Tight end is a tricky position. For some offenses, such as Iowa's or Wisconsin's, the second tight end is virtually a starter. Meanwhile, other offenses, such as Ohio State's, prefer playing three and four wide receivers in lieu of a tight end. Still other offenses start tight ends, but prefer to use them as extra blockers rather than receiving threats. And other offenses scorn the title "tight end" altogether, preferring pretentious terms like "superback."
The following rankings take incoming talent into account but also consider how much mileage the tight ends in question will get out of their respective offenses. It also projects how much growth can be expected of said tight ends, based on how their coaches have developed tight ends in the past. Moreover, "other tight ends" means other tight ends who are likely to have an impact this year. I didn't bother to dig that far into the databases to find out who the new redshirt-freshman walk on is. Lastly, H-backs and even superbacks were considered tight ends for the sake of these rankings.
Projected Starter: Jake Butt (SR)
Other Tight Ends: Khalid Hill (RS-JR); Ian Bunting (RS-SO)
The reigning Kwalick-Clark B1G Tight End of the Year opted to return for his senior season, thereby guaranteeing, in the minds of Michigan fans, their program's ascension back to the top of the conference. In terms of pure receiving numbers, Butt was by far the best individual tight end in the conference. He had 51 receptions, which topped the B1G's No. 2 pass-catching tight end by 16. His 654 yards was best in the conference by over 200. Then add that Harbaugh magic; at Stanford, Zach Ertz and Coby Fleener went through Harbaugh's program. Though he didn't make Vernon Davis a star at San Francisco, Harbaugh certainly didn't hurt. This year, Butt's third as a full-time starter, anything less than (another) All-American-caliber season would be a letdown.
Hill has starting experience to go with eight career receptions, though he is mostly a blocker. At 6'7" with five career receptions to his name, Bunting might be the heir-apparent to Butt. Another intriguing prospect is true freshman David Asiasi, Rivals' No. 2 tight end in the country.
Projected Starter: Josiah Price (RS-SR)
Other Tight Ends: Jamal Lyles (RS-SR)
Michigan State co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner does not get his tight end as involved with the passing game as many other B1G programs, which has limited Price's numbers. He has been a three-year starter, notching 17 receptions as a freshman, 26 as a sophomore and 23 as a junior. He does, however, find the end zone with regularity, putting up six touchdowns in both his sophomore and junior years and four touchdowns as a freshman. At this point, it is evident Price, or arguably any MSU tight end under Warner, is never going to put up 50 receptions for 600 yards. On the other hand, Price can be depended upon to block, make catches in traffic and score touchdowns.
Lyles came to MSU as a defensive lineman and switched to the offense after his redshirt year. MSU likes to play two tight ends, but uses them primarily as blockers. In three seasons, Lyles has 18 receptions for 265 yards. At 6'3" and almost 270 pounds, Lyles is mostly a glorified extra offensive lineman, but in that role, he is more than able. True freshman Noah Davis might also have a shot at early playing time.
Projected Starter: Troy Fumagalli (RS-JR)
Other Tight Ends: Eric Steffes (RS-SR), Kyle Penniston (RS-FR)
As a freshman in a limited role, Fumagalli caught 14 passes for 187 yards. Last year, as the full-time starter and despite Wisconsin's—uhhh—issues at quarterback, the sophomore had 28 receptions for 313 yards and one touchdown. Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst, who worked as a tight end coach under the Badgers and San Diego Chargers, has always worked the ball to his tight ends. Current NFLers Owen Daniels, Lance Kendricks and Garrett Graham all came through Chryst as an OC. If Wisconsin can figure out its quarterback issues, look for Fumagalli to be the biggest beneficiary and possibly one of the biggest breakout stars in the conference.
The Badgers also like to use two tight ends, but in this case, Fumagalli will be the pass catcher while Steffes will be a blocker. Steffes had his first career catches last season: three for 50 yards. If Kyle Penniston is ready, he could be next in line after Fumagalli. Penniston was a highly sought-after recruit, choosing the Badgers over Oklahoma and Florida State.
