Hour rule — he’s still nowhere near mastery. He’s got a long way to go.”
While fall camp and the grind of practices might feel like 10,000 hours to Ebron, it’s not even close.
At ACC media day, Fedora threw out a goal of 12 touchdowns for Ebron as casually as if he said he wanted his team to cut down on its penalties. But in ACC history, only one tight end has ever caught 12 or more. And that was in a career. (Virginia’s Heath Miller had 20; a few other tight ends have had 12 career touchdowns.)
Ebron embraced that goal enthusiastically, even adding that he wanted to score 15, so “I’ll have my three, and (Fedora) can have his 12,” he said. The NCAA record for touchdowns by a tight end in a season is 18 (Utah’s Dennis Smith, in 1989).
Considering Gladwell’s 10,000-Hour Rule is basically ten years of 20 hours of practice per week, Ebron has to accelerate his learning curve. He has to push harder than he even though he can. And that’s what Bell and Fedora are trying to get him to do. Bell has him more focused on fundamentals, while Fedora is there to remind Ebron the heights he’s capable of reaching.
“I’m wanting him to push himself beyond what he thinks he can go and understand that we’re going to push him beyond what he’s going to go,” Fedora said. “Every kid that you’re dealing with, when you’re pushing them higher and farther than they think they can go, they get frustrated. So you try to push them through that frustration and even farther, especially when they’re frustrated.”
“That’s when you really want to push because you’re going to find out a lot about him in that situation. Ebron’s doing fine. He’s doing fine. I still think we’ve got a long way to go. He hasn’t arrived, that’s for sure. But he can make those plays for us, yes.”
Part of coaching includes juggling personalities, and Bell is grateful that Ebron’s problem is too much enthusiasm rather than not enough. Plenty of elite athletes don’t have a tenth of the love of the game that Ebron does.
Bell’s balancing act includes letting Ebron be Ebron — which means, yes, some joking around and some distractibility — but still getting him to buckle down and focus. Bell has to keep Ebron excited about the process, as excited about the 101st repetition as he was about the first.
Bell was quick to add, though, that Ebron is a completely different player than the one he and Fedora inherited in 2012. “(He’s come) a long way,” Bell said. “He has made huge improvements in his classroom life. He’s made huge improvements in his social life. He has grown up a lot.”
“Part of my job is to make sure that I find ways to make sure that he still enjoys what he’s doing and he’s excited about learning and excited about when it gets boring,” Bell said, “and we’ve done something 100 times and why do we have to do it the 101st, and make him see the value in his work.”
That carrot of 12 touchdowns — or 15, or whatever — is out there for Ebron. But that’s not the only thing that is pushing him. He is well aware of his physical gifts. It can come across as cockiness, but Ebron is just honest to a fault.
Yes, he knows he’s virtually unguardable by almost any defensive player. But he knows the best opponent he has faced so far is the one he’s trying to conquer still — himself. And as of right now, he’s winning.
When asked how camp was going so far, Ebron sighed deeply. But then he smiled. “It’s been the best two weeks of my life,” he said. “It’s been the hardest two weeks of my life.”
“I don’t expect it to be easy. It’s not supposed to be easy. If it was easy, anybody would be out here on a collegiate level playing tight end or doing it. But it’s not easy. So for me to do what I’m doing and them to be hard on me, I appreciate it. I love it. I hate it. But I have no choice.”