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.”