In Maryland football practices last season, tight ends rarely practiced catching the ball — despite that normally being a huge part of the job description. Instead, they focused on blocking and spent most of practices doing hitting drills. Their role never seemed to expand beyond that, being used to make paths for wide receivers and running backs, but never getting to use their own talents in the air.
This season, tight end practice under position coach Mike Miller in head coach Mike Locklsey’s system is completely different. The group is participating in catching drills and learning more about passing routes and ways to make an impact on the field.
“We’re going to play and use all of our weapons in this offense,” Locksley said. “You’ll see the ball distributed … we want to get our best players the ball.”
The change was evident in the Red-White spring game on Saturday, during which tight ends found the end zone on four of the six touchdowns scored (and all four passing scores). Rising sophomore Chigoziem Okonkwo had an impressive performance, scoring the sole two touchdowns for the White Team. He finished the day with seven catches for 63 yards, good for first and second on his team, respectively.
“It felt really good just knowing that the tight ends, we have a role to play this year,” Okonkwo said. “It just felt really good to go out there and be able to help the team, and have a big impact.”
On the Red Team, three tight ends — Michael Cornwell, Noah Barnes and Robert Schwob — saw action, accounting for both of the team’s receiving touchdowns and 62 of the team’s 218 receiving yards (28.4 percent).
“I love what we do offensively,” Miller said. “Just how we use our tight ends and really just use our playmakers, how we get them in space and give them the ability to use their God-given ability to make plays.”
In recent years, tight ends have been largely absent in the Terps’ offense, and the position has never been a huge part of Maryland football. Last season, tight ends only accounted for 4.8 percent of Maryland’s total receiving yards and scored just one receiving touchdown. Okonkwo only caught six passes and three rushing carries. The 6’2, 235-pounder still managed three touchdowns, though — one rushing, one receiving and one on a fumble recovery.
Down in Alabama last season, it was the complete opposite. Locksley’s offense utilized tight ends for 15.2 percent of the team’s receiving yards and 19.2 percent of the team’s touchdowns. The Crimson Tide’s top tight end, Irv Smith Jr. had 710 yards and seven touchdowns, while backup Hale Hentges had 34 yards and three scores. Alabama was consistently the best offense in the country, and Smith was just drafted 50th overall in the second round of the NFL Draft by the Minnesota Vikings.
“We’re running a pretty similar system,” Locksley said. “I’ve coordinated where they always play a role because they’re the guys who create matchup issues.”
Locksley currently has six tight ends on his roster, but three more will join the squad in the fall. In March, he added Buffalo graduate transfer Tyler Mabry, who was a First Team All-MAC selection last season after securing 27 catches for 230 yards and two touchdowns. Three-star tight ends Tyler Devera and Malik Jackson also come in as freshmen.
Mabry and Okonkwo will likely be the first two options at the position next season, and if the spring game was any indication, they’ll be seeing a lot of touches.