New tight end depth critical with Rob Blanchflower’s status unclear

By Nick Canelas

If this were a year ago, the Massachusetts football team would probably be scrambling for help.

Star tight end and captain Rob Blanchflower is being held out of practice for the next 10 to 14 days and UMass coach Charley Molnar said at media day on Tuesday that his status for the season opener at Wisconsin on Aug. 31 “remains to be seen.”

Maria Uminski/Collegian

Now there’s a battle over who could potentially take his spot.

The Minutemen have five different options at tight end that could fill the Blanchflower void if needed, which is nothing short of a miracle given where they were under these circumstances in 2012.

Blanchflower missed consecutive games in October last season and there were no tight ends on the roster ready to back him up. Instead, it was left to freshman Derek Beck to convert from his usual wide receiver spot to tight end, a position he wasn’t physically ready for.

As a result, the UMass offense suffered a major setback.

Fast forward to training camp 2013. Blanchflower is down again, but Beck is back and better than ever, and he’s joined in competition by fifth-year transfer Ricardo Miller, fellow wide receiver-to-tight end convert Rodney Mills, big sophomore Brandon Howard and freshman Sharif Custis in Blanchflower’s absence.

“This is the first year that I’ve been here where we’ve had true depth at tight end and that’s great,” Blanchflower said. “It’s good that if God forbid something happens to one of us you’re not an irreplaceable item, someone can step in and do an adequate job at your position and help the team win.”

This newfound depth also makes life easier on Molnar. He can now afford to sit Blanchflower until he’s 100 percent, still run the offense efficiently in practice and feel no pressure to rush his star back, even if it means missing the first game of the season.

The Minutemen have different schemes in their offense that involve multiple tight ends, so it’s likely each of the five players will see some playing time regardless of whether or not Blanchflower is in the lineup.

While each tight end brings different skill sets to the table, Beck has made the most noticeable impact with the first-string offense and his improvements as a more polished tight end have caught the attention of Molnar.

“Derek Beck is a much, much better football player than he was a year ago,” Molnar said.

At 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, Beck is most effective in the red zone, where he can use his size to his advantage to make catches in the back of the end zone over smaller defensive backs and linebackers, something he’s already made a habit of in practice.

“That’s one of my strengths because I provide a big target for the quarterback,” Beck said. “They like throwing the ball high so I can go up and get it and really use my receiver skills.”

Miller and Mills both have experience at wide receiver, which makes them both solid pass-catching options, while the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Howard will likely see most of his action in two-tight end sets and in run-blocking situations.

Miller’s 6-foot-4 frame, speed and physicality makes him an ideal option for quarterback Mike Wegzyn. But maybe his most important quality at the moment is the experience and veteran presence that the other active tight ends lack.

“I got the most experience,” Miller said. “Granted, I didn’t really play a lot at Michigan, but just the fact that I’ve been around, I know what it takes, and being into this four years now I can kind of help the guys on certain situations and certain reads and pickups that they wouldn’t have seen being a rookie.”

Mills (6-foot-1, 205) may not have the same size advantage as his competitors, but believes his experience at receiver still puts him ahead of opposing defenders.

“I don’t really have the traditional size of a tight end, but I like to be physical,” Mills said. “I don’t mind blocking, I believe I run good routes for a tight end and create mismatches with linebackers with my size and speed against bigger, slower linebackers.”

The wealth of depth at tight end should be on full display this season, especially if health concerns continue to linger with Blanchflower. For those suiting up for UMass now, it’s about cashing in on the opportunity.

“It’s a really big opportunity because now I finally have a chance to show my skills that I’ve honed as a tight end,” Beck said. “Now I can show the MAC that I can compete this year.”

Nick Canelas can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.