By R.J. Anderson
Coaching Management, 14.10, November 2006, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1410/squeezeplay.htm
At Trinity Presbyterian High School in Mobile, Ala., the tight end is not just the bookend of the offensive line’s strong side. There, tight ends play a key role in the offense and were the catalyst for a recent state championship.
While winning the Alabama Class 4A title in 2003, Trinity’s offense was led by 6’5”, 240-pound junior Tommy Trott, who racked up 1,153 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns from the tight end position. Trott, then a high school All-American and now a redshirt freshman at Auburn University, has the rare combination of size, speed, smarts, and hands that coaches dream about.
Having a player with Trott’s superior skills package at the position is an obvious boon for a coach. But even for those coaches whose tight ends are not as physically gifted, the nature of the position—a player who is generally bigger than defensive backs and faster than linebackers—usually leads to mismatches any offensive coordinator can take advantage of.
The key to utilizing this weapon falls on coaches, who must look within their playbook to generate opportunities that exploit a tight end’s physical advantages. With a plan in place, the next challenge is teaching your tight ends how to effectively operate within the offense, which means coaching their blocking, catching, and route-running skills. Because tight ends are part receiver and part lineman, finding time during practice to teach the nuances of each skill can be a challenge for any coaching staff—especially those that don’t have an assistant dedicated to tutoring the team’s tight ends throughout practice.
Before any teaching can begin, coaches need to evaluate the talents of their tight ends and decide how they fit into the offensive scheme. At the University of Maryland, getting the ball to the tight end has long been an offensive priority. The most recent reason was Vernon Davis, who led the Terrapins in receiving in 2004 and 2005 and was a 2006 first- round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers. Taken sixth overall, Davis was the highest selected tight end in NFL draft history.
Ray Rychleski, Tight Ends Coach and Special Teams Coordinator at Maryland, says the Terrapins first identify opportunities for the tight ends to use their talents within the confines of the playbook. “As you begin to understand the talent you have at tight end, you devise plays to take advantage of it,” he says. “For instance, with Vernon Davis, we used a lot more pass plays than we have with other tight ends. And most of those pass plays were down the field so we could utilize his speed.”
Maryland has regularly counted on contributions from its tight ends. Rychleski estimates that the Terrapins use at least one tight end for 95 percent of their offensive plays and go to two tight ends for more than half of their plays. They even line up with three tight ends in some short-yardage sets.
“We have two different types of tight ends,” he says. “We have a ‘posse’ tight end—a pass-catching tight end who is more of an H-back. Then we have a ‘kings’ tight end, who is a bigger, traditional run-blocking tight end. Knowing that, we try to use two different body types to fill those positions. They each have their own role, but they also have to be somewhat versatile. The posse tight ends still have to be able to block, and the kings tight ends have to be able to catch a pass from time to time.
“Although some guys fill one spot better than the other, we teach them all how to play both,” adds Rychleski. “We do a lot of different things with our tight ends, and the more they learn, the better chance they have to get on the field.”
At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), the Engineers boast one of the best tight ends in NCAA Division III. At 6’4”, 245 pounds, senior Jon Branche is a two-time All-American who figures heavily in the team’s running and passing schemes. “We’re basically a zone run team, but when we get to the goal line we run a power game, so our tight ends need to be able to get dirty,” says Pat DelMonaco, Offensive Coordinator at RPI. “When we get big near the goal line, our tight ends may have to block defensive tackles or defensive ends on their own. And they have to be able to move the pile forward.”
Despite RPI’s propensity to run the ball near the goal line, Branche has over 30 career touchdown receptions—a school record. “He is a player we try to match up against a linebacker as often as we can,” says DelMonaco. “We get him the ball mostly off of play-action passes where he can find a seam and get vertical.”
Jim Tuley, Assistant Coach at Trinity, says it’s extremely important to utilize a good tight end’s skills—even if it means calling their number a certain number of times each game. “You have to design your offense so they get the ball,” says Tuley. “We actually charted our games to make sure Tommy touched the ball a minimum number of times.”
