Michigan football's explosive tight ends steal show on offense

Sean McKeon, Zach Gentry lead Wolverines offense against Purdue

Sean McKeon #84 of the Michigan Wolverines makes a 23-yard reception for a first down to set up a fourth quarter touchdown in a game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Ross-Ade Stadium on September 23, 2017. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Sean McKeon #84 of the Michigan Wolverines makes a 23-yard reception for a first down to set up a fourth quarter touchdown in a game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Ross-Ade Stadium on September 23, 2017. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Michigan underwent an offseason full of change this year, replacing 10 starters on defense and seven starters on offense. It also marked the unofficial change from Brady Hoke's roster to Jim Harbaugh's roster, as seniors who were recruited by Hoke moved on and young players recruited by Harbaugh moved into bigger roles.

But despite all that change, Michigan has largely stayed the same. Harbaugh and Don Brown have constructed a terrifying defense that keeps the Wolverines in every game. Michigan is ranked in the top 10. The offense is improving as the season moves along.

And tight ends are dominating.

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Among the many positions that needed to be filled this offseason were the targets in the passing attack. Jake Butt, Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson moved on to the NFL, leaving the door open for new offensive weapons.

Many expected the four talented receivers from the 2017 recruiting class to lead the way. Fans were excited by the youngsters' potential, but even though the personnel changed, Harbaugh's philosophy did not.

Instead of young receivers leading the way, it's been all about Michigan's tight ends, who were on the roster last season but didn't make major contributions. Michigan fans should know better than to overlook tight ends playing for Harbaugh, and they've stolen the show from the wide receivers.

It started from the very first game. I wrote about the contributions from two players in particular: Sean McKeon and Nick Eubanks, who combined for five catches and 86 yards.

That was just a sampler, as McKeon and company have continued to develop into reliable targets this season. In four games, Michigan tight ends have 19 catches for 307 yards and a touchdown.

Leading the way: Sean McKeon

Saturday's win over Purdue was a prime example. When backup quarterback John O'Korn replaced an injured Wilton Speight, McKeon was clearly his favorite target.

He led the team with five catches for 82 yards, but even more importantly, he came up big when Michigan needed to move the chains and keep drives alive.

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The former three-star recruit has turned into a reliable possession receiver on short pass plays for Michigan, especially on crossing routes over the middle. He runs his routes well and has very good hands, which is exactly what the Michigan offense needs from the tight end position.

He's not alone.

QB turned matchup nightmare: Zach Gentry

Converted quarterback Zach Gentry also came up huge against Purdue, catching three passes for 48 yards and a touchdown that put Michigan on the board. He did have one drop, but Gentry is valuable as a 6-foot-7 target who can pick up yards after the catch.

Gentry is quietly Michigan's fourth-leading receiver with 119 yards behind Grant Perry, Tarik Black and McKeon.

A former four-star quarterback out of New Mexico, Gentry agreed to change positions under Harbaugh. In a college football landscape in which players often transfer if they don't have a starting job at their favorite position, it said a lot about Gentry that he was willing to throw his high ranking as a quarterback aside.

Gentry has sneaky speed and athleticism, and now that his two years of work under Harbaugh have improved his route-running and catching skills, Gentry is a legitimate weapon.

Downfield weapon: Nick Eubanks

Nick Eubanks is another tight end who has already made an impact, though he hasn't caught a pass since the opening game against Florida.

Eubanks caught a critical 48-yard pass from Speight against the Gators that flipped the field and gave Michigan a rare scoring chance. He also caught a 13-yard pass over the middle, which gave him 61 yards on the game.

While McKeon and Gentry have played a more conventional role in the short passing game, Eubanks is a change of pace in that he can make plays down the field. He demonstrated that ability against Florida, and Michigan tried to exploit it again against Purdue.

O'Korn found Eubanks downfield in the third quarter, but was crushed by an illegal hit from a Purdue defender. Eubanks was removed from the game and didn't return, so Michigan will have to monitor his progress throughout the next couple of weeks.

But with Black out due to a foot injury, and questions surrounding the health of Kekoa Crawford, Eubanks is an important downfield target for the Michigan offense.

More options: Tyrone Wheatley and Ian Bunting

Oddly enough, the two tight ends who were expected to make the greatest impact this season have seen the least amount of playing time.

Ian Bunting served as the primary backup to Butt last season, but has been supplanted in the lineup by younger options. Bunting doesn't have a catch this season.

Tyrone Wheatley has been involved in the offense because he's a strong blocker, but he's only made one catch for seven yards. Wheatley is an enormous target who demonstrated good hands during the spring game, but that hasn't turned into production this season.

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Bunting looks like the odd man out in this rotation, but Wheatley could still get into the mix and catch a few passes.

Michigan's passing game has been up and down, but this group of tight ends could be a stabilizing force for Speight and O'Korn. Harbaugh has brought several flashy wide receivers to Ann Arbor, but tight ends have always played a major role in his offense. Now that he's in his third year at Michigan, fans are starting to see that come to fruition.