This is the fourth in a series of 11 previews leading up to the Minnesota football team’s Aug. 1 start of practice.
Today’s position: Tight ends
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 7
Projected starter: Maxx Williams (redshirt sophomore)
Key backups: Drew Goodger (senior), Lincoln Plsek (junior), Duke Anyanwu (redshirt sophomore)
The breakdown: As a redshirt freshman last year, Williams emerged as a playmaker in the passing game when few other players stepped up. In fact, Williams led all Gophers in receiving yards (417), and was tied for the team lead in catches (25) and receiving touchdowns (five). At 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, Williams provided a big target for quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner last year. Though Williams missed spring practices with a knee injury, he should be ready to roll when fall camp starts. Look for him to once again be a favorite target of Leidner, as the sophomore quarterback takes over the reins of the offense.
Minnesota has plenty of size at tight end outside of Williams. The 6-foot-5, 269-pound Goodger made 12 starts last year as a junior, although he caught just seven passes. The 6-foot-4 Plsek also weighs in at 269 pounds. Though he didn’t have a catch in 2013 after three catches as a freshman in 2012, he did play in 13 games last year.
Anyanwu was a quarterback in high school who converted to tight end with the Gophers. He now checks in at 6-foot-4, 250 pounds after playing only sparingly on special teams as a redshirt freshman last year. Anyanwu overcame an ACL injury that forced him to redshirt during his first year on campus.
One other tight end to watch — and it’s not easy to miss him — is redshirt freshman Nate Wozniak. Standing 6-foot-10, the Greenwood, Ind., native is the tallest player on Minnesota’s roster. Though he still may need to bulk up a bit in order to become an effective blocker, Wozniak did make a handful of nice plays in spring ball. He could fight for playing time in 2014.
Best position battle: There’s no question that Williams will not only be the top starting tight end but also one of the go-to targets in the passing game. The question for this group: who will be the No. 2 tight end?
Minnesota runs plenty of two-tight end formations, meaning there will be plenty of rotating among the group. Goodger was the only other tight end besides Williams to catch a pass last season, but that doesn’t automatically mean he’s the No. 2 tight end. Plsek has two years of experience and is one of Minnesota’s better blocking tight ends. It remains to be seen if he can factor much into the passing game. The competition for the No. 2 tight end will likely be between those two, although Anyanwu and Wozniak could have an opportunity to get a few reps in fall camp if they can impress the coaching staff.
Best of the Big Ten: 1. Penn State, 2. Rutgers, 3. Ohio State
Nittany Lions tight end Jesse James has a chance to be one of the best at the position in the Big Ten. As a sophomore last year, the 6-foot-7 James had 25 catches for 333 yards, third-most on the team. He has 18 career starts in two seasons at Penn State, and his name has already appeared on preseason All-Big Ten lists. Helping James’ case is the fact that his quarterback, Christian Hackenberg, could be one of the top QBs in the conference. Sophomore Adam Breneman and senior Kyle Carter also return after contributing at the tight end position last year.
Rutgers senior Tyler Kroft led his team with 573 receiving yards on 43 catches in 2013, earning first-team All-American Athletic Conference honors. Kroft was the only Scarlet Knights player to have a catch in each of their 12 regular-season games. Now he and Rutgers move to the Big Ten, where Kroft will be one of the best tight ends in a conference full of good ones.
The Buckeyes have just five tight ends on their roster, but Jeff Heuerman is a standout in that group. The 6-foot-5, 255-pound senior had 26 catches for 466 yards last year, averaging a team-high 17.9 yards per reception. Those numbers were good enough to land him honorable mention All-Big Ten honors.