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Spring Fling 2015: Big Ten's Best Tight Ends

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With three early entrants and a wave of graduations, the conference's tight end ranks were hit as hard as its running back groups. Who's left to do both blocky and catchy stuff? This list also includes superbacks so I don't get fired by The Cabal.

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

1. Josiah Price, RS Junior, Michigan State

A glance at MSU's passing stats in 2014 indicates that the production was generated by Tony Lippett, then a huuuuuge gap, and then a handful of guys with similar, supporting-role numbers. Tucked in amongst the wide receivers was Josiah Price, who, despite Dave Warner's apparent reluctance to consistently throw it his way, pitched in 26 catches for 374 yards; his 6 TDs ties him for third in the conference among all returning pass-catchers. Lippett's departure frees up 65 receptions that need to be replaced, and Price's balanced combination of blocking and route-running skills means he'll be on the field for a lot of snaps in the fall. He's not a freakish physical specimen, but he has the experience, the proven production, and the opportunity to take a big step forward.

2. Nick Vannett, RS Senior, Ohio State

Last offseason's discussion of OSU's group, at least as I remember it, focused more on classmate Jeff Heuerman than on Vannett. Nonetheless, over the course of the season, Vannett produced comparable results to his more-ballyhooed colleague with one exception: Vannett made it into the endzone 5 times instead of twice. None of those was bigger than his goal-line TD catch in the national title game, giving OSU a lead it would not relinquish. With Heuerman and deep-threat Devin Smith gone, whoever wins OSU's QB derby will still have a quality seam threat in Vannett, and arguably more cause to throw it his way.

3. Dan Vitale, Senior, Northwestern

18th-year senior Dan Vitale returns to a Northwestern offense which will of necessity have a different look in the fall, as QB Trevor Siemian and the top two receivers all leave. Vitale contributed an impressive 402 yards and 40 receptions to last season's effort. His TD total (2) was on the low end for the number of looks he got but is also reasonable when considering that Northwestern only threw 10 TD passes all of last season. As is true with most pass-catchers, Vitale's fortunes will largely be tied to whether Northwestern's QB play improves, but he's already shown that he's more than capable of holding up his end if given the chance.

4. Jake Duzey, RS Senior, Iowa

Duzey was clearly underutilized a bit in Iowa's offense, playing in a fairly deep position group and subject to the Hawkeyes' continuing inconsistency (to put it lightly) on that side of the ball. He was still Iowa's third-leading receiver, and aside from Tevaun Smith, there just aren't many playmakers to be excited about in this offense. For Duzey individually, I read this as a positive, as his coaches may have no choice but to call his number more often in 2015. Duzey was prone to some feast-or-famine tendencies, as roughly 2/3 of his 2014 production game in just 3 games, but the Iowa offense at large had those same tendencies. Like Butt, Duzey's inclusion here is based somewhat on the assumption that the offense he plays on doesn't spend another season stuck in neutral.

5. Jake Butt, Junior, Michigan

There's a bit of projection involved with this pick, as Butt's (sidebar: we only have two more seasons to giggle at his name, so be sure to take every opportunity) sophomore numbers were a bit underwhelming due to an offseason ACL injury that slowed him out of the gate and the general ineptitude of Michigan's offense overall. Still, when healthy, Butt has been a versatile threat for Michigan, and Jim Harbaugh's Stanford offenses relied very heavily on tight ends. If he stays healthy and Michigan can solve its QB question, Butt has all the ability needed to make a big impact for this offense.