On one hand, the top three tight ends figure to be the same as they were last year: fifth-year seniors Rory Nicol and Brandon Smith along with junior Jake Ballard. Joining the group this year is true freshman Nic DiLillo.
While the faces mostly will be the same – since this time last year, DiLillo has joined the group while Andy Miller became an offensive lineman – there is a distinct hope among them that numbers will be different.
No, not the 86 on Ballard’s back or the 88 Nicol sports on his jersey. Preferably, the number 32 will see some sort of significant jump.
That’s how many passes Ballard (13), Nicol (16) and Smith (three) combined to catch last season, more than double the total of catches for tight ends in 2006 but still hardly a king’s ransom.
The same can be said for the 263 yards the trio accumulated, enough to account for just more than 10 percent of the team’s receiving yardage.
“This is my last year, and it could be the third time’s the charm,” said Nicol, who has caught 32 passes for 269 yards and four touchdowns in 36 career games. “This could be a lot of things. I’m really focused on taking everything in and being grateful for everything that I’ve got and all the opportunities that are ahead of me. But this is really about being unselfish, because it’s really about the 40some 4th- and 5th-year players that are here.
He knows there is more to evaluating the play of his position group than just numbers.
“I’d love to catch 50 balls – you know that,” Nicol said. “Hopefully we’ll become more involved, but our role will be what our role is, and it will change every week. That’s the nature of the position. It’s our job to just do the best that we can do.”
Tasked with keeping the tight ends on their game even as much of the attention goes elsewhere is position coach John Peterson.
“The tight end position is just by nature that in-between receiver-slash-offensive-lineman and fullback and they are asked to do pretty much everything but throw the ball,” Peterson said. ”If you measure it strictly by balls caught, the perception may be that they’re not involved enough or whatever, but in reality they are extremely involved, whether it be running a control route or helping the coverage to open up deeper routes.
“Obviously they love the part of catching the ball. That’s exciting, and they’re very good at it, but they also understand the big picture and how the pieces fit together. And to me that’s the most important part of fitting into a team concept, and they both do it very well.”
Asked if he would catch as many as 30 passes this year, Ballard chuckled.
“We’ll see. Hopefully. I’ll do whatever coaches ask of me, but I think me and Rory are going to catch a couple more balls this year than we did last year.”
Asked a similar question with Peterson seated directly to his left, Nicol laughed, too.
“Ha, ask him,” Nicol said with a gesture to his coach. “I don’t know. That’s the challenge every year. Really, for any team to be successful there’s got to be a sincere, honest buy-in by everybody that it’s not about themselves.”
No matter what the numbers turn out to be, Peterson sees a starting duo in Ballard and Nicol that has improved in the offseason.
“The two of them have worked extremely hard not only on pass catching but also running routes and understanding the whole big picture when it comes to the passing game and how they affect an underneath coverage or a blitz, or how they can affect the safeties. When you understand those things, now they can have opportunities and see how they can fit.”