Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Notre Dame, Iowa, Stanford or Miami: Which school is the true ‘Tight End U.’?


By The Athletic College Football Staff 

May 24, 2021


Notre Dame has developed 12 tight ends into NFL draft picks over the last 20 years, the most of any school over that span. In 2019, Iowa had two tight ends selected in the same first round for the first time in NFL draft history. Four Miami (Fla.) tight ends have compiled at least 5,000 receiving yards in the NFL over the last 20 years. Stanford’s tight-end profile resembles all of them in some way.

But which school actually is “Tight End U.?” That’s a debate of which three of the schools legitimately have an argument. Stanford has produced several quality NFL tight ends, including two Pro Bowl-caliber players in Zach Ertz and Austin Hooper, but perhaps lacks the high-end NFL superstars who represent the other three schools. Florida recently called itself “Tight End U.” after Kyle Pitts’ incredible 2020 season, but only one selection in the last eight drafts doesn’t get it done. Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis tried to affix the label to his program when he joined the Wolverines but the Twitter swarm instantly ratioed his assertion.

To break it down, The Athletic college football reporters Manny NavarroPete Sampson and Scott Dochterman, who cover MiamiNotre Dame and Iowa, respectively, examine what basis each school has to make the claim of “Tight End U.”

This exercise is going to get provincial off the top, so we might as well make the case right away.

Why can the school you cover claim itself to be ‘Tight End U.?’

Sampson: Notre Dame football never met a historical college football argument that it didn’t like. But the case of “Tight End U.” is one of those where modern production matches up with those historical takes around the program. To start, every Notre Dame No. 1 tight end to start the season has been drafted since 2004. That’s back to the final year of Tyrone Willingham’s tenure. To have a streak go that long and endure the ups and downs of Notre Dame, that made it more impressive. This football program has been all over the place during the past two decades, but its tight end talent has been consistent throughout. On top of that, half of these tight ends are going first or second round in the NFL draft. It’s not like the Irish have kept this run going with some creative bookkeeping, with a couple exceptions.

Combine that with the fact Notre Dame has had a tight end drafted in four straight NFL drafts and it might have the best tight end in the country in sophomore Michael Mayer coming back, it’s all a strong claim that the Irish are “Tight End U.” today after going back and forth with Miami, Stanford and Iowa over the past few years.

Dochterman: Five years ago, Iowa was in the conversation for this title based on a generation’s worth of quality tight ends. There was a continuation of NFL-caliber tight ends beginning with 2002 Mackey Award winner Dallas Clark, who was an upper-level player with the Indianapolis Colts. But in the 2017 NFL Draft’s fifth round, the 49ers plucked George Kittle (who ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper classified as a fullback, by the way) and the “Tight End U.” moniker went from ambiguous to automatic. Kittle set the single-season NFL record for most receiving yards by a tight end in 2018 and even helped start a holiday dedicated to tight ends. Then in 2019, Iowa became the first school with two first-round tight ends with T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant. Iowa is the only program on this list with two Mackey Award winners in the last 20 years.

In the 2019 NFL Draft, Iowa’s Noah Fant (left) and T.J. Hockenson became the first pair of tight end teammates ever selected in the same first round. (Matthew Holst / Getty Images)


In the same tight end room at Iowa in 2016 included Kittle, Hockenson, Fant and current NFL tight ends Nate Wieting and Shaun Beyer. After a slight production dip the last two years, the Hawkeyes again have four quality tight ends led by potential All-American Sam LaPorta. While none of those players were four-star recruits, they all developed at Iowa. Development matters.

Navarro: Since I cover the school that invented swagger, I’m coming at this with a lot of that. First off, it’s cute we’re even having this conversation when Iowa, Stanford and Notre Dame’s 11 combined Pro Bowl appearances for tight ends is still two shy of the 13 Miami has put up over the last two decades. Secondly, three of the top four producing tight ends in terms of catches, yards, and touchdowns among these schools are Hurricanes. Greg Olsen (742 catches, 8,683 yards, 60 TDs) and Jimmy Graham (699 catches, 8,399 yards, 82 TDs) rank fifth and sixth respectively all-time among NFL tight ends in catches — more than seven other tight ends already in the Hall of Fame. Plus, Miami’s four first-round picks at tight end over the last two decades (Olsen, David Njoku, Kellen Winslow II and Jeremy Shockey) are also more than any of the schools involved in this discussion.

