Minnesota must plug a few holes at tight end

This is the fourth in a series of 11 previews leading up to the University of Minnesota football team’s start of practice.

July 22: Quarterbacks  
July 23: Running backs  
July 24: Wide receivers
July 25: Tight ends
July 26: Offensive linemen
July 27: Defensive linemen
July 28: Linebackers
July 29: Cornerbacks
July 30: Safeties
July 31: Specialists
Aug. 1: Coaches


Rating (1-to-10 scale): 5.5

Projected starter: John Rabe (senior)

Key backups: Drew Goodger (sophomore), Sahr Ngekia (redshirt junior), Kendall Gregory-McGhee (redshirt junior)

The breakdown: Minnesota must plug a few holes at tight end after losing Collin McGarry and Eric Lair to graduation. McGarry was second on the Gophers with 16 receptions in 2011, behind only Da’Jon McKnight (51 catches). McGarry’s two touchdowns were also tied for second. Lair had 11 catches for 168 yards and a touchdown.

Rabe is the only returning tight end with much experience, and one of only two to catch a pass last season along with Goodger. In 12 games last season, Rabe had just four catches, but two of them went for touchdowns. Given his experience, he’s the likely candidate to be the team’s No. 1 tight end.

The rest of the tight end crop is a bit of an uncertainty. It includes a pair of players who converted to a new position in Gregory-McGhee and Moses Alipate. Gregory-McGhee, a junior, was a defensive lineman during his freshman and sophomore seasons after redshirting in 2009. He played in 11 games last season and registered five tackles. At 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, he’ll be a big target at tight end for quarterback MarQueis Gray.

Speaking of big targets, Alipate is even bigger than Gray. Alipate, who starred at Bloomington (Minn.) Jefferson High School, was a backup quarterback for the Gophers during his first two seasons but never got on the field. Listed at 6-foot-5, 280 pounds, he was too big to play quarterback so Minnesota moved him to tight end.

Though his size will be an advantage as blocking tight end in the running game, it remains to be seen if Alipate has the hands to be able to a legitimate pass-catching tight end.

“We are going to see if we can do that or not; I don’t know,” head Jerry Kill said this spring of Alipate’s transition. “But he’s a good enough athlete. He’s got to want to, and we have to be patient. I told him, ‘Hey, don’t worry about making mistakes. Just play.’ We are trying to give him an opportunity for success.”

Ngekia has yet to appear in a game, but as a redshirt junior he is one of the more experienced tight ends on this year’s squad. He transitioned from wide receiver to tight end before his freshman year. Goodger had a pair of catches last season for seven yards and played in 10 games as a true freshman. He’s from the same hometown as backup quarterback Max Shortell (Shawnee Mission, Kan.), but the two attended different high schools.

Best position battle: Rabe appears to be Minnesota’s top tight end option, giving Gray another target in the passing game. But who will be the No. 2 tight end? Someone will have to emerge from the rest of the pack.

That could be Goodger, simply for the fact that he got playing time in 2011. A look at the rest of the tight ends shows this is an inexperienced unit. True freshman Maxx Williams, redshirt sophomore Gabe Mezzenga, Ngekia, redshirt sophomore Alex Bisch, Alipate and Gregory-McGhee are all without any experience at the position at the college level. The Gophers’ upcoming fall camp, which begins early next month, could be huge for any of those relatively unknown tight ends to make a name for themselves.

Best of the Big Ten: 1. Wisconsin. 2. Nebraska. 3. Ohio State. The Badgers have turned into a bit of a tight end factory in recent years, churning out the likes of Travis Beckum, Owen Daniels and Lance Kendricks. It appears Wisconsin may have the Big Ten’s top tight end in 2012, Jacob Pedersen, who had 30 catches for 356 yards and eight touchdowns (tops among all Big Ten tight ends) in 2011. Nebraska has a pair of solid tight ends in Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton. Reed caught 15 passes for 257 yards and a touchdown in 2011, while Cotton added 14 catches for 189 yards. The Buckeyes’ top tight end is Jake Stoneburner, who might be the best tight end in the conference after Pedersen. Stoneburner caught 14 passes as a junior in 2011 — seven of which went for touchdowns. He should thrive in new coach Urban Meyer’s system.

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