Projected Starter: Brandon Lingen (JR)
Other Tight Ends: Nate Wozniak (RS-JR), Nick Hart (RS-JR), Noah Scarver (RS-JR)
Lingen caught all of two passes in 2014, and he seemed to be heading nowhere in 2015. He caught four passes in the first five games, losing one game to injury. Then, against Purdue, he picked up two touchdown passes, and in a loss against Michigan, he had five receptions for 111 yards. Over the final six games of the season, Lingen had 23 receptions for 319 yards and a touchdown. And those six games included contests against Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin—all ranked teams (and all losses). Perhaps he benefited from quarterback Mitch Leidner's late-season turnaround or from interim, and now official, head coach Tracy Claeys' more wide-open offense. Either way, Claeys will look to keep feeding the ball to his budding superstar.
The other tight ends have a combined 18 career receptions for 89 yards, which isn't too shabby when you consider how Minnesota's offense looked last year. For two of the past three years, a tight end has been the Gophers No. 1 pass catcher, and Lingen could make it three of four.
Projected Starter: Cethan Carter (SR)
Other Tight Ends: Sam Cotton (RS-SR), Trey Foster (RS-SR)
It's difficult to gauge how effective Mike Reilly's offense will be in Lincoln, but Cethan Carter has been the beneficiary of a more tight end-friendly passing attack than the one employed by the previous regime. Last year, Carter caught 24 passes for 329 yards and two touchdowns, thereby more than doubling his output in each of the previous years. With a year of experience in the Reilly offense and a loaded receiving corps, Carter should find himself in some friendly matchups.
Cotton has multiple starts in his career, but only nine receptions for 98 yards and three touchdowns. His primary role is as a blocker. The last senior in this triumvirate (don't the Huskers believe in staggering these guys?) is Foster who has three career catches for 23 yards.
Projected Starter: George Kittle (RS-SR)
Other Tight Ends: Jameer Outsey (RS-SO)
Before last year, Kittle had six receptions for 133 yards. In 2015, as a part-time starter, he picked up 20 receptions for 290 yards and six touchdowns. His 14.50 yards-per-catch would have been tops among tight ends if he had enough receptions to qualify. Iowa, under Kirk Ferentz, has always put its tight ends to good use, currently boasting five tight ends on NFL rosters. With the graduations of two senior tight ends and lack of depth at receiver, Kittle will become a go-to guy, and it would surprise if he finishes the year with fewer than 40 receptions.
Depth at tight end is an issue. Last year, Outsey, a converted defensive lineman, was primarily used as a blocker. He finished the year with one garbage-time reception for 10 yards. It is possible that Iowa will pull the redshirt on true freshman Noah Fant, whether there are injuries at the position or not.
Projected Starter: Matt Flanagan (RS-JR)
Other Tight Ends: Charles Scarff (JR), Nick Arcidiacono (SR)
RU boasts a three-headed group of tight ends, all of whom have some starting experience. Flanagan, Scarff and Arcidiacono have a combined 44 career receptions for 363 yards and four touchdowns. None of them are likely to be the next Tyler Kroft, but together there is talent.
It's hard to say how Chris Ash's offense will use its tight ends. If it will be the Houston-like power spread that new OC Drew Mehringer described to nj.com, then it's hard to see a lot of receptions for the tight ends. Houston hasn't had a tight end catch more than 14 passes since 2008. Nevertheless, the tight ends in beautiful Piscataway have the potential to do some damage.
Projected Starter: Mike Gesicki (JR)
Other Tight Ends: Brent Wilkerson (RS-SR)
Gesicki earned playing time as a true freshman and pulled in 11 receptions for 114 yards. Last year, in an expanded role, he caught 13 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown, though there was a good deal of criticism hurled his way due to dropped passes and missed blocks; however, that seemed to go with being part of the 2015 Penn State offense. He is poised for a breakout season this year, but it is difficult to predict what James Franklin wants to do with his tight ends. Based on new OC Joe Moorhead's previous record, Penn State tight ends might be on the upswing. Moorhead's last two starting tight ends at Fordham earned all-conference honors. His starting tight end between 2013-14, Dan Light, earned All-American honors and ended his career fifth on the Rams' all-time reception list.
