D.J. Grant

Tight end M.J. McFarland celebrates a touchdown catch in Texas’ 66-31 win over Ole Miss. McFarland and the rest of the tight ends have only contributed 46 yards and two touchdowns reciving, but they’ve made an impact blocking.

Photo Credit: Elisabeth Dillon | Daily Texan Staff

Take a quick glance at the Texas depth chart and you’ll see it’s a pretty decisive list. David Ash has become the unquestioned starter thanks to his impressive performances early in the season. The running back spot is listed as “or”, but opposing defenses will receive a steady diet of both Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown.

However, the tight end position is the anomaly.

D.J. Grant and Greg Daniels have been listed as co-starters for every game and their backups, M.J. McFarland and Barrett Matthews, see plenty of time on the field, too. Both Grant and McFarland have caught touchdown passes, while Matthews and Daniels have excelled in holding their blocks on the edge.

Having four players who are ready to step in at any time and perform has created a competitive atmosphere between the tight ends, albeit a friendly one. But above all they try to live up to the lofty standards of a legacy of Texas tight ends that includes NFL players Bo Scaife, Jermichael Finley and David Thomas.

“There is a lot of competition throughout tight end because we all want to meet the standard of Texas,” Matthews said. “We build to strive to do things right and to get a win each week.”

Even with four players contributing, their impact doesn’t jump out in the box score. But as a group they feel like they’ve quietly made their mark in the wins and losses column.

“For the first three games I feel like we have done great,” Matthews said. “There is still more to come, and we still have to keep on striving and doing our best and getting our ends cut off.”

But like Matthews pointed out, the tight ends are still capable of doing more. The coaches have been happy with their blocking on the line and downfield but their work in the passing game has left something to be desired.

Through three games the tight ends have only nabbed six balls — with five of those receptions coming from Grant — for 46 yards and two touchdowns combined. To put that in perspective, Mike Davis and Marquise Goodwin each eclipsed 46 yards in one catch against Ole Miss.

To be fair, the lack of production from the tight ends can be attributed to a variety of factors. The Texas offense has a large array of weapons, and the tight ends are pretty low on the priority list as far as ball distribution goes.

“They understand the nature of how we do things offensively and how it works,” co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin said. “They understand it’s a matter of time and they’ll get their opportunities as well, but it’s a team effort.”

By far the biggest factor in the group’s limited passing production is the heavy emphasis on assisting the Longhorns’ domineering rushing attack. Texas is ranked 13th in the country with 258.7 yards per contest on the ground, and the blocking the tight ends provide on the outside is a huge part of that.

Entering the season, tight end was a sizable question mark. There was no future NFL standout like Finley, or even a player who was a proven commodity in the passing game like Blaine Irby was last season.

But the tight-end-by-committee approach has worked well, in part because the group was motivated by the criticism they received in the offseason.

“We took it as a challenge to dominate the defensive games, dominate the pass game and just to stay on the field,” Matthews said.

The key word there is “we.” The “or” may never be penciled out of the depth chart, but it doesn’t matter as long as the group continues to approach each snap as “we.”

The tight ends are back.

For the past three seasons, the Longhorns’ offense had a steady decline in production from the tight end position. That’s all changed in 2011.

Blaine Irby and D.J. Grant have returned from serious knee injuries that cost them a combined five seasons, and the two have begun to assert themselves within the Texas offense. The tight ends’ emergence has also opened things up for the rest of the Longhorns’ attack.

During Texas’ win over UCLA, Grant hauled in six passes for 77 yards and three touchdowns. But the breakout game wasn’t just about him. It eased the burden on the rest of the offense.

“When the tight ends get the ball it opens up the defense more,” Grant said. “When we have tight ends that can run good routes, it forces the defense to put more defensive backs in the game and that helps the run game open up and get the receivers out of double coverage.”

That’s exactly what happened against the Bruins.

The defense started to key on the tight ends, which in turn gave more opportunities for big plays to wide receivers down field. In the second half of that game, the Longhorns rushing attack took advantage of the extra defensive backs on the field, running all over UCLA for a season-high 284 yards.

Ever since Jermichael Finley left early for the NFL following the 2007 season, the Longhorns have struggled to find consistency from their tight ends. They were leaning on Irby to pick up where Finley left off, but a knee injury in 2008 derailed those hopes.

Defensive coordinators were able to eliminate the threat of the tight end from their game plans and focus in on stopping the Texas receivers and running game. That simply isn’t the case this season.

“Since we’re all healthy now, it’s one of those deals where we can hurt a defense with the run game and pass game,” Irby said.

“We definitely can stretch the defense out, D.J. showed that last game. The safeties and defensive coaches are going to have to take the tight end as a factor.”

The benefits of a game-changing tight end are endless. They can dictate a defense’s coverage, provide an extra threat in the red zone and make an impact on play-action passes.

“When you have a tight end, you can control the middle of the field,” said co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin. “When you’ve got that threat down the middle, now (the defense) can’t just go double outside the wide receivers and put a linebacker inside. They have to keep another guy — a safety — aware of what’s going on down the middle, which helps you get one-on-one coverage outside.

“It’s just one more for the defense to go okay, ‘What are they going to do?’ If you can get them to freeze their feet a little bit, you’ve got an advantage.”

But this group of tight ends is doing more than just helping out in the passing game. Once criticized for lacking the strength and toughness to block on the edge, the tight ends are creating running lanes for Texas’ dynamic tailbacks.

“They have been blocking better than in the past,” said senior left tackle Tray Allen. “It’s encouraging because we all have a hand in the dirt and we all have to open holes for our backs to get yards and make our team look great.”

