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LSU Spring Football Five Things: Tight Ends

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Is this forgotten position the key to LSU’s offense rebounding in 2015? Yes, but not in the way you think.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Roster/Depth Chart

85 Dillon Gordon (Sr.)

6-5, 295

No catches.

Three targets

89 DeSean Smith (Jr.)

6-4, 242

4 catches for 66 yards

7 targets, 11.0 yards per target, 66.7% catch rate.

88 Jacory Washington (Soph.)

6-5, 221

No stats accumulated.

N/A

44 Colin Jeter (Jr.)

6-6, 236

No catches.

Two targets.

84 Hanner Shipley (Fr.)

6-5, 284

Three-star recruit.

What's good?

Let it not be said that LSU is not stocked with a versatile, and experienced, group of talent at this position. There are three returnees with significant game experience, two former high school All-Americans and some nice diversity of skill sets.

You have returning three-year starter Dillon Gordon. He's 300-some pounds, and not about to do much damage in the passing game (stop laughing, we're going to have to talk about this) but he is a very capable blocker that helps set the edge in the running game. His size and power even gave LSU the flexibility to use some unbalanced offensive line fronts with Gordon lined up next to a guard. Truthfully, tackle may be where he ends up at the next level. And believe it or not, he does have very big, soft hands that he is capable of using if called upon. Just kind of tough for a guy that big to get open.

Junior DeSean Smith provides a much more athletic target, something he was able to finally display in the bowl game, in which he gathered all four of his catches and all 66 of his yards. Smith fell out of favor early on a very high-profile drop and a couple of assignment busts, but he was a steady fixture on the field in the second half of the season. That just didn't come with much of an actual role catching the ball.

Sophomore Jacory Washington, like Smith, was a superstar recruit that essentially came to LSU as a big receiver. He's not listed as a redshirt, but I don't remember him playing much last year. He's probably not physically developed enough to be an every down tight end, but there's the size and athleticism to contribute in some way.

Junior Colin Jeter was a late-term junior college addition, but was able to get on the field in the first few weeks of the season. He showed capability as a blocker and some nice athleticism. Something of a midpoint between Gordon and the Smith/Washington duo.

Freshman Hanner Shipley is also on hand as a midterm-enrolled freshman. He's another big body, like Gordon, who was mostly recruited for his blocking, and could maybe move to the offensive line one day.

What's bad?

Well, if you're scoffing at the idea of this position having any impact beyond blocking, you're not wrong to do so. LSU targeted tight ends, as a group, a whopping 23 times last season resulting in 12 catches, and no one at the position has been able to snag even 20 balls since Richard Dickson in 2008, a full six seasons ago.

It's a pretty lousy track record, but there isn't some grand plan here. Nobody in the Football Ops building is consciously thinking of ways NOT to involve tight ends -- the message board and talk radio hot-taekers need to get over that. The personnel on hand has been the biggest reason. The reasonining may have worn thin with this particular group, but it doesn't change the fact that guys like Mitch Joseph, Chase Clement and Logan Stokes -- great blockers that they were -- didn't really add value as pass-catchers. And players like Deangelo Peterson and Travis Dickson just failed to get the job done. And on top of all of this, when your quarterbacks are struggling to get the ball to the valuable targets, they don't need to waste time with players that don't add that value.

Even in 2013 with Zach Mettenberger, the tight ends were neglected largely because of Mettenberger's atypical focus on Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, who took up a good two-thirds of the receiving targets. And while there were times when he needed to look elsewhere, on the whole that wasn't exactly a bad strategy, given how good that twosome was.

But with all of that said, none of these factors apply to LSU's tight ends anymore. The time for this drought to end is now, and it just might be one of the keys to LSU's offense getting back on track.

What's the goal this spring?

Same as with the quarterbacks: make it work. Maybe the one can help with the other.

Part of the issue with the passing game was that as unsteady as the quarterbacks were, there were also no steady receivers to help them. No safety net that Jennings could count on to be open and catch the ball consistently. The wideouts weren't physical enough for some of the easier underneath throws.

But it's one thing for a cornerback to push around a thinner player like Travin Dural or a true freshman like Malachi Dupre. A bigger target like Smith or Washington might be a different story.

Does that mean that a tight end has to catch 40 passes for LSU's passing game to take off? Certainly not. Part of what made Smith's big game in the Music City Bowl so encouraging, was that there wasn't some special effort to get him the ball, or specific gadget-type pass plays called. He just ran his route, got open and was successfully targeted by Anthony Jennings. The fact that there was nothing special about it is why there's no reason that can't be replicated in the future.

What am I watching for?

Look, Cam Cameron understands the value of a talented receiving tight end. He called plays as Antonio Gates became the best in the NFL lining up all over the field, and used Dennis Pitta in creative ways with the Baltimore Ravens as well.

And there have been some efforts to use the tight end that way -- they've been aligned in the slot in formations and even split out wide on occasion. In the 2013 opener, Smith was one of Mettenberger's first red-zone targets. In the 2014 opener, there were some efforts to target Smith and Dickson. In both cases, the players failed to produce.

But that's not an excuse for Smith to completely disappear for another 11 games. He's never going to be what we think of as a "complete" tight end as both a blocker and receiver -- although he appears to be in the best shape of his career in terms of muscle definition, and reports have been that the staff likes his progress. He may not be a game-changer of a target like a Rob Gronkowski or a Jimmy Graham, either. But that certainly doesn't mean he can't have a bigger role in the offense.

It can be easy for coaches to focus on what players can't do, be it Smith or Washington's in-line blocking ability, or Gordon's ability to get open. But just like I previously discussed with John Chavis and LSU's linebackers, specialization should be a pathway to get talent on the field. If Smith or Washington can't do all of the things LSU wants a tight end to do, then stop asking them and just let them do what they can. Find plays or personnel groupings that fit them. Use them as oversized slot receivers, or H-back or flexed tight end positions, where motion and space can make blocking a little easier.

The lack of a true, proven fullback for LSU creates another angle to this. Will there be more one-back looks with one or two tight ends? More chances for Smith or Washington to line up in the backfield? That's something I'll be watching for in the spring game. One area where Cameron has diversified the passing game is with more passes to the backs -- 85 in the last two seasons combined. From an H-back spot, Smith or Washington could get a free release into the secondary and find open space easily.

The players still have to get the job done, of course. For all of Alabama's efforts to involve athletic freak O.J. Howard last season, he caught just 17 passes on 26 targets with no touchdowns. There's no guarantee that LSU has a tight end ready for a significant passing load, and with the athletes at tailback and receiver, there may not even be a need for them to have a major role.

But there's a better way to make this work for all of the players involved. It's time to find it.