Gators tight ends leave mark in pros

By Steve Anderson

As Gator fans, we’re likely proud that the program has churned out countless pro stars at the big money positions on both sides of the ball. However, an underrated aspect of the program is the recent quality of tight ends that have played for Florida. These guys may not have gotten the ball much in college (considering that in under previous coaching regimes a throw to the tight end was as rare as a home loss), but they still flashed enough skill to get drafted.

How does one explain that? It’s likely because Florida’s tight ends are typically faster than average at the position. Pro tight ends are no longer expected to be plodding blockers in the run game with an occasional look in the passing game. Recently, tight ends who can move are all the rage in the due to their ability to be mismatch nightmares — too big for a defensive back but too quick and athletic for a linebacker to cover. NFL offenses favor high completion percentage passes and a tight end is often a young quarterback’s or mobile quarterback’s best friend.

While the Run N’ Gun and spread options style offenses were the order of the day for previous Gators teams, the Muschamp regime has converted to more of a pro-style offense. Pro-style offenses tend to feature two tight ends, one running back and two receivers with some variations. That equals a whole lot of snaps for tight ends and the proof is in the pudding. In 2012, when the Gators needed a big play or key conversion through the air, quarterback Jeff Driskel often looked the way of 6-foot-3, 243-pound tight end Jordan Reed. Arguably Florida’s best aerial weapon, Reed caught 45 passes for 559 yards and three scores in 2012, making the All-SEC Second Team in the process.

Reed, according to most pro draft analysts, is thought of as a third-to-fifth round pick in the upcoming pro draft, making him the latest in a line of Gators tight ends to get drafted. Consider if you will, the last decade or some of Florida’s tight ends that did, or in Jordan Reed’s case will (barring some catastrophe) get drafted.

Aaron Hernandez (Fourth round, 2010, New England) — The 2009 John Mackey award winner, given annually to the nation’s best tight end. Hernandez, at 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds combined with 4.64 speed, set Gators records including most receptions (68) and receiving yards (850) at the position. Has continued beast mode for the perennially playoff-bounds New England Patriots.

Cornelius Ingram (Fifth round, 2008, Philadelphia) — Formerly a quarterback, the local product from nearby Hawthorne made an impact during the 2006 Gator championship run, catching 30 passes for 380 yards. Bounced around the league, most recently on Broncos practice squad in 2011.

Ben Troupe (Second round, 2004, Tennessee) — Blessed with great speed for a man 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, Troupe averaged 14.9 yards a catch for his career in Gainesville from 2000 to 2003. First team All-SEC in 2003 and a top-3 finalist for John Mackey Award the same year. As a pro, totaled 106 passes for 1,056 yards and seven scores, mainly for the Tennessee Titans.

Aaron Walker (Fifth round, 2003, San Francisco) — Totaled 55 catches and 703 yards and nine touchdowns as a Gator from 2000 to 2002. More of a “traditional” type tight end who played five years in the NFL helping anchor ground games in San Francisco and St. Louis.

Erron Kinney (Third round, 2000, Tennessee) — Six-foot-5, 275-pound end in the Spurrier Era who never caught more than 16 balls in a season at Florida but went on to record four seasons with 25-plus catches as a Tennessee Titan.

Ironically only one of these guys, Hernandez, caught so much as 46 balls in a season in Gainesville. When one considers that Hernandez, Kinney, Troupe have all caught 50 balls in a season in the NFL, it makes the case that Florida, while under the radar in this aspect, produces quality tight ends. It also speaks to how well overall the Gators entire coaching staff recruits, develops and prepares these guys.

When looking around the formidable Southeastern Conference, there have been a only a handful of tight ends that dominated on the next level in the last ten to fifteen years, most namely All-Pro Jason Witten, a former Tennessee Volunteer.

The jewel of former Gators tight ends has to be current NFL star Aaron Hernandez, who like Witten, Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, and Antonio Gates, is the new prototype at the position. These lethal combinations of speed and size create havoc for defenses for lucky Gators fans the best may be yet to come in Gainesville.

While the Florida faithful will miss the dependable Reed, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about the tight end position heading into 2013. Kent Taylor, the nation’s No. 1-ranked high school tight end in 2011 (from nearby Land O’Lakes) looks to add a dimension perhaps never seen in Gainesville at the position. Blessed with excellent speed, Taylor stands at 6-foot-5and 225 pounds, with a frame that suggests that he can easily add twenty more or so. Taylor made sick catches and simply ran past defenders in high school. He will still likely share snaps with junior Clay Burton and the second-best high school tight end Colin Thompson. All can make an impact in 2013 in the passing game, but make this is likely Taylor’s job to lose. If he can continue to progress in his blocking, Taylor has Jimmy Graham-type speed and is fluid after the catch.

It seems that the Gators have the tight end covered headed into 2013, unlike their opponents. In Brent Pease’s pro-style attack, with its various motions and formation quirks, you can count on some big numbers out of the Taylor-Burton-Thompson trio.