Building A Tight End, WVU Style
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – One of the many duties that West Virginia tight ends and inside receivers coach Travis Trickett is charged with is finding players who can be developed into one of the ever-evolving weapons in the game the pass-catching tight end.
The position has gone through many changes, with accompanying increases and decreases in popularity, at all levels of the game. Initially an extension of the offensive line, players such as John Mackey of the 1960s Baltimore Colts helped morph it into a receiving threat. More recently, ultra athletic big men who might have been power forward stars in the NBA, such as Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten, Antonio Gates and Shannon Sharpe, have again brought the tight end into the spotlight, even with the popularization of the spread offense, that often eschewed even having such a player on the roster.
That happened at West Virginia too, as the Mountaineers went several seasons where the tight end was simply a short yardage blocker and a very occasional surprise passing target before Trevon Wesco broke out a year ago with 26 catches for 366 yards. That showing earned him a spot in the NFL, and demonstrated quite convincingly that the tight end should not be ignored in building an offense, no matter what scheme is employed.
Of course, players with Wesco’s build and athleticism don’t roll off the assembly line. There is often a building and development process that has to take place, but there are some skills that have to be present in order to start down that path. Trickett, who coached tight ends and slot receivers at Samford in 2011, has definite ideas on making that play out, and it starts with the ‘must-have’ qualities that are God-given and can’t be coached.
“I use the example of Anthony Becht,” Trickett said of the Mountaineer great, who played at WVU from 1996-99. “He was a 199-pounder out of high school. Mike O’Laughlin was 205 pounds out of high school. You recruit things you can’t coach. You recruit size, you recruit length, you recruit ball skills, you recruit body control. You have to make sure the mentality is there too. How much do they love football?
“The great thing about our strength and nutrition staff is that we are going to put the weight on them. The proof is in the pudding,” said Trickett, perhaps unconsciously going for the food bon mot. “We can teach them to block.”
Trickett sees that process playing out for O’Laughlin, and also for TJ Banks, the youngsters among tight ends who are adding weight and strength while learning more about the duties of tight ends. O’Laughlin, for example, lined up as an inside receiver, but not necessarily attached to the line of scrimmage, for much of his high school career, so every day of play at West Virginia’s version of the tight end spot is an education for him.
“Mike is a kid that wants to do well. He is so hard on himself. I’ve been very, very, very pleased with how he is attacking this fall camp,” said Trickett enthusiastically. “He’s going to be a good player for us. He’s young. He’s doing a lot of things that he had never done for the first time, like (putting his) hand on the ground and hip alignment. He’s not getting frustrated. He’s learning from it. We have to get a lot of growth out of him through the season.”
O’Laughlin has also clearly been attacking in the weight room, too. Despite missing last year with a knee injury suffered before preseason camp, he’s added 50 pounds to his frame without losing any of the speed or athletic ability that allows him to get downfield. He might not be ready to rumble over opponents like Wesco did in his final year just yet, but he already has the size to post up against smaller defenders and screen them away from the ball. So too does Banks (6-5, 253 lbs.), who routinely turns in acrobatic catches in practice.
The importance of their development was underscored recently when Jovani Haskins, who was first on the depth chart at tight end, was changed with a handful of traffic misdemeanors. Head coach Neal Brown has not announced punishment as yet, but it would not be unreasonable to assume that Haskins might miss a game as a result of his actions. If that occurs, O’Laughlin and Banks would be West Virginia’s options at the position.
As many other coaches have noted this preseason, the difference between the team in the spring and the fall is noticeable, and in a good way. It’s important to understand, however, that the Mountaineers aren’t a juggernaut waiting to be unleashed just yet.
“We are night and day from where we were in the spring, but that’s because we were so far behind the eight-ball in the spring,” Trickett observed. “We still have a long way to go, but we are taking steps to improve.”