Georgia spring preview: Tight ends

This is the sixth installment in a nine-part series that will preview Georgia’s spring football practice, the start of which is uncertain because of the coronavirus outbreak. Today: Tight ends | Yesterday: Offensive lineTomorrow: Quarterbacks

TIGHT ENDS
Who's gone: Charlie Woerner, Eli Wolf
Who's back: John FitzPatrick, Ryland Goede, Brett Seither
Who's new: No one for spring practice
Projected starter: FitzPatrick

ATHENS -- Ah, tight ends. No position has been more mysterious or puzzling to Georgia's fans the past few years.

Once a position of great power and prestige for the Bulldogs, the role of tight ends has changed considerably under coach Kirby Smart’s watch.

That’s not to say it’s not an important one. The tight ends’ role is vital, for sure. But fans accustomed to seeing the Bulldogs’ tight ends haul in dozens of passes for yards and touchdowns have been disappointed in that regard in recent years.

Tight ends accounted for only 23 catches last season, the same as in 2017 and down from 45 in 2018.

That’s because, under Smart, tight ends have replaced fullbacks as lead blockers in the run game. They also do a good bit of perimeter blocking on pass plays to receivers and screens to backs.

They do get a few balls thrown their way now and then, just not as many.

Why the tight ends don’t get targeted more is a question that irks Smart.

“You have an offense built around the players you have,” Smart said at the end of last season. “So, you take the players you have and you use your strengths. We have certain strengths.”

Smart and former offensive coordinator James Coley didn’t see tight ends as a strength in the passing game last season. Graduate transfer Eli Wolf led the position group with 13 catches for 194 yards and one touchdown, while Charlie Woerner added nine for 78 and another score.

Woerner, who was invited to the NFL combine last month, said it’s on the tight ends themselves to solicit targets in the passing game.

“We dropped a lot of balls (last year),” Woerner said. “We didn’t execute like we needed to.”

What about this year? With Todd Monken joining the staff in January, the Bulldogs will be working under their third offensive coordinator in the three seasons. Monken, a former NFL coordinator and Southern Miss head coach, is known for throwing the ball around a lot in his offenses. Whether that will include tight ends remains a mystery entering spring practice.

Monken’s tight ends with the Cleveland Browns last season caught only 29 passes. However, when he was at Tampa Bay, the Bucs’ tight ends caught 195 passes for 2,526 yards over three seasons, or an average of 847 yards per season.

But Monken has yet to be introduced to the public, so there’s no way of knowing his philosophy regarding tight ends at Georgia. For the moment, the Bulldogs’ numbers are thin at the position. But based on recruiting and other offseason moves, it appears they may get more involved.

There were two intriguing offseason tight end acquisitions in Tre’ McKitty, a graduate transfer from Florida State, and Darnell Washington, a 5-star prospect out of Nevada and the No. 1-rated tight end in the country. McKitty (6-foot-5, 245 pounds) caught 49 passes for 497 yards and two touchdowns the past two seasons with the Seminoles. And Washington, well, he’s 6-7, 260 pounds and the country’s top tight end. It would follow that the Bulldogs plan to feature them.

But neither of them will be available for spring practice. Meanwhile, Georgia’s not very deep or experienced at tight end. Third-year sophomore John FitzPatrick is the heir apparent, having played in 12 of 14 games last season as a backup and on special teams. He did start the opener against Vanderbilt and caught one pass.

Ryland Goede and Brett Seither appeared in two games each during their redshirt seasons. Goede, who had an ACL injury coming out of high school, has been playing with Georgia’s baseball team, but will return to football when spring practice opens.

Woerner is familiar with all those guys and insists the position remains in good hands. He was asked at the NFL combine if he had an inkling how tight ends might be utilized.

“I have no idea,” he said. “Coach Smart always has a plan to set the team up to be the best they can be to win football games. The team and fans need to trust that coach Smart’s going to do what’s best for the organization to win football games. I have no idea what he’s going to do (on offense), but it’ll be interesting to see, now that I’m a fan of the team and not a player."

THE SERIES

Monday: Special teams
Tuesday: Defensive line
Wednesday: Linebackers
Thursday: Defensive backs
Friday: Offensive line
Today: Tight ends
Sunday: Quarterbacks
Monday: Wide receivers
Tuesday: Running backs