Sure, we’re still living in the past down here in Coral Gables, holding onto it with every fiber of our being as the years and mediocre seven- and eight-win seasons keep piling up. But Miami has continued producing quality NFL talent year after year over that stretch and 2021 fifth-round pick Brevin Jordan, a Mackey award finalist in 2020, could end up being a steal for the Houston Texans. Miami could also have the best tight end in the ACC this fall in former four-star recruit Will Mallory, Jordan’s understudy the past three years.

What’s the school’s history like at the position? Where did this all start and is 20 years a good number?

Sampson: Mark Bavaro is better known as a New York Giant than a Notre Dame tight end, but he played here during some down times in the early 80’s under Gerry Faust. The more historical starting point for Notre Dame’s tight end heritage goes back to Dave Casper, who made the Pro Football Hall of Fame a decade before the College Football Hall of Fame let him in. He was the offensive MVP of the 1973 national champions, even though the player who made the most famous catch of that season was backup tight end Robin Weber, whose 36-yard catch from Tom Clements near the Irish goal line in the final minutes helped beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. After Casper departed for the Raiders, Notre Dame replaced him with Ken MacAfee, a three-time first-team All-American, Walter Camp Player of the Year and a Top-10 pick.

Dochterman: Iowa had quality tight ends in the past, particularly with Jim Gibbons’ game-winning touchdown pass against Ohio State in 1956 to send the Hawkeyes to their first Rose Bowl. In the 1980s, Hayden Fry had tight ends standing up at the line of scrimmage and peering at the linebackers to identify coverages. The best-known was Marv Cook, the 1988 consensus All-American, a two-time team MVP and Iowa’s all-time leader in receptions by tight ends. He even led the Big Ten in catches that year and later became an All-Pro with the New England Patriots. There were other All-Big Ten tight ends at Iowa in that era, in particular Jonathan Hayes, Mike Flagg, Alan Cross and Michael Titley. But the real era of “Tight End U.” came into play with Kirk Ferentz and Dallas Clark in the early 2000s.


Iowa drafted TEs since 2002

Navarro: Miami’s had 21 tight ends drafted all-time, going back to Miami Dolphins second-round pick Jim Cox in 1968. But the run of Pro Bowl tight ends began in 2000 with Bubba Franks, the 14th overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft. Franks made three Pro Bowls with the Green Bay Packers and had more than 400 receptions in his career.

Franks is one of five Miami tight ends with more than 400 receptions in their pro careers. Casper and Bavaro never did that (Sorry, had to take a jab at the hated Irish to make Miami fans smile).

Which player identifies most with each school’s case for ‘Tight End U?’

Sampson: It’s either Kyle Rudolph or Tyler Eifert. Probably a split decision between the two. Rudolph had the best moment, a 95-yard touchdown catch against Michigan that should have beat the Wolverines in Brian Kelly’s second game. If Rudolph returns for his senior year, he’s a surefire first-round pick. Eifert played on the better team, led the Irish in catches during a run to the BCS National Championship Game and won the Mackey Award. He’s the only Notre Dame tight end to do that and the only recent tight end to be a first-rounder.

Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert won the 2012 Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end. (Nuccio DiNuzzo / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Dochterman: Clark produced the defining plays for the position in 2002 with a 95-yard catch-and-run touchdown, then a 7-yard game-winning touchdown reception against Purdue. Kittle has elevated the position’s profile like power chords turned rock music into heavy metal. Probably the best example is Hockenson, who was the No. 66-rated TE in the class of 2016 and became the Mackey Award winner in 2018, the No. 8 overall pick in 2019 and a Pro Bowler in 2020.

