The lack of depth is one of the biggest concerns facing Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze as he enters his second in charge of the Rebel football program. The ongoing injury, eligibility and inexperience question marks at tight end could force him to phase the position out entirely and get creative with the talent he does have at other positions.
According to Hugh Kellenberger of the Clarion Ledger: “A.J. Jackson will not be eligible to enroll at the school and begin his college football career.” Jackson wasn’t among the litany of four and five-star prospects signed in this year’s class, but he was expected to be a key contributor and be a matchup problem for opposing defenses at 6-6 and 235-pounds.
Adding to the questions at the position is the knee injury suffered in the spring by promising freshman Christian Morgan who like Jackson was a three-star tight end recruit. Morgan showed flashes in spring practice and looked poised to earn a starting gig. Currently his health status leaves his role in the offense up in the air.
The starter by default if the season started today would be former walk-on and rising senior Jack Nuismer whose next catch will be his first career reception. At 6-2 and 234-pounds he lacks ideal size and bulk to be a complete tight end despite his strong work ethic.
What Freeze and offensive coordinators Dan Werner and Matt Luke should do is implement the talent they have on the roster at other positions and phase out the tight end position. This move would not be permanent and would be based upon the opponent that week to take advantage of matchups. The two biggest reasons they can afford to make such a move are ballyhooed recruits Laremy Tunsil and Laquon Treadwell.
Tunsil and Treadwell were the No. 1 recruits at offensive tackle and wide receiver last season, respectively, and each needs to see the field often during their freshman seasons. Ole Miss returns four starting offensive linemen with the lone departure guard A.J. Hawkins, so if Tunsil will see the field it likely won’t be as a starting tackle.
I would line up Tunsil as a third offensive tackle and use him where the tight end would traditionally line up on running downs. This way the 6-6 300-pound Tunsil gains valuable experience, and you have a much better blocker than any tight end would provide, especially one that’s 234-pounds.
Defenses won’t have to worry about him running routes, but imposing your physical will in the ground game will be his calling card. Stanford and Wisconsin are two teams that have had success running with a “jumbo” package.
The role of Treadwell will be increased by taking the tight end out of the passing game with the Rebels’ top three receivers returning from last year. Formations with four wide receiver sets with Donte Moncrief and Treadwell on the perimeter with Ja-Mes Logan and Vince Sanders in the slots would be a challenge for any defense to contain.
This move will give playing time to two of the team’s three biggest recruits, limit the exposure of inexperienced and unproductive tight ends and create mismatches for opposing defenses. In the meantime Morgan gets healthy and fellow freshman Evan Engram can bulk up to be better equipped to play the position.
The sign of a great coach is putting your players in a position to maximize their talents and succeed. Phasing the tight end out of the offense is doing just that and is an idea that Freeze and his staff should not only explore but implement heading into the 2013 season.