A fair amount is known about the contenders for major playing time at just about every position for the Boise State football team — but tight end is a bit of a mystery.
Coach Bryan Harsin said before fall camp started he thought the unit was perhaps the biggest question mark, with just four catches combined last season among the returners. Following the team’s first scrimmage Aug. 11, he was still hoping for a leap forward.
“I think we’ve been OK, we’re not there yet,” Harsin said. “... We need to get better. Those guys are working, I think we have the talent.
“There’s so much at that position we ask them to do — that’s the hard part.”
Development at the position can be more gradual, especially with the responsibilities involved, from catching the ball, blocking, perhaps splitting out wide or dropping into the backfield, and being pivotal in the vast array of shifts and motions.
The Broncos lost Jake Roh and Alec Dhaenens to graduation, who had 39 and 13 catches, respectively, in 2017. Sophomore John Bates, redshirt senior Chase Blakley and junior Matt Pistone are the most experienced Broncos in the group.
“I think they’ve improved a lot, but they’re still trying to figure out who is going to be the guy in that group,” senior quarterback Brett Rypien said.
Blakley appeared in only two games last season, making one catch for 13 yards in the opener, going down in the second game with a season-ending foot injury.
A highly touted recruit out of Coeur d’Alene, he missed all of 2015 with an injury, so being healthy is a big deal this fall. He is an X-factor at a position that has potential without much production.
“It’s been good to be back, for sure. ... We’ve just got to keep on the tradition of good tight end football here at Boise State,” Blakley said. “We have plenty of talent. We’re going to go and compete like we did every day last year. It’s time to step up.”
At 6-foot-6, 246 pounds and athletic, Bates is an intriguing talent. He had three catches last season, all coming in the regular-season finale and Mountain West championship game. But hopes are high with his potential despite the relative lack of production.
“We expect John Bates to step up and be an absolute dude,” offensive coordinator Zak Hill said.
Said tight ends coach Kent Riddle: “We expect him to do big things and help replace those seniors that we lost.”
Bates brushes aside some of the expectations, saying he just wants to be “dependable.”
Blakley, Bates, Pistone and junior Garrett Collingham are all at least 6-3 and 230 pounds. The Broncos were 88th nationally in red zone scoring percentage (81 percent) and red zone touchdown percentage (57.1) in 2017. Big tight ends certainly could help.
“Me and Chase, Garrett and Matt, too, we’re all big guys, being able to use our height as an advantage and maybe even our speed against some of those guys,” Bates said.
As they jockey for playing time and try to earn enough trust to play in the multiple tight end sets the Broncos love to employ, there is a confidence the group can get where it needs to go. For an offense trying to get off to a better start this year, that development must come soon.
“We’ve gotta not only be as good, we’ve got to try to be better,” Riddle said. “I think we’ve got a good mixture of experience and youth and definitely a ton of potential. We’ve got a lot of hard work we have to do to get there, but at the end of the day, we expect to perform at the same level those guys did.”