Navarro: You could make the case for Shockey, Olsen or Graham. Shockey’s late touchdown catch against No. 1 Florida State in 2000 is as iconic a moment in Miami’s climb back into the national championship hunt as any and after an All-Pro rookie season with the Giants, he won a Super Bowl with the Saints in 2009. Olsen had the longest and most productive pro career and Graham went from playing power forward on the basketball team to making the most of his one season on the football team. Winslow II won the Mackey Award in 2003, but his 2019 conviction on rape and sexual battery charges eliminates him from poster-boy status for Miami.

How much should we figure college production vs. professional performance in this debate?

Sampson: Considering how much it gets used in recruiting, it probably should. But “production” here is getting drafted in the first or second round more than it’s making the Pro Bowl or winning the Super Bowl. Maybe it’s getting that second contract. But put it this way, no one calls Michigan “QB U.” because of Tom Brady.

Notre Dame drafted TEs since 2002

What has each school done to cultivate and use the moniker ‘Tight End U?’ Has it impacted recruiting throughout the years or even recently? Are there any current tight ends who could swing this debate?

Sampson: Well, just last week (it was tweeted on May 17) the football program’s Twitter account tweeted out the fact that Tommy Tremble (third round pick to the Carolina Panthers) was the 11th Notre Dame tight end drafted since 2005. So yeah, it’s a pretty constant recruiting pitch around here.

But the tiebreaker in all this might be sophomore Michael Mayer, who was a five-star prospect and is Notre Dame’s leading returner in receptions with comparisons already being thrown around with Eifert. If Mayer is a three-and-out player who becomes a first round pick, that should nudge Notre Dame ahead of Iowa, Stanford and Miami.

Stanford drafted TEs since 2002


Dochterman: The Hawkeyes benefited greatly from the four-hour NFL draft infomercial in 2019 by signing two talented prospects in Luke Lachey (son of former Ohio State All-American lineman and longtime NFL veteran Jim Lachey) and Eli Yelverton. Both were highly sought and should contribute this year behind true junior Sam LaPorta, who in 2020 became the first tight end to lead Iowa in receptions since Scott Chandler in 2005. Lachey, in particular, shows potential as the next installment in this series once LaPorta heads to the NFL. Lachey is an athletic freak.

Navarro: Miami never stops tweeting about it being #TightEndU and they’ll stretch the numbers outside of our little debate to make their argument.

Mallory has an NFL body and reminds many of Olsen in terms of his potential. Njoku has fought through injury his first few years in the league, but could be primed for a big year with the Cleveland Browns. With Jordan, Chris Herndon (Jets) and Njoku in the league, Miami will have three active tight ends who could all play significant roles on their teams in 2021. That helps the recruiting pitch. Miami landed four-star Elijah Arroyo in the last cycle out of Texas because he said he wanted to play for #TightEndU.

In closing, which school do you think deserves the nickname? Is the debate over? Did this discussion influence your decision at all?

Sampson: Ten years ago it was Miami, with Stanford under consideration. Two years ago it’s probably Iowa. Today it’s Notre Dame for the sake of longevity and what’s coming next in Michael Mayer. And considering the Irish will take two tight ends in three straight recruiting classes, including Iowa product Eli Raridon in the 2022 class to go with four-star Holden Staes, it feels like Notre Dame is in the ascendancy among the Tight End U. programs.

Dochterman: I do think all four schools (Stanford included) have a claim to the moniker. Over the last 20 years, I’d say Miami clearly had the advantage through 2007 (and gets to include Jimmy Graham’s NFL career, too), Notre Dame was the better overall producer from about 2006-2013 and Iowa owns the crown over the last handful of years. How these schools attack the position group in recruiting and development moving forward makes this a topic we can revisit perhaps in 2025. But remember The Rock — perhaps the most famous former Hurricane — labeled Kittle “The People’s Tight End.” I rest my case.

Navarro: I’m just going to tell you why it’s not these other schools. Notre Dame’s one Pro Bowl tight end in the last two decades is Kyle Rudolph. Iowa could have a stronger case in the years to come if Hockenson or Fant becomes what Kittle has. But it’s The U, baby. And it’s not even close.

(Editor’s note: If you’re having trouble submitting the poll, it can also be accessed here.)

(Top photo of Jeremy Shockey: Harry How / Getty Images)




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