In the multi-faceted world of Texas football training, coaches hold an all-freshmen practice each preseason to identify young talent. Watching as the newcomers run a series of drills, the coaching staff looks to nail down where each freshman will best contribute to the team.
This year, one drill stood out — the cross-field catch drill, which players also run at the NFL combine.
“You’ll fire about six balls at them, and they have to rapid-fire catch them,” said Shawn Watson, assistant head coach for offense/quarterbacks. “They have to move because they’re flying across the field.”
Though the drill generally caters to receivers and other offensive players primed to catch, Andrew Beck, who was recruited to play linebacker, excelled beyond the coaches’ expectations. As Beck showed “the best hand-eye coordination of the whole group,” according to Watson, the coaching staff began to reevaluate.
“I started politicking right away,” Watson said. “I ran up to [head coach] Charlie [Strong] and said, ‘Hey, 47 has got unbelievable hands, and he can run.’”
It was no secret that Texas’ offensive line was weak. With building suspensions and, later, the season-ending injury of senior center Dominic Espinosa, the offensive line needed far more help than the defensive line did. As the coaches began to piece together their strengths and weaknesses, they decided that Beck would best contribute as a tight end. As his relevance on the team skyrocketed, so did the breadth of his responsibilities.
With a new and learning offensive line, senior running back Malcolm Brown said he and the running backs rely on Beck and senior tight end Geoff Swaim to open the field.
“Those guys — they’re running routes; they’re pass-blocking; they’re run-blocking. … They’re getting in the backfield with us sometimes,” Brown said Nov. 4. “They’re doing so many things with this offense; and they’re so important to this offense; and they know that; and they’ve been doing a great job handling it.”
Beck didn’t enter the tight end position completely blindsided. He played some tight end his senior year at Plant High School in Tampa, Florida, but his success at linebacker garnered him attention. ESPN ranked Beck the No. 46 outside linebacker in the country, and 247 Sports deemed him the No. 66 player in Florida.
Even so, Beck has adapted to his position, making his first start on offense against West Virginia. Statistics don’t tell the story of Beck’s contributions, since his quality of play enhances others’ games rather than helping just himself.
“The Texas Tech game was where he got his most time — that’s the first time we felt like [he] had an intimate knowledge of what we were trying to do,” Watson said. “You could see him executing it during the week on film. He’s been really good since. His confidence level has skyrocketed since that game.”
As sophomore quarterback Tyrone Swoopes continues to develop and Texas’ running game offers greater certainty, the Longhorns are likely to look for production on the ground. The running backs can’t produce without solid blocking, but Brown feels confident the tight ends will do their part. He knows the skill their role requires.
“Those guys have been grinding it out,” Brown said. “They have a tough job. Those coaches expect a lot out of them, just like the rest of us.”