Let's take a little quiz
1) Which TE caught the most number of passes in a single season since Les Miles was hired?
Answer: Richard Dickson, 32 catches in 2007
2) Name the last season a TE in a Cam Cameron coached offense caught 32 passes of fewer.
2012: Pitta (61)
2011: Ed Dickson (54) [PItta caught an additional 40]
2010: Heap (40)
2009: Heap (53)
2008: Heap (35)
2007: Martin (34)
2006: Gates (71)
2005: Gates (89)
2004: Gates (81)
2003: Gates (24)
That's right, it's been a decade. 10 whole seasons since Cam Cameron has had a single TE on his roster catch fewer than 32 passes. The reductionist would argue, "Well, yeah, if you had Antonio Gates, you'd throw it to him 70 times a season too!" Except, there's a remarkable track record here. First Gates, then some guy name David Martin on an abysmal Dolphins team (absymal, yes, due to Cameron's failure), then Heap, then Dickson, then Pitta.
If you wanted to line up TEs topping 20 receptions in a single season during the Miles era you'd have Dickson in '07, Dickson in '08 and Dickson in '09. That's it. Three years, one player, and his reception total went from 32 to 31 to 21. Simply put, during the Les Miles era, the TE is a glorified offensive lineman. One to be utilized in the running game and for the occasional fun trick play. That's it.
Yet Cameron profiles differently. He features the TE, note just as an inline blocker and occasional check down option, but as a weapon that can gain mismatches. As much as we anticipate that the offense won't wildly diverge from what we've seen in the previous several years (in concept, not in performance), this sticks out as one fundamental difference. Fortunately for DeSean Smith, Cam Cameron showed up just in time.
Only the rarest of recruits garner LSU offers before returning to HS for the start of their junior years. For most, the offer comes in the midst of their Junior year, typically at Boys from Da Boot or Junior Day. Even those players are amongst the elite... the ones to earn the coveted early offer.
So that puts DeSean Smith in that upper echelon. The elite of the elite. In July of 2011, the summer before his Junior season, Smith earned his LSU offer. Just a few days later, he earned Honorable Mention at a Rivals camp. By October, Smith toyed with idea of committing. But he held off, accruing offers from college footballs elite (Alabama, Clemson, A&M, you name it).
Finally, in July of 2012, Smith pulled the trigger, making his unsurprising pledge to LSU. He earned U.S. Army All-American status, showed out as a top performer there for his sticky mitts and solidified himself as a top 100 talent in the country. Smith never wavered, signed his letter on NSD and showed up this summer ready to go.
I'm going to utilize some Junior footage of Smith, because it's a lot easier to distinguish where Smith is on a play-to-play basis.
Click to the :10 mark. Off the bat, you'll see what Smith brings to the table in terms of his versatility and matchup potential. The Barbe coaches split Smith outside the numbers in a standard WR alignment and send Smith on a simple go route. There's a few takeaways here. For one, the fact that the coaches feel comfortable splitting him out wide indicates unique talent. In the Miles era, our best TE (Dickson) wasn't really one that could be utilized in that way. Our most athletic TE (Peterson) never really illustrated the chops to be that type of versatile weapon. Beyond that simple observation, we must then absorb the pure athleticism of the route and catch. Not only does Smith get the sideline on a corner, he makes a fantastic leaping catch, a testament both to his hands and natural prowess as a receiver. If you click to :40 you'll clearly see that "Line DeSean up outside and throw it deep," was a pretty consistent play in the Barbe playbook.
Jump the 1:12 mark. Not a massive divergence from what is mentioned above, but again you'll see that Smith is a versatile weapon and a true red zone threat. Remember those RZ trips in 2012 where we just prayed for a guy who could snag a jump ball? Smith could be the answer to those frustrations. Look how effortlessly he attack the ball. He's got a keen feel for body positioning, timing his jump and the hand talent to pluck the ball up high and come down with it, even when in a precarious situation. I love it when I see a receiver of any type adjust his body to the flight of the ball and Smith does so superbly (as exhibited time and again on his tape).
Click on up to 2:40. This may be one of my favorite clips on the whole tape. Smith is split out again, but this time as the inside man in a trips formation. He runs a very simple out route, giving his QB a quick check down. The QB is in trouble so scrambles out of the pocket to his left, in the area where Smith ran his route. What I love here is that Smith is alert and immediately turns his route upfield. This isn't design or play call, this is just a natural receiver giving his QB the best potential option. The QB throws one up and Smith goes and gets it for a 1st down. It's that type of awareness and intelligence I love seeing.
Now, Smith's true strengths are as a receiver, but he's not a completely one-dimensional player. At 2:55 there is a good example of his blocking ability. Smith stalk blocks the DB/LB, latches on and does a good job keeping his feet alive and maintaining the block. It's not the type of dominant, impressive block you'll likely see from a Dillon Gordon or Logan Stokes, but it's sufficient. Look again at 4:21 and you'll see him do a good job of sealing off the LB. In the very least, he's a willing blocker that flashes tremendous upside once he adds the requisite strength and bulk.
What I Like: Smith is a pure, almost effortless receiver. He's a hands catcher with body control. Those skills make him a potential weapon from day one.
What I Dislike: Nitpicky, but I don't think he possesses the top end speed of some of the elite modern TEs (Graham, Gronk, etc.).
What I Don't Know: He ran a limited amount of routes in HS. Will he develop a route-running skillset?
Cameron's profile suggest the TE will be a considerable part of his offense. Currently the TE depth chart is topped by Travis Dickson, Dillon Gordon and Logan Stokes. Gordon and Stokes fit the "glorified OL" mold of Miles' past, but Dickson is more purely a receiving option, though one without distinction in his career. Dickson flashed ability last year, but never with any consistency. He'll likely absorb a lot of the starter minutes, but I don't see Smith being completely blocked, mostly due to his extreme versatility.
Smith can easily play in sets with any of the other three TEs. Perhaps more importantly, Smith could easily come onto the field and split out wide, even when Dickson and Gordon/Stokes are already on the field. He's a match-up nightmare waiting to happen. I anticipate he will see the field early and often in 2013, though mostly in a "reserve" role.
Smith's overall potential is really strong. He's easily the most skilled TE recruited in the Les Miles era. In a lot of ways, I think he's the TE we all hoped DeAngelo Peterson would become but never did. He's got better size than Peterson already and is much more natural as a pass catcher.
Overall I don't suspect Smith will become the full-time TE starter in 2013, unless he really shows out big in these final practices OR Dickson gets injured. If Dickson were to go down, Smith's stock will rise even more. But he's simply too talented to keep off the field in 2013. Further, based on the pictures I've seen, he looks physically ready for the task. He came into camp in shape and ready to go. He's reportedly looked comfortable and spent time running with the veterans early.
Let's be quite clear, DeSean Smith is the most talented TE on the roster right now. I think it'll take some time for his size/strength to come through so that he's a capable blocker, but he'll be ready out the gate as a receiving option. Smith will be a weapon in this offense for the next several years.
High End: All-SEC potential.
Low End: Solid starter at TE over a four-year career.
Realistic: I think he'll be somewhere above a solid starter and depending on how much influence Cameron carries into the gameplanning, a true game-changing threat as a receiving TE. For the first time in years, we could have a TE capable of catching 40-50 passes.