Tyler Robinson makes a catch versus Florida. (Photo from UK Athletics)
When fans list their criticisms of the UK football offense in recent seasons, it usually doesn’t take long for the role of the tight ends to be brought up.
Former Wildcat Jacob Tamme, now a Denver Bronco and four-year NFL veteran, totaled 56 catches for 619 yards and six touchdowns as a senior in 2007. Since Tamme’s graduation no UK tight end has caught more than 18 balls in a season.
But fans who ask why UK isn’t using the tight ends more aren’t being fair, said UK head coach Joker Phillips.
“We do use the tight end,” he said. “If he’s on the field, he’s being used. It’s his job to separate. A lot of times he is the No. 1 option. It’s his job to separate and make the play when the ball is coming to him.”
While fans may want tight ends to be more like wide receivers with gaudy reception totals, often they are more like offensive linemen tasked with blocking for other players with the ball.
“It’s like the tackle and the guard and the center: if we score, we all score,” said UK tight ends coach Greg Nord. “Everybody likes the ball, being honest about it, but they also know its a team game and we all have to do what’s asked of us to be successful.”
Phillips lists sophomore Ronnie Shields and junior Tyler Robinson as co-starters on the post-spring depth chart. Both players say they are ready to do what’s asked of them, even if it means taking a back seat to other players.
“It’s tough, but you’ve got to look at it as a team aspect,” Shields said. “As long as we’re winning, you can’t get mad, you can’t be selfish.”
“It isn’t about people noticing you,” Robinson said. “It’s just about doing what is best for the team. If it’s blocking every play, it’s blocking every play. That’s just part of it.”
Ronnie Shields. (Photo from UK Athletics)
That being said, both Shields and Robinson hope for a more active role in the passing game.
Four UK tight ends combined for 30 catches for 262 yards and two touchdowns in 2011. The leading receiver in that group was since graduated senior Nick Melillo. Among returnees, Robinson leads the way with eight catches for 44 yards and one touchdown last season.
UK tight ends accounted for 17.5 percent of all receptions, 16.1 percent of all receiving yards and 16.7 percent of touchdown receptions in 2011. Those numbers are actually not far from the 18.4 percent of receptions, 17.2 percent of receiving yards and 17.5 percent of touchdown receptions from Tamme’s senior season, but the two offenses were vastly different. In 2007, UK threw for 3,743 total yards, while the Wildcats threw for 1,627 total yards in 2011.
Wildcat players and coaches know that the best indicator of increased tight end production in 2012 might be a better complete passing game.
“We would like to be able to call more of our game with the tight end in the game, with two of them in the game if we possibly could,” Phillips said. “It depends on how they develop and how the receivers continue to (improve).”
Nord is unwilling to single out any player who has separated himself in the competition, but he hinted whoever plays could see an expanded role this season.
“It will probably be similar to what everybody saw in the spring game as far as a couple of them might get a chance to play,” he said. “They’ll play in different capacities.”
Robinson was the second-leading receiver the spring game with five catches for 75 yards. Shields caught three passes for 42 yards, and junior Anthony Kendrick caught three passes for 40 yards and one touchdown.
“I just hope it continues that way into the season,” Robinson said. “It’s hard to tell, but I think with the way we’ve been working, the way we’ve been looking, I think it’s definitely a good possibility.”
Shields may represent UK’s best pass-catching threat from the position since Tamme’s graduation. UK coaches have raved about his potential for several years, and Phillips expects to use him in a variety of roles, including split out wide, in 2011.
“We’re asking our tight ends to do a lot, especially Ronnie Shields,” Phillips said. “He’s the guy that is our guy we’re moving all over the place.”
For his part, Shields thinks he is ready to cash in on that much talked about potential.
“I feel like I’ve been waiting,” he said. “I’ve been learning for these last couple of years, and I want to use what I learned on the field to help this team.”
It remains to be seen if the tight ends develop into reliable receiving options this season or take on a less glamorous blocking role, but Shields expects the group to have a major impact.
“I feel like this year is the year for the tight ends to help the team.”
During UK fall football camp, KyForward sports editor Jon Hale will be providing a position-by-position look at some new faces and storylines to watch for the 2012 UK football season.. Previous stories in the series include features about the quarterbacks, defensive linemen, tailbacks, wide receivers and linebackers.