Is there any position on the football field that better represents the Big Ten than the tight end? While the Big Ten is a Midwestern conference that fancies itself an east coast institution, the tight end is a blocker who thinks of himself as a receiver. College football can still exist without the Big Ten or the tight end, but the sport wouldn’t be as fun without the big guys lumbering down the seam every now and then. It’s kind of like how all those dorky trophies make Big Ten rivalries a little more special than those in other leagues.
Anyway, here’s a look at the Big Ten’s best tight ends as we head into spring practice.
1) Noah Fant, Iowa junior
Both Troy Fumagalli and Mike Gesick are taking their talents to the NFL, and that leaves Fant as the top remaining tight end in the conference. He was voted to the All-Big Ten Third Team by both the coaches and media members, and his team-leading 11 receiving touchdowns probably had something to do with that. Fant also hauled in 30 receptions for 494 yards during the 2017 campaign, although his numbers would look more pedestrian if not for a monster 116-yard, two-touchdown performance in the regular season finale against Nebraska.
2) Sean McKeon, Michigan junior
We know how Jim Harbaugh loves his heavy formation and pro-style offense. That means lots of action for the tight end, and McKeon was there to take advantage. He led the Wolverines with 31 receptions, which led to 301 yards and three touchdowns. He also earned Big Ten honorable mention honors and could have a huge 2018 campaign if Michigan gets more consistency from the quarterback position.
3) Louis Dorsey, Illinois sophomore
Speaking of consistency at quarterback, that’s something that Illinois could use as it looks to build for the future. No matter who’s under center this year, Dorsey should continue to be a main target, as his 22 catches, 395 yards, and three touchdowns last year earned him All-Freshman honors from BTN.com. As the only underclassmen on this list, he’s still got a lot of room to grow.
4) Jerome Washington, Rutgers redshirt senior
It says more about Rutgers’ passing game than Washington that he led the team with 28 catches and 282 receiving yards last year, but those are the facts. Just think of where the Scarlet Knights would have been if Washington hadn’t transferred from Miami before the 2016 season. Due to NCAA rules, the Elizabeth, New Jersey native wasn’t able to play for Rutgers until 2017, so it will be fun to see what he can accomplish when he returns to action this autumn.
5) Zach Gentry, Michigan senior
Of course there’s room for another Michigan tight end on this list! While Gentry only had 17 receptions to McKeon’s 31, the senior did have two more receiving yards, finishing second on the team with 303. The amount of talent returning at the position means that the tight end will only continue to be a focus for Michigan’s offense in 2018.
6) Matt Sokol, Michigan State redshirt senior
We expect Michigan State’s passing game to be one of the Big Ten’s best considering the strides that quarterback Brian Lewerke took in 2017. Sokol figures to improve on his 21 catches and 222 yards alongside the signal caller. I’m sure this talking point will get beaten into the ground next season if it hasn’t already, but both of Sokol’s parents are West Point alumni, so you know he’s got grit for days.
7) Cole Herdman, Purdue senior
Even before the Boilermakers broke out in a big way last year, Herdman was doing consistent work. He’s now caught a pass in 29 consecutive games, marking a streak that should continue to grow no matter who Purdue’s starting quarterback is. On the other hand, he averaged fewer than two receptions per game in 2017, so maybe Herdman has a little bit of luck on his side.
8) Cameron Green, Northwestern redshirt junior
Originally recruited as a wide receiver, Green made the transition in 2016 to superback, which is what Northwestern calls its tight ends. His 20 catches and 170 yards from last season are pretty impressive when you consider that he was behind the departing Garrett Dickerson on the depth chart. Also, he was being thrown to by Clayton Thorson.
9) Rashod Berry, Ohio State redshirt junior
Berry started out as a tight end before switching to defensive end in 2016. He then switched back to tight end in 2017 and caught six passes for 100 yards and two scores. Now that last year’s starter Marcus Baugh is out of the picture, Berry has breakout potential this season... as long as Urban Meyer doesn’t make him play any more defense.
10) Brycen Hopkins, Purdue junior
Hopkins had more impressive stats than fellow Boilermaker Herdman last season, but I ranked Herdman higher because of his experience and because I’m a sucker for that receptions streak. Still, Hopkins is more explosive and has higher upside, so don’t be surprised if he makes a big jump in 2018.
Best of the rest?
Penn State and Wisconsin have big holes to fill at tight end, and I think the Badgers have a better chance at filling it quickly. That’s because Kyle Penniston, a top-10 tight end recruit from the class of 2015, appears ready to pick up a lot of the production that Fumagalli is leaving behind. Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions don’t have an athlete that can do the things that Gesicki did last year, but Nick Bowers and Jonathan Holland have more than enough experience between them to at least give Penn State depth at the position.
At Indiana, Ryan Watercutter, a former walk-on, should get most of the playing time with Ian Thomas graduating. Minnesota’s Ko Kieft has just as much to prove as he prepares to take over for Nate Wozniak. Kieft played both linebacker and quarterback in high school, so the learning curve at tight end could be a little steep, but as a redshirt sophomore, he’s entering his third year with the program.
Jack Stoll of Nebraska is also a redshirt sophomore, and he has some big shoes to fill after Tyler Hoppes caught 34 passes for 377 yards as a senior last year. The most dismal tight end situation in the Big Ten might belong to Maryland, a team that didn’t complete a single pass to a tight end in 2017. At least senior Avery Edwards has some history in the passing game, catching 14 passes as a freshman in 2015.