Wilkerson has eight career catches for 57 yards and one touchdown. He might make a solid blocker, but true freshman Danny Dalton, who spurned Alabama for PSU, is the future of the position.
Projected Starter: Avery Edwards (SO)
Other Tight Ends: Derrick Hayward (RS-JR)
As a true freshman, Edwards started three games. He finished 2015 with 14 receptions for 114 yards and two touchdowns. Hayward also has multiple starts to his name and has picked up four career receptions for 35 yards. He will push for playing time.
There is talent in College Park, but new OC Walt Bell comes from Arkansas State where he was the OC. If ASU is any indication, the tight ends won't figure prominently in the passing game. In Bell's two years as OC, tight ends caught fewer than 25 passes combined. In short, don't look for Edwards to catch more than 14 passes this season, but he will be a weapon if his name is called.
Projected Starter: Marcus Baugh (RS-JR)
Other Tight Ends: Rashod Berry (RS-FR)
Based on experience, OSU should probably be last in the B1G, but it is OSU, and that means that Baugh and Berry are more talented than some of the experienced players on lower ranked teams. Even though Urban Meyer has produced talented tight ends—albeit convicted felons—tight ends don't play a major part in his passing scheme, and he prefers wide receivers.
That said, Baugh comes into the spring with three career receptions for 34 yards and no touchdowns, and he is the most experienced Buckeye tight end. Odds are he will be a part-time starter but will be able when called upon. If he gets injured, it will probably mean more wide receiver looks.
Projected Starter: Garrett Dickerson (JR)
Other Tight Ends: Jayme Taylor (RS-JR), James Prather (RS-SO)
With the graduation of top pass catcher and superback extraordinaire Dan Vitale, the Wildcats find themselves with a hole to fill. Dickerson has some experience and should step in ably. He has career 16 catches and 168 yards. He turned down offers from Alabama and FSU in favor of NU, but he needs to stay healthy.
There is little-no depth. Taylor hasn't yet accumulated a stat, as he missed last season due to injury. Prather is a converted defensive lineman. The best hope for depth might lie in true freshman Eric Eshoo. As Northwestern's superback has been one of the team's top five pass catchers—in the form of Vitale or Drake Dunsmore—every year since 2009, this is a concern.
Projected Starter: Cole Herdman (RS-SO)
Other Tight Ends: Brycen Hopkins (RS-FR)
What's going on with the Boilermaker offense? Who knows, but Herdman can be inked in as the starter. Last year, he caught 18 passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns. His first year of experience should leave him as a solid, if unspectacular, starter.
There is almost no depth behind him. Hopkins seems to be the best the Boilers have. He chose Purdue over an offer from Florida, so he likely has some wheels, but he'll have to learn how to block before he will get regular playing time.
13. Indiana Hoosiers
Projected Starter: Jordan Fuchs (JR)
Other Tight Ends: Danny Friend (RS-JR)
Indiana's top two tight ends graduated, leaving Friend and Fuchs to carry the load. The two boast combined career totals of 10 catches for 108 yards and three touchdowns. Kevin Wilson has gotten mileage out of past tight ends in the form of Ted Bolser. However, neither Friend nor Fuchs looks like a starter kit for the next Bolser. Indiana is also well-stocked at receiver and will put those receivers on the field in lieu of tight ends. In the end, the F&F combo will more than likely play part-time roles in the high-octane Indiana offense.
14. Illinois Illini
Projected Starter: Tyler White (JR)
Other Tight Ends: Ainslie Johnson (SR), Nathan Echard (RS-JR)
Illinois' top options at tight end are White, who is coming off a late-October ACL tear; Johnson, a JUCO-transfer; and Echard, a former walk-on. They have a combined 12 career receptions for 69 yards and one touchdown. Illinois was the third-worst scoring offense in the B1G last year, and prospects don't look good for an improvement, at least at tight end. Well, it's Illinois, so "it's not ideal," and I guess that's good enough.