Fortunately, drawing up plays for and getting the ball to a tight end is probably easier than for any other offensive position. “It’s easier because you’re usually getting the best coverage mismatch,” Tuley says. “A lot of times, the other team throws a linebacker or a not-so-strong cover safety on him. We even put Tommy in motion to move him to the side of the field where we could better create mismatches and get him the ball.”
A big guy with plenty of speed, Trott was a matchup nightmare for most defensive backs and linebackers. “We tried to get him in man coverage as often as possible and that gave us a lot of options,” says Tuley. “The route he caught the most was the fade stop, because he was great at getting his body between the defender and the ball. And with his speed, he was very successful running the skinny post right down the middle. Before every game, we would decide how many times and where we wanted to throw him the ball.”
Fitting In Fundamentals
Because tight ends are a hybrid requiring two largely unrelated skill sets and practices can last only so long, finding enough time to train basic skills can be problematic. After all, tight ends don’t operate in a vacuum. They have to be able to work with the rest of the offensive line to form a choreographed blocking unit while at the same time learning passing routes and developing timing with the quarterback.
Plus, few staffs are able to dedicate an assistant coach to just the tight ends, so coaches have to divide their attention as well. While it can be a difficult position to learn and teach, a comprehensive evaluation of the position’s needs, combined with an efficient practice plan, can be just the recipe for getting the most out of your tight ends.
The equation for developing a tight end practice plan is simple: If your team passes the ball more often than it runs, tight ends are better served spending more time practicing catching and route-running skills. And if you have more of a running team, the tight end should probably spend more time working on his blocking skills and jelling with the offensive line. But unless you never run or never pass, it’s vital that tight ends spend time practicing both roles.
At RPI, DelMonaco trains his multi-talented tight end by having him spend more time in receiving drills than in blocking drills. RPI’s tight ends spend 15 minutes of each practice working on blocking with the offensive line and 25 minutes doing receiving drills, which means DelMonaco has to maximize the time his tight ends have with the line.
“In our three-day schedule of tight ends working with the offensive line, the first day we’ll focus on the fundamentals of the drive-block technique for that 15-minute period,” DelMonaco says. “The next day, by the time the tight ends come to us, the offensive line has already completed their drive blocking and punch drills, and we’ll work on all of the run-block combinations that involve the tight ends. Then on the third day, we work against the defensive line on all of our running and pass protection plays.”
Operating out of a spread formation, the University of Missouri’s tight ends are flexed and do not usually release from a three-point stance. That means they must learn how to make many of their blocks a little further downfield than the rest of the linemen. “We do a drill where I stand between two coaches who are holding tackling bags,” says Bruce Walker, Missouri Tight Ends Coach and Special Teams Coordinator. “The players run at me full speed, and I quickly tell them which direction to go, then they break down and engage the coach holding the bag. That forces them to move, keep their feet apart, get their hips down, then engage in a block on their feet.”
Though the team spends most of its time in a spread formation, Missouri does run about 10 plays a game that require the tight ends to operate out of a three-point stance. “We don’t use those tight formations very often. Still, we spend a lot of time teaching our tight ends how to come off the line in a three-point stance because when we run those plays in games, it’s usually during very important short-yardage situations,” says Walker. “You have to make sure that they’re ready to handle those critical situations, and they need to be ready for the different looks the defense is going to give them.”
Even when doing receiving drills, DelMonaco says it’s important for tight ends playing in traditional offensive sets to practice coming out of a three-point stance. In fact, that’s one of the first skills they concentrate on at the beginning of the season. When practicing releases, RPI tight ends work against the coaching staff, spending two and a half minutes releasing from an up position and two and a half minutes going from a three-point stance. “They’ve got to be able to threaten a defense by stretching the field from a three-point stance,” says DelMonaco.
What are the characteristics of a good tight end and where can you find those players? Besides a big body, quick feet, and good hands, successful tight ends usually have something else in common: brains.
“Tight ends have to be pretty smart because they need to know the running and passing game inside and out,” says Walker. “Especially in the passing game, the tight end has to have a good knowledge of coverage schemes and be able to read them on the run. We use a lot of different routes, so it’s really important that they can remember everything and make adjustments on the fly.”