While Irby and Grant were rehabbing their knee injuries for two seasons, the two used the extra time in the weight room to bulk up and become better blockers.

“I feel like I was always there mentally, I just had to get there physically,” Grant said.

Grant was a receiver at nearby LBJ High School, and then switched to tight end after tearing his right ACL, PCL and hamstring two years ago. His background as a premier pass-catcher, though, gives him the versatility that coaches covet.

“He’s got a lot of tools,” Harsin said. “We’re moving him around. I think he’s got the ability to be the total package.”

Still, the Longhorns have five other tight ends that are making a case for more playing time, including Irby.

“[Harsin] knows what each of us are best at and he finds a way to get us involved,” Grant said. “When everybody is involved like that, everybody is happy. And when you’ve got a happy team, you’ve got a good team.”

As long as Harsin continues to utilize the tight ends like he did against UCLA, the offense will only get better. Yes, the tight ends are back.

Printed on September 30, 2011 as: Tight end role expanded in Texas' passing attack

Freshman running back Malcolm Brown (No. 28) follows Dominic Espinosa (No. 55) through the hole on one of his 22 carries. Brown finished with 110 yards and scored his first ever touchdown as a Longhorn.

Photo Credit: Lawrence Peart | Daily Texan Staff

Someone please tell Malcolm Brown to tie his shoes tighter.

The freshman had a number of firsts in Saturday’s game against UCLA. He started for the first time, he rushed for 100 yards for the first time and he scored his first career touchdown, crossing the goal line as one of his shoes went flying.

That, along with breakout performances from Case McCoy and D.J. Grant, was more than enough to give No. 24 Texas an impressive 49-20 victory over the Bruins.

Making his first start at quarterback, McCoy went 12-for-15 with 168 yards and two touchdowns, both to junior tight end Grant. Grant caught a third touchdown from Jaxon Shipley as well.

“Very few people thought we would be 3-0 with our non-conference schedule,” said head coach Mack Brown. “What we’ve got to do is to keep working because we’re not nearly as good as we can be.”

Brown had only two carries before halftime in the Longhorns’ first two wins over Rice and BYU but handled the larger workload well, rushing the ball 22 times and averaging five yards per carry, for a final total of 110 yards. Even more impressive was his 16-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. Brown broke through the middle of the Texas offensive line and dragged multiple UCLA defenders into the end zone while leaving his right shoe behind.

“I knew he’d probably break 100 yards,” McCoy said. “Malcolm’s a great player for us. I think we all knew that coming in and we’re just glad that he’s stepping up and making plays like he is.”

The true freshman wasn’t a part of UCLA’s 34-12 victory over Texas last season, but many of his teammates were, although they insisted “revenge” was not in their vocabulary as they prepared for their rematch with the Bruins. Nonetheless, the memory of the 22-point defeat provided the motivation necessary to return the favor as a trio of first-quarter interceptions led to three Texas touchdowns and a 21-0 lead the team did not give up.

“This is a team that came out and dominated us last year so we wanted to make sure we gave this team a little bit of payback,” said senior linebacker Keenan Robinson, who tied two others with a game-high nine tackles.

McCoy didn’t take any snaps in the Longhorns’ loss to the Bruins a year ago but still had some troublesome memories lingering in the back of his head. His older brother and current Cleveland Browns signal-caller, Colt McCoy, played the final game of his illustrious Texas career at the Rose Bowl in the national title game two seasons ago. The two-time All-American suffered a stinger in the first quarter that knocked him out of the contest and the Longhorns fell to Alabama, 37-21. The younger McCoy, however, ensured that at least one member of his family would triumph in Pasadena.

“That was one of my goals, to come in here and get a win for [Colt],” McCoy said. “That was not a fun memory of mine the last time he was here.”

One of the best aspects of McCoy’s performance was his ability to avoid pressure in the pocket, keep his eyes downfield and make crisp throws in critical situations. He did it first on his 45-yard touchdown toss to Grant and again on a 25-yard strike to Mike Davis.

Texas needed all 25 of those yards to move the chains thanks to 5-foot-9, 175-pound Marquise Goodwin, the smallest player on the field, being flagged for a personal foul after leaving a hapless Andrew Abbott. The hit was the catalyst for a physical effort by a Texas team that out-muscled UCLA, something it failed to do last year.

“Marquise could play defense,” said junior safety Kenny Vaccaro. “It was a great hit.”

Texas got both hard hits and big-time catches from unlikely sources as Grant had the game of his life, scoring on half of his six catches. The Longhorns’ tight ends combined for two catches this season before coming to the Rose Bowl and no Texas pass catcher had more than two touchdown receptions last season, making Grant’s performance as remarkable as it was unexpected.

“If any team plays as hard as they did today, anyone can score three touchdowns,” Grant said. “Who’s it going to be this week? Who’s it going to be next week? Everybody’s going to have their moment.”

Shipley, who hooked up with Grant for his third touchdown, displayed his versatility again as he completed a pass for the second straight game, caught five passes and ran for 15 yards. The true freshman was one of many Longhorn rookies to play big roles this weekend and this season. Shipley, Brown, quarterback David Ash and running back Joe Bergeron are just a handful of first-year players making their mark.

“This is probably the biggest role any freshman class has played since we’ve been at Texas,” Brown, who’s in his fourteenth year as the Longhorns’ head coach, said. “I think one of the keys is that the older guys are helping the young guys. They’ve welcomed them and they know we need them to win the games.”

Texas goes into their bye week with a 3-0 record and will face Iowa State, who is also 3-0, on Oct. 1.

Maybe with the extra time between games, someone can get around to finding Brown some shoes that won’t fall off so easily.