The Atlantic Coast Conference has always been fertile ground for tight ends, and it still is.
The league that has produced NFL stars like San Francisco’s Vernon Davis, New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham and Pittsburgh’s Heath Miller has another promising crop on the rise.
North Carolina’s Eric Ebron, Dave Stinebaugh at Maryland and Miami’s Clive Walford are part of the cadre having an impact on the conference in age of spread offenses.
“The tight end position has become more of a marquee position,” Syracuse associate head coach and offensive coordinator George McDonald said. “Now, you can get those athletic kids where a couple of years ago you had to be 250 (pounds) and be a blocker and you had to be a point of attack guy.
“Now, with more of a passing game, you can be undersized in terms of weight and be a really dynamic player, just like a big receiver. I think now guys are bringing that back into the fold and it’s more tight-end friendly because you don’t necessarily have to be a hammer at the point of attack. You’ve just got to be able to run and stretch the field.”
McDonald’s description applies to several ACC tight ends.
At North Carolina, one year after Ebron set school records for the position with 40 receptions for 625 yards, second-year coach Larry Fedora has challenged him to catch 12 TD passes this season. If Ebron can do it, he would tie the Tar Heels record for any receiver.
When Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown is in a bind, his eyes often seek the 250-pound Stinebaugh, who has intangibles Brown appreciates.
“He’s a big security blanket. He’s just someone you can trust,” Brown said. “He knows what he’s doing out there.
“He can read coverages well. He’s good in the run game and the passing game. He’s someone you can check the ball down to. He’s sneaky. He’s got good hands, so when he’s open, he’s definitely a target.”
Like former Virginia standout Miller, Jake McGee arrived on campus having played quarterback in high school, but with the size and willingness to make the switch. Miller’s success surely made it more appealing. He was the first ACC player to win the John Mackey Award as the college game’s top tight end, and was a first-round draft choice of the Steelers. He’s been a significant contributor on two Super Bowl winning teams, and a Pro Bowler.
McGee, who wears the same jersey — No. 83 — as Miller, drew comparisons to him last season with a 44-yard, third-down catch while surrounded by Penn State defenders. McGee later had a touchdown catch while toeing the back line of the end zone with 6 seconds left as Virginia beat Miami 41-40.
“You’ve got to have guys that can make plays and (McGee) appears to be one of those guys that, even if he’s not open, he’s got a chance at getting the football and making something happen,” said Steve Fairchild, Virginia’s new offensive coordinator. “I’m excited. We’ll just develop and see what he does.”
Relying on the tight end to make big plays can be habit-forming, too.
At Clemson, Dwayne Allen made big catch after big catch two years ago. After he moved on to the Indianapolis Colts, Brandon Ford’s eight touchdown grabs last season were second on the Tigers.
This season, the Tigers beat Georgia in large part thanks to Tajh Boyd’s late touchdown pass to backup tight end Stanton Seckinger. It gave Clemson a 38-28 lead with 7:40 left in a game the Tigers won, 38-35.
At Miami, where Graham followed in the footsteps of Kellen Winslow Jr., the tight end’s role has increased under coach Al Golden, who played the position at Penn State.
Clive Walford had four touchdown catches last season for the Hurricanes, allowing him to join Graham as the only Miami tight ends since 2005 to have that many. Graham had five for the ‘Canes in 2009.
“My mindset for this year is just to perform,” said Walford.
And he has. Of his last 16 catches, 15 have gone for either a first down or a touchdown.
That’s the kind of production Virginia Tech has always sought from its tight ends, too. Former Hokie Jeff King has played eight years in the NFL, and Andre Smith is in his second year with the Dallas Cowboys,
“Andre’s with the Dallas Cowboys, but was never an All-ACC tight end because this conference has had them across the board,” Hokies tight ends coach Bryan Stinespring said. “There’s a lot of them.”