It’s a position that often gets overlooked in a conference everyone pays attention to. The modern tight end has an identity crisis. Is it primarily a passing game position? Or is it more of down linemen, helping to clear the way for a bruising rushing attack? That’s what makes this position so demanding: you have to do both. Who can handle this double duty? Certainly those listed below, the top five returning SEC tight ends for the upcoming season.
Top Five Returning SEC Tight Ends In 2018
In a conference that has been dominated by prominent rushing attacks over the last decade, the tight end position hasn’t been profiled as much as some other positions. But this might be the year of the quarterback, and the tight ends expect to get some love in 2018.
Who’s going to benefit most from this season? Here are the top five returning SEC ends in 2018.
5. Dawson Knox, Junior, Ole Miss:
Knox finished second among SEC tight ends last season with 321 receiving yards. That’s even more impressive since he didn’t get into the starter’s position until the California game. Knox finished the season with 24 receptions for a 13.38 yards-per-reception average. With A.J. Brown leading the returning SEC receivers and Jordan Ta’amu having another off-season under his belt, you should expect to see Knox shine in 2018. If the Rebels can get anything from their running game, Knox could quickly become Ta’amu’s secret weapon in the passing game.
Expect Knox to be on the Burlsworth Trophy Watch Lists as the season begins and don’t be surprised to see him hoist the award at season’s end. Knox has the classic college walk-on story — injury during high school senior season, position switch when he gets on campus, and had to work his way into the starting lineup. But he’s definitely found his spot in Matt Luke’s offense. With any luck, he could turn Oxford into “Knox”ford this season.
4. Foster Moreau, Senior, LSU:
Moreau is the most likely person on this list not to benefit from a quarterback surge in 2018. But that’s OK. He was rated as Pro Football Focus’ number one run blocker in all of FBS college football last season. He had a total of 476 run blocks from the tight end position in 2017, which was third most in the nation. At 6’6″, 250 pounds, you can see why he’s found success enabling LSU’s recent rushing attack.
But he’s not a one trick Tiger. He added 24 receptions for 278 yards last season in a very, very average passing attack. More importantly, he’s a leader in the locker room. Moreau will wear the coveted #18 jersey for LSU this season. While he might not jump out on the stat sheet, he’s a guy that smart football people notice immediately on film. He’ll play a critical role in getting LSU back to the top of the SEC West this season.
3. Isaac Nauta, Jr., Junior, Georgia:
The 2017 season was a little bit of a disappointment for Isaac Nauta. Whether it was a sophomore slump, or a product of a freshman quarterback with an NFL caliber running game, expect Nauta to bounce back big in 2018. Nauta’s 2016 freshman campaign ended with All-SEC Freshman team honors and multiple Freshman All-American honors. That season, he accounted for 361 yards on 29 receptions, three touchdowns, and averaged over 12 yards per reception. In 2017, he managed only nine receptions and 114 yards on a star studded team. You can expect second-year starter Jake Fromm to look for Nauta more over the middle this year to take some pressure off of the receivers and the running game.
Nauta is exactly the type of pass catching tight end a run-first offense needs. He can covert critical third downs when the defense is playing against the run to keep drives alive. He brings the leadership aspect as well, as a highly regarded student-athlete in the Georgia locker room. In two full seasons, Nauta has already played in 28 games for the Bulldogs. If Georgia wants to get back to the College Football Playoff, Nauta needs to return to his All-American ways.
2. C.J. Conrad, Senior, Kentucky:
The epitome of the modern day tight end, Conrad’s value lies in his flexibility and consistency. He’s been a three year starter for the Wildcats and is incredibly consistent. At 6’5″, 245 pounds, he’s athletic and fast enough to move out in to the slot receiver position, but strong enough to stay in and block when needed. He’s not the run blocker that Moreau (who is?), but is adequate in the run blocking game.
He recorded four touchdown, 29 receptions, and 415 yards last season for Kentucky in only 11 games. That’s an average of almost 18 yards per reception, good for sixth best in the entire SEC. 69% of his catches were for first downs — a critical statistic for a team like Kentucky that must manufacture drives to claw out wins.
1. Albert Okwuegbunam, Sophomore, Missouri:
Okwuegbunam is far and away the best tight end returning in the SEC this season. He’s right out of NFL central casting. 6’5″, 260, and extremely athletic. Okwuegbunam runs a sub-4.8 40 yard dash and has the wingspan of a condor. He is a defensive coordinator’s nightmare in the red zone. And he’s just a sophomore.
Okwuegbunam recorded 29 receptions for 415 yards and 11 touchdowns for Missouri last season. His 11 receiving touchdowns led the SEC in 2017. And that’s with splitting receptions with J’Mon Moore, Johnathon Johnson, and Emanuel Hall. That earned him Freshman All-SEC honors, second-team All-SEC honors (Hayden Hurst), and several 2018 Preseason All-American lists.
With Mizzou quarterback Drew Lock looking to set fire to the record books this season, look for Okwuegbunam to add to his already gaudy numbers.
Also, see our other SEC positional rankings: