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Tight end revolution: An inside look at how Dallas-area prospects epitomize the latest step in the position’s evolution

The very place where the spread first took root sending TEs toward extinction is now a hotbed for the position.

Riley Dodge was born into the spread offense.

As a quarterback at Southlake Carroll, he dominated in a four-wide, no-huddle attack — a trademark of his dad, longtime Texas high school football coach Todd Dodge — throwing for 4,184 yards and 54 touchdowns as a junior en route to an undefeated season and 2006 state championship.

But during the last few years, Riley Dodge, now the coach at his alma mater, admits he’s broadened his offensive mind.

It’s not that the Dragons aren’t slinging the ball around. Carroll remains one of the area’s most electric offenses as it heads into a Class 6A-I regional final matchup with Duncanville.

They’re just doing it differently, though, going back to the days of conventional tight end packages — just with an unconventional piece.

That’s where Blake Smith comes in. At 6-5 and 205 pounds, the senior can go from laying down a pancake block one play to weaving through defensive backfields the next.

“My body is a big factor in my game,” Smith said. “So, I’ve got to use to it with full force.”

To think Smith, a Texas A&M pledge, hadn’t caught a varsity pass before Week 4 of last season is almost unfathomable.

But he epitomizes the latest step in the evolution of the tight end position in Texas.

The very place where the spread first took root 20 years ago, sending tight ends toward extinction and sparking a generation of pass-first offenses, is now a hotbed for the position, with elite, dynamic athletes quickly becoming mismatch nightmares for defensive coordinators.

Raising the bar

When Randy Allen got to Highland Park in 1999, he wanted to try something new. Allen, who’d built his reputation with tight-end sets at Abilene Cooper, thought his Scots could “stay ahead” with a modern, no-huddle spread attack.

And it worked. Highland Park continued its tradition of excellence, winning 10-plus games in six of his first seven years, capped by an undefeated 16-0 state championship season in 2005.

It also created a deficit.

“When you play like we play, 20 years without a tight end, what happens in the middle school is kids don’t even think about being a tight end because you don’t even have one,” said Allen, one of three Texas high school football coaches with at least 400 wins. “You have to take a linebacker or maybe a fast defensive lineman and convert them into a tight end.”

At the University of Tennessee, Jason Witten was that linebacker.

As a high school senior in Elizabethton, Tenn., he established himself as an edge rusher and eventually earned a scholarship to Tennessee. Witten did catch 14 touchdowns passes but was the state’s Mr. Football runner-up for his work on defense with 163 tackles, nine sacks and seven forced turnovers.

When Witten got to Knoxville, though, several injuries at the tight end spot led to an area of need for Phillip Fulmer, so the Volunteers coach used his backup defensive end for some snaps on the offensive line.

Ultimately, a position change that Witten later admitted he was never interested in parlayed into All-SEC honors and the 69th pick in the 2003 NFL draft by the Cowboys.

But the challenges of learning the position and developing into a multifaceted weapon continued even as Witten’s pro career — now in its 16th season — began.

“Early on, when I first got in the league, it was more: Can you block? And there were a couple dynamic guys that were really a mismatch in the passing game,” Witten said. “Now, it’s really good players that are kind of developing and coming in as that, so it’s raised the bar.”

Like Witten, Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates were part of those first years. The three have more catches than any other tight end in NFL history, with Gonzalez atop the list.

He went into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year after a 17-year career highlighted by 1,325 receptions, 15,000-plus yards and 111 touchdowns.

Gates, who retired after last season, and Witten will probably join Gonzalez in Canton in the coming years.

That then set the stage for dangerous, dynamic downfield threats such as Kansas City’s Travis Kelce, San Francisco’s George Kittle, Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz — guys who play like wideouts and are built like defensive ends.

And, of course, a comprehensive list wouldn’t be complete without the recently retired Rob Gronkowski, a four-time All-Pro who was on pace to shatter Gonzalez’s touchdown mark before concussions ended his dominant career after just nine seasons.

It’s that group that became the inspiration for high schoolers such as McKinney North’s Brandon Frazier, who is often called “Baby Gronk” by his teammates.

“Freshman year, I actually wanted to quit football and go play college basketball because I was on varsity and I thought I was the best thing ever,” Frazier said. “My mom shut down that idea.”

Mom often knows best.

By sophomore year, Frazier had converted into a full-time tight end and got his first Division I offer from Oklahoma State. Now a senior, Frazier is still figuring out where he’ll be headed next — he decommitted from Arkansas after coach Chad Morris was fired.

But looking back, he has little doubt a position change was the right call.

“As good as I think I might’ve been in basketball, there’s no way I would’ve been getting the attention I have in football,” Frazier said.

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Creating problems

There’s the old football cliché that it’s a copycat sport — most plays you see on the field have been ripped straight from the pages of another team’s playbook.

Football is also cyclical, as Red Oak coach Chris Ross explains.

“When it was basically everyone running ‘stop the run’ defense and putting big bodies out there, people figured out to go fast and mismatch the big bodies,” Ross said. “So, what have defenses done? You saw the rise of the 3-4, you saw the rise of outside linebackers that used to be safeties, and now they’re able to match up with those slot receivers.”

The NFL never saw as drastic a shift as the college and high school games that fully adopted the spread offense. So-called “10” personnel, formations with one running back and no tight ends, never accounted for more than 4% of offensive groupings in any season during the last decade.

Still, even a modest increase led to changes. Defenses got smaller to account for quicker, shiftier passing games that had become the norm, especially in places such as Texas.

But offenses had a counter, integrating guys such as Gronkowski into their passing games.

Last season, the top 10 NFL tight ends averaged 877.3 yards, 10% more than the 791.9 averaged 10 years earlier. Go back one more decade, and the number plummets to just 624.2 yards.

And the trend trickled down to the college level, as spread-based programs such as Oklahoma and Texas A&M looked to add tall, physical pass-catchers such as Prestonwood Christian alum Austin Stogner and Smith.

“When you have a skilled guy that can get vertical and get you touchdowns but can also sit down there and block a 290-pound defensive end and pass protect and run block, they have to figure out how they’re going to play him on defense,” Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher said.

The next step

Neither Smith nor Frazier changed positions to get recruited, and they’d tell you as much. But both acknowledge they’ve benefited from the tight end revolution.

Each is a three-star prospect in a relatively light class — just six tight ends are ranked among 247Sports’ top 300 prospects this year — and play one of the most highly sought positions in the sport.

Over the last decade, there have been at least 10 tight ends among the nation’s 300 best recruits each year.

But only recently has Texas seen an uptick in prospects at the position — after just 12 tight ends in the state’s top 100 prospects from 2010 to 2016, the last three recruiting classes combined have included 21.

One reason the change may have taken so long is the commitment that coaches in the state, like Dodge and Allen, have to the passing game.

“If you have a kid and you’re going to use him as a tight end but just use him in the run game, that makes it pretty easy on the defense,” Dodge said. “You have to be able to keep a defense honest.”

Smith and Frazier are special, dynamic weapons that many teams lack. Each can be a first or second option in a high-flying offense while also serving as a key cog in a powerful ground game.

Both Southlake Carroll and McKinney North ranked among the top four area teams in total offense within their respective classifications this season.

Not every program has the same luxury.

Dodge has made it a priority to identify and develop tight ends — he hopes Carroll will find another guy who can step into Smith’s role next fall.

Others, like Ross, aren’t always going to shoehorn a player into that role.

“As a coach, you have to look at your talent level and maximize the pieces that you have,” Ross said. “What gets my best 22 on the field? … There are some years that you just don’t have those kind of guys, and that’s the difference between saying, ‘I’m at Alabama, I’m at Texas, and I’m just going to run this type of offense and defense every year and I’m going to recruit to it.’ As opposed to saying I’m at Red Oak or I’m at fill-in-the-blank high school — you’re not always going to have those type of tight ends to be able to do it.”

Eventually, it’s likely that defenses will come around with the necessary adjustments. It’s slowly happening in the NFL with the rise of more versatile linebackers like Carolina’s Luke Kuechly and Indianapolis’ Darius Leonard as well as more physical safeties such as ex-Hebron star Jamal Adams.

Until then, though, Carroll is going to keep looking to Smith as its balanced, efficient attack continues churning toward a ninth state title.

“My body’s not built for quarterback. But I knew that I was capable [of playing tight end,]” Smith said. “I just wanted to get on the field and play…and thank god for Coach Dodge giving me an opportunity to do that.”

Twitter: @mpgladstone13

Prime position

Each of the last 10 recruiting classes, per 247Sports, has featured at least 10 tight ends in the nation’s top 300. A look at the numbers each year and the top tight end recruit from Texas (Dallas-area players in bold):

ClassIn top 300In state top 100Top Texas TEHigh SchoolCollegePos. rank
2019106Baylor CuppBrockTexas A&M1
2018165Mustapha MuhammadFort Bend Ridge PointMichigan6
2017116Brock WrightCy-FairNotre Dame2
2016102Kaden SmithFlower Mound MarcusStanford2
2015111Jordan DavisClear LakeTexas A&M10
2014111Marvin SaundersHouston KincaidFlorida State8
2013114Durham SmytheBeltonNotre Dame9
2012100Vincent HobbsMesquite HornColorado35
2011163Jace AmaroSA MacArthurTexas Tech6
2010131Trent SmileyFrisco WakelandKansas25

Tight end usage increases

During the last four seasons, NFL teams have increasingly utilized tight ends in the passing game. Here’s a breakdown of personnel groupings at the NFL level, per Football Outsiders:

YearNo TEs (10)1 TE (11 or 21)2 or more TEs (12, 22 or 13)
20181.2%71.5%22%
20171.2%67.0%25.9%
20162.6%68.4%21.5%
20152.5%62.7%28.0%

Through the years

Here are the top receiving tight ends from each of the last three decades and a look at their statistics:

1990s
NameTeamYearsYards/gameTDs
Shannon SharpeBroncos1990-9948.544
Brent Jones49ers1990-9741.127
Freddie JonesChargers1997-9939.57
Tony GonzalezChiefs1997-9939.116
Ben CoatesPatriots1991-9938.550
2000s
NameTeamYearsYards/gameTDs
Tony Gonzalez2 teams2000-0962.767
Antonio GatesChargers2003-0957.159
Kellen Winslow2 teams2004-0955.716
Jason WittenCowboys2003-0953.727
Shannon Sharpe2 teams2000-0351.327
2010s
NameTeamYearsYards/gameTDs
Rob GronkowskiPatriots2010-1868,479
Travis KelceChiefs2013-1966.736
George Kittle49ers2017-1964.110
Zach ErtzEagles2013-1954.332
Jimmy Graham3 teams2010-1952.474

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Mitchell Gladstone, Staff Writer. Mitchell, a 2019 graduate of Duke University, joined The News in August 2019 after previously interning at Sports Illustrated, The Philadelphia Inquirer and NBC Sports Philadelphia. He also served as managing sports editor and a men's basketball beat writer for The Chronicle during his time at Duke.

mitchell.gladstone@dallasnews.com @mpgladstone13

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