To put into perspective how important tight end may be to the Arizona Wildcats offense this season, consider this: Kevin Sumlin is serving as position coach, the first time since becoming a head coach he’s done so.
The last time Sumlin focused on tight ends was from 2003-05 with Oklahoma, and it’s been almost as long since he’s had a TE on his roster that could be considered a go-to offensive player. That would be in 2008, his first season at Houston, when Mark Hafner had 86 catches for 907 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“He’s really been focused on our group a lot during practice,” sophomore Bryce Wolma said of Sumlin. “He knows a lot about the tight end position.”
Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone hasn’t made use of the tight end much in his last few stops, that position recording a mere 17 receptions for 142 yards and 2 TDs since 2010. Then again, he hasn’t had the options that are at his disposal this season in Wolma and fellow sophomore Jamie Nunley and freshmen Jake Peters and Zach Williams.
“We’re in a lot more tight-end type sets than I’ve been in probably like six or seven years,” Mazzone said Wednesday.
Arizona got decent production from tight end in 2017, to the tune of 36 catches for 414 yards and 4 scores. Most of that came from Wolma, whose 28 receptions were the most by a Wildcat TE since Rob Gronkowski had 47 (and 10 TDs) in 2008.
Mazzone is excited to feature the 6-foot-3, 252-pound Wolma because of his ability to play all over the field.
“It’s been awhile since I’ve had a true guy like Bryce that can be an inline guy, can be a move guy, I can put them out in space, the guy we’re all looking for and he’s good in space, running routes, catching the ball,” Mazzone said. “He’s good enough in the box for us to help our run game.”
Yet it could be Nunley that has a breakout role this season after showing flashes in 2017. He averaged 26.5 yards per catch last year, bolstered by receptions of 48 and 68 yards against Washington State.
Mazzone said the 6-5, 231-pound Nunley is in the “mold” of ex-UCLA standout Thomas Duarte, who shined in his Bruins system including a 2015 season in which he had 53 catches for 872 yards and 10 TDs. Duarte was listed as a wide receiver but at 6-3 and 225 pounds was closer in size to a tight end.
That’s similar to the size of Hafner, who played a 6-3 and 235 in 2008 when he was the top target of them-sophomore Case Keenum at Houston under Sumlin.
“We’re going to do a lot of different things in this offense,” Wolma said.