If not for the offensive line, tight end might be the Gators’ biggest question mark entering the season. After all, the position contributed just 34 catches for 441 yards and five touchdowns in 2018. The returning players have combined for just 16 receptions, 206 yards and one score in their careers.
Despite the lack of returning production, the tight ends said their natural abilities should allow them to do well in the passing game. How they develop as blockers and leaders will determine how good this group can be this season.
C’yontai Lewis was undersized, didn’t always run great routes and had suspect hands, but he was gritty and took on much larger defenders. He was a huge part of the Gators’ success in running the ball last season. Kemore Gamble said playing with Lewis and Moral Stephens was a humbling experience.
“[When] I first came in, I thought I was a good blocker and figured out I wasn’t,” Gamble said. “They showed me the ropes, they showed me the technique and helped me get better in everything.”
With the offensive line searching for consistency, it’s important that the tight ends step up and do their part. Dan Mullen’s offense is centered around a power running game. If you don’t block at tight end or wide receiver, you’re not going to play.
Footwork and leverage are the hardest parts of learning to block as a tight end, Gamble said. They have to be able to get their feet set quickly, get under a defender and drive them back. They can’t just rely on their hands to knock guys out of the way like they could in high school.
Kyle Pitts said he learned a lot about blocking from Lewis last season.
“He was just telling me to focus on the little things and 'Get your hands inside, and you will be fine because you are already strong. So, just do the little things after practice, and it will help you during the game,’” he said.
To get better over the summer, the tight ends got together and ran the same drills they do during individual periods in practice, Dante Lang said.
Lang said Lewis and Stephens were great mentors for the younger players and were very accessible. If he had a question about something, he would call one of them, and they would explain it to him. He said several guys have tried filling that leadership void, but nobody will ever replace Lewis.
“He was like the life of the party everywhere he went,” he said.
One of the goals for the group over the off-season was to fine-tune some of the smaller details of playing the position, Gamble said. The hope is that a better mastery of the details will eliminate the costly mistakes and allow them to play faster.
Pitts said that, while they’re competing against each other for playing time, they’re also learning from each other and making each other better.
“We just bring the best out of each other every day because we are just competing,” he said. “We all know we have different skillsets. But, every skill that each of us has, we just use it to our ability.”
Gamble, the projected starter, is a former four-star recruit who didn’t see much action in 2018. He’s a bit undersized at 6-foot-3 and 241 pounds, but he’s a solid athlete with dependable hands. He thinks he’s better at blocking now, but he also feels like his speed and route-running have improved.
At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds with blondish brown hair, Lucas Krull looks like Thor. He’s strong and fast, but he’s still trying to re-acclimate himself to the sport after he spent two years playing junior college baseball. His combination of strength, speed and maturity might give him the highest upside of the tight ends, but his biggest contribution so far was a 15-yard pass to Feleipe Franks on a trick play against LSU.
“I played my whole life but taking those few years off and just re-evaluating where I was and learning the technique and everything, but, where I am now, I'm feeling great and ready to roll,” he said.
To get better at blocking, he worked with the offensive linemen after workouts this summer.
“It's been a tremendous help getting with them and working [footwork] and technical movements and stuff like that,” he said. “So, that's been a huge step in my game."
Pitts is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. He’s 6-foot-6 and 239 pounds but runs like a wide receiver. He worked with the wideouts in the spring but has practiced with the tight ends in the fall.
He said he likes bouncing between the two positions because it makes him a more versatile player and helps expand his knowledge of the offense. He understands the playbook and the various concepts in it better than he did last year, and the game has slowed down for him.
Lang is a giant mystery. He played defensive line until he switched to tight end as a high school senior. He said he’s starting to feel more comfortable at the position, particularly when it comes to blocking.
“At [defensive] end, all I needed to do was push and pull,” he said. “Now, I have to bring my feet, my head, my hands inside and block, make sure my head’s on the right side. It was a hard transition, but, after a while, I was doing it consistently, and, after a while, I started getting better at it.”
Freshman Keon Zipperer seems to be the future at the position, as he’s probably the best pass-catching tight end UF has signed since Jordan Reed. As could be expected from a freshman, he needs to refine his technique and get better as a blocker. Even though he’s only 6-foot-2 and 232 pounds, he’s probably too skilled as a receiver to keep on the sidelines.
Lang has been impressed with him so far.
“When I first got here, it was kind of difficult for me to learn the plays,” Lang said. “He’s learning them really fast. He’s picking it up. He knows all the audibles. When it’s a three-down or four-down check, he knows the plays. He knows everything.”
Florida has better personnel at tight end this year, but some players are going to have to learn quickly. Only Gamble has been with the program for more than one season.
Mullen said he likes the progress of the group in fall camp so far, but they need to remain healthy.
“I think they’re coming along,” he said. “We still have some steps that we need to continue to take for consistency of plays. I know they can make the plays; we’ve just got to see it on an every-down basis.”
While they might be young, the tight ends aren’t lacking in raw talent. This might be the deepest UF has been at the position since Mullen’s stint as offensive coordinator.
“We all play our own special roles,” Krull said. “Especially with us all, we're all big, we all can run, block, so it's just something that we can do that I know a lot of other people in other areas can't really do. I think with us as a group we can be one of the best in the nation. So, I think we're really diverse and can do a lot of special things."