Walker coaches two players, Martin Rucker and Chase Coffman, who are on the 2006 watch list for the John Mackey Award, given to Division I-A’s top tight end. When he’s recruiting, Walker always takes long, hard looks at high school tight ends, even if he does not anticipate that player playing the position in college. “There’s a reason they played tight end in high school—not only do they have the physical tools, but they can also think on their feet,” he says. “I’ve found that high school tight ends often go on to become good college defensive linemen, offensive guards, and linebackers.”
RPI’s Branche was a star tight end in high school, but DelMonaco says, more often than not, his tight ends come from other positions—usually wide receiver. “We start by looking for somebody who has played basketball because a lot of the things we look for on the football field can be found in players comfortable on the basketball court,” says DelMonaco. “Understanding and attacking a zone coverage in football is just like playing against a basketball zone defense: If you can find a hole in the zone and post up in basketball, you can do a lot of damage as a tight end.”
Walker agrees. “There’s some carry-over to being able to catch a ball with somebody hanging all over you and understanding how to get your body between the defender and the ball,” he says. “Both of my guys were good high school basketball players and those skills are evident when they take the field.”
Rychleski says Maryland has also had success turning big receivers into tight ends. “It requires a little time commitment to teach them to block,” he says. “But that type of guy already comes with pass-catching skills, and I can teach him how to block. Those types of players make the position more productive and become weapons because they make big plays by creating mismatches—which is what today’s game is all about.”
SIDEBAR: Terrapin Stations
W ith two different skill sets to master, a tight end’s learning process is never complete. At the University of Maryland, it begins in the film and position meeting rooms and culminates on the practice field.
“In football, you learn by doing three things: First, by drawing it up on the board; second, by going through it slowly during a walk-through; and third, by going through it at full speed,” says Ray Rychleski, Tight Ends Coach and Special Teams Coordinator at Maryland, who has sent three tight ends to the NFL in the last five years. “We incorporate all three into our practices.”
Maryland’s on-field tight end training starts with individual sled and cage drills to work on blocking techniques and staying low. After that, they move to one-on-one run-blocking, pass-blocking, and route-running drills. Tight ends spend 15 minutes of each practice locked up against the team’s outside linebackers to simulate game situation matchups. “Working four tight ends during that 15 minutes allows for a good number of reps,” says Rychleski. “And by bringing in the outside linebackers, we get good players matched up against other good players.”
The individual drills start with a run-block segment that lasts five minutes where tight ends work on one-on-one drive blocks, reach blocks, and cutoff blocks. For the five-minute one-on-one pass protection drills, tight ends are charged with not allowing the linebacker to reach a tackling dummy placed in the passing pocket. “The basic thing we tell them is not to get overextended—‘Keep your head back and time your punch before the linebacker is on you,’” says Rychleski.
For route-running, Rychleski brings in the quarterbacks, who are flanked by two tight ends pitted against linebackers. “The tight ends run a route from one side, then switch sides and run another because they play on both ends of the line during a game,” he says. “In our passing scheme, the tight ends run a lot of outs, digs, posts, and post corner routes. Once we’ve taught them how to do the routes, they work on shaking the defender and getting open.”
After 15 minutes of one-on-one drills, Rychleski and the tight ends progress to two-on-two drills that last for about 10 minutes and vary from day to day. In one typical drill, the tight ends line up with the running backs against the linebackers and safeties. “They’re getting a lot of reps and catching balls in a short amount of time because without any wideouts, the ball either goes to the tight end or the running back,” says Rychleski, who lines up two tight ends in the drill.
A typical two-on-two run-blocking drill pits the tackles and tight ends against the defensive ends and outside or inside linebackers while the quarterbacks and running backs initiate the plays and work on their ball handling. It’s a live drill, but the ball carrier is not tackled.
The next step in the progression is called “skelly,” where the quarterbacks, wideouts, tight ends, and backs run all of the team’s pass routes against the defensive backs and linebackers. Finally, an 11-on-11 matchup featuring the full complement of offensive and defensive players usually ends practice.
“As you can see, we have to bop around and work with a lot of different people at different times,” says Rychleski. “I’m with tight ends all day, and probably spend up to 35 minutes a practice working with them individually before we go to group and team work.”