The tight end situation at UMass is essentially a microcosm of the problems facing this year’s team.
There is little to no depth, some of last year’s talent is no longer with the program, and one injury can completely cripple the position.
When head coach Charley Molnar came to Amherst, there were a number of options at tight end that eventually didn’t pan out. Jerome Lewis, a transfer from Virginia Tech who was supposed to make a difference, left UMass after a short and unremarkable career. Brandon Howard, John McGrath and Dan Foesel were all cookie-cutter UMass tight ends (about 6’4 and 240 pounds), but it appears that Howard and McGrath are no longer with the program, and Foesel has been moved to the offensive line.
Molnar, seeing the writing on the wall, went out and recruited a number of tight ends, including the infamous Brandon Holifield who committed to Miami, decommitted, said he was going to UMass and then ended up at Missouri.
At the end of the day, UMass signed guys who could play either tight end or linebacker, namely: Byron Cooper, Nevin Cyr, Kassan Messiah and Jovan Santos-Knox. However, as the season went on it became clear that Messiah and Santos-Knox were destined to be Division I linebackers.
Meanwhile, Cyr is redshirting, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Cooper did the same.
So what’s left going forward?
Rob Blanchflower is the only FBS-ready tight end on the squad, and that’s a little bit of a problem. Blanchflower is a capable receiver and a tough blocker, and when he’s on the field there is no doubt that this team is better. However, there is no way for him to effectively man this position by himself – especially when he has already suffered a leg injury.
Behind Blanchflower are Julian Colarusso and Matt Campbell, but neither of those guys are real options to fill in. Colarusso is a special teams athlete who is recovering from an early-season injury. Campbell came to UMass as a fullback and is now stuck in a system that doesn’t use one. Tight end is his label, but it’s not his real position.
Then there’s Derek Beck, the wide receiver in tight end’s clothing. Last I saw Beck he was on crutches with ice on his knee after the Bowling Green game. I doubt we’ll see him next to an offensive tackle for awhile.
The fact of the matter is that the entire tight end position hinges on the health of Blanchflower, and if he goes down again, UMass’ already stagnant offense will lose a vital dimension.
Molnar and Company are out on the recruiting trail trying to find an heir apparent (or at least a capable accomplice). They have lost a few battles (most notably losing Quinn Thompson to UConn and Bay State native Brendan O’Neil to Wake Forest), but UMass is still in the hunt for FBS-level tight ends. For example, keep an eye on Matt Burke from West Palm Beach, Fla., and Xavier Wilson from Cinnaminson, N.J.
At the end of the day, the tight end situation isn’t unique. UMass has a number of positions where one guy has to shoulder a heavier load due to a paper-thin depth chart filled with players better suited for a FCS squad. It is going to take a few recruiting cycles until things really start to fill out.
Until then, there will be growing pains.
But you already knew that.