We close our series examining the best returning players at each position group in the Southeastern Conference with the tight end position. Other than quarterback, this is the position group that lacks the most depth. With the departure of O.J. Howard and Evan Engram to the NFL, there isn’t a lot of star power returning. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some good players returning.
With most teams running a one tight-end set almost exclusively, there are fewer tight ends to choose from. But with the transformation of the position in the modern football era into a situation-based position, it makes it much harder to evaluate. Most teams have a “passing game tight end” and a “running game tight end.” Which is more valuable, pass catching skill or blocking skill? We looked at all aspects to determine the five best returning SEC tight ends for the 2017 season.
Five Best Returning SEC Tight Ends
5. C.J. Conrad, Jr., Kentucky
C.J. Conrad sneaks into our top five list based on his importance to his team. His numbers aren’t bad — 19 receptions for 262 yards in 2016, but they aren’t eye popping. They are better, relatively, than anyone else not listed. And he had four touchdowns for the Wildcats last season including a three-touchdown game against New Mexico State.
Conrad will be the second leading returning receiver for the Wildcats going into 2017, with Jeff Badet transferring to Oklahoma and Ryan Timmons graduating. More importantly, Conrad will serve as a safety valve for Stephen Johnson as he continues to mature in the passing game. With the loss of Badet and Timmons, Johnson’s downfield options are likely to be limited. Conrad will also be counted on to help Benny Snell, Jr. improve upon his 1,000 yard season.
With eight starters returning for the Kentucky offense, Conrad has an opportunity to shine this season. The pressure is on Mark Stoops to turn investment and recruiting into wins on the field. Conrad is a player that can help deliver that return on Saturdays.
4. Ethan Wolf, Sr., Tennessee
Ethan Wolf has shown signs of pass catching talents at Tennessee, but has also had some issues with drops in key moments. Wolf delivered 21 receptions for 239 yards and two touchdowns last season. A three-year starter, last season was the lowest receptions and yards to date. Much like Tennessee’s season, Wolf’s junior campaign was solid but failed to live up to expectations.
With a new quarterback in town — whether its Quinten Dormady or Jarrett Guarantano — Wolf might get to use his 6’6″, 245 frame a little more often. It’s unlikely that either Dormady or Guarantano will run as much as Joshua Dobbs did in 2016. And the loss of Josh Malone and Alvin Kamara (a key Dobbs target out of the backfield) likely means more chances for the Ohio native.
Wolf wasn’t a clutch option for the Vols last season. The bulk of his work came on second down and in the third quarter. He was one of the more consistent tight ends in the league last season, especially after some early season drops issues. When he was targeted, it was effective. Wolf’s 66% first down ratio is the highest of all returning tight ends.
If the Vols want to move forward in 2017, they need to turn to Wolf to move the chains more often.
3. Isaac Nauta, So., Georgia
While not the most talented of Georgia‘s offensive players last season, Isaac Nauta may have been the most consistent. Isaiah McKenzie, Jacob Eason, and even Nick Chubb battled consistency at times last season. But the freshman Nauta played evenly after he broke into the starter’s role in game three.
He was consistent all season, across all downs, and across all quarters. Seventeen of his 29 passes went for first downs, clutch for a team that was involved in seven one-score games. Four of those were decided by three points or less.
Nauta also showed some explosiveness for his 6’4″, 245 pound frame. He had nine receptions of over 15 yards and four that went for 25+ yards. With Georgia’s defense looking like king-makers heading into the season, a consistent chain-mover like Nauta, paired with a a matured Eason and known talents Chubb and Michel could be another cog in Georgia’s return to the top.
2. De’Andre Goolsby, Sr., Florida
Sometimes with tight ends, you have to look beyond the numbers. De’Andre Goolsby is a good example. His numbers clearly don’t match up to his talent. Goolsby had 38 receptions for 342 yards and three touchdowns for a sputtering Gators offense last season. But he has so much more to give. He’s rated as high as the #3 tight end for the 2018 NFL Draft by some experts.
There’s no denying his explosiveness. Eight of his 38 receptions went for more than 15 yards. He’s terrific with the ball after the catch and is a match-up nightmare for inside linebackers or slower strong safeties. Unfortunately, the Gators rarely went to Goolsby on third down or in the fourth quarter.
Goolsby’s two biggest concerns are in the run game and consistency. He clearly needs to improve his point-of-attack blocking. And he needs to improve his consistency. In the last seven games of 2016, Goolsby only had one game with more than two receptions. This includes a five game stretch with four total receptions. With Florida playing musical chairs at quarterback in an unforgiving schedule, they desperately need Goolsby to realize his talent week-in and week-out.
1. Hayden Hurst, Jr., South Carolina
Hayden Hurst might be the one person at the top of our position lists that you don’t know. But opposing coaches know his name. The converted wide out headlines almost every preseason All-SEC list. He’s coming off of a 48 reception, 616 yard 2016 campaign. That was with a quarterback that should have still been playing in high school.
With Jake Bentley another year stronger and the Gamecocks defense hopefully a little better than last season, Hurst could have a break-out season. Over 32% of Hurst’s receptions last season went for 15 yards or more. He tacked on another 6 that went for over 25 yards. And Carolina consistently went to him in the fourth quarter. Hurst is second in returning tight ends with a 62.5% first down ratio. He’s exactly the type of tight end you need for a young quarterback like Bentley and a team like South Carolina. He gained more comfort in the blocking game as the season went on as well. With Hurst, confidence is key.
At 6’5″, 250, with H-Back speed, he’s another match-up nightmare for defensive coordinators. If you have the safety help the linebackers in coverage, you open up one side of the field. If not, you leave a middle linebacker in read-and-react coverage against a guy probably bigger and almost certainly faster than him.
If South Carolina is going to make a move up the SEC East this season, look for Hayden Hurst to be a key component.