Once again, Georgia Tech tight ends seeking larger role in passing game

Georgia Tech’s Dylan Leonard (2) celebrates with fans after beating Duke 23-20 in overtime Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022 at Bobby Dodd Stadium. (Daniel Varnado/For the AJC)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Georgia Tech’s Dylan Leonard (2) celebrates with fans after beating Duke 23-20 in overtime Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022 at Bobby Dodd Stadium. (Daniel Varnado/For the AJC)

This is the fifth installment in an eight-part series breaking down each position group as the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets continue their spring practice, which will culminate in the annual spring intrasquad game at 1 p.m. April 15 at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

Georgia Tech tight end Dylan Leonard has heard it before – quarterbacks and coaches expressing their offseason and preseason plans to have Yellow Jackets tight ends more involved in the passing game.

Perhaps the most promising development was the hire last offseason of offensive coordinator Chip Long, who came to Tech with a history of making the position a focal point of his offenses.

“You’re going to play better when you touch the ball a little more, too,” Long said in January 2022. “I think they’re really excited about the direction of the offense.”

After catching 11 passes in 2021, Leonard caught the same number in 2022. It was most among tight ends on the team and seventh on the team overall. In the ACC, there were no fewer than 18 tight ends with more receptions than Leonard’s 11, although Leonard played in nine games and many of the 18 played 12 or more. If he is able to score a touchdown this fall in his final season as a Jacket, it will be his first and the first for any Tech tight end since 2020.

In the new regime of coach Brent Key, an offensive coordinator who doubles as the tight ends coach – Buster Faulkner – has caused hope and expectations to flutter anew. Faulkner said that he would like to use tight ends to stretch the field in the passing game.

“I feel like I’ve been talking about that for awhile now,” Leonard said earlier in spring practice, now in its second week. “The past few years, it hasn’t come into fruition, but this year, I’m hoping that can happen.”

Leonard has tried to create connection and trust with quarterbacks Zach Pyron, Zach Gibson and Haynes King.

“But it’s definitely a work in progress,” Leonard said. “Hopefully we’re going to make it happen this year, for sure.”

The value of a tight end, of course, is the dual functionality as a blocker in the run and pass game and as a target in the passing game. A tight end can be an effective part of the offense without catching many passes, though most aspire to be used as receivers.

Part of the reason that Tech’s tight ends haven’t been targeted more frequently is that the offensive line has often needed Leonard’s help in pass protection and his capacity as a run blocker likely made the run game a more appealing option.

Further, Leonard and Luke Benson were arguably not the playmakers that other tight ends in the ACC were last year. And, broadly, Tech’s passing game was not highly efficient in Leonard’s first two seasons as a starter.

That the tight ends will see their pass-catching numbers spike with Faulker calling plays is not a given. In Faulkner’s most recent season as an offensive coordinator – at Southern Miss in 2019 before going to Georgia for three years as a quality control assistant – tight ends caught six passes.

“(Tight ends) are getting huge paydays (in the NFL) because they’ve got to be versatile,” Faulkner said. “They’ve got to be able to run, they’ve got to be able to catch, they’ve got to be able to block in the run game, they’ve got to be able to pass protect. We’re going to play to their strengths. Obviously, we’d like to be able to stretch the field, get them the ball if they’re able to do that, but they’ve got to be able to block. But they’ll be a big part of what we do. I believe in that position. I think it helps the offense go. It helps you be versatile.”

Among scholarship players, the tight end room consists of four returnees – Leonard, Benson, Billy Ward and Ben Postma. By the accounting of Pro Football Focus, Leonard played 430 offensive snaps, Benson 323, Ward 15 and Postma none. Two players have arrived through the transfer portal, Brett Seither from Georgia and Jackson Long from South Florida.

Seither, who earned his degree from Georgia in December and has two years of eligibility remaining, played 26 snaps in a stacked position for the Bulldogs last season and Long 22 in his freshman season.

“Brett’s just got some familiarity with what we’ve called things, but he’s got work to do just like the rest of ‘em,” Faulkner said. “I’m glad he’s here. I think we’ve got a great room. Dylan Leonard’s a guy that I’ve been extremely, extremely pleased with. Billy Ward’s come on and done some really good things. Obviously, Luke, he’s still out with an injury. Then we’ve got some other guys. Jackson Long’s a young guy that’s coming around, as well. Excited about the room. I think we’ve got some depth.”

Leonard said that the transition from Long’s offense to Faulkner’s hasn’t been difficult. Faulkner has made a point to retain as much of the terminology of Long’s offense to simplify the transition.

“I think a lot of it for me is, schematically, it’s been pretty easy for me to pick up the offense because this is my third offense,” Leonard said. “After you learn one, it’s easy. Or even two, it’s easier to pick up the third. I think now it’s just focusing on the little things.”