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Better, bigger bodies should enable Arizona to finally make good on promise to use tight ends more

arizona-wildcats-football-spring-practice-tight-end-keyan-burnett-alex-lines-jordan-paopao-2022 Arizona Athletics

It’s that time again, your semi-regular reminder that Arizona really intends to make the tight end a big part of its offense.

Some form of that pledge has been made for several years, from three different coaching staffs, yet the 2021 season once again saw the Wildcats make little use position in the passing game. Arizona TEs had just 16 receptions, on 30 targets, though that was still way up from the last full season in 2019 (7 and 5, respectively).

So what makes this season any different? For one, four of the five tight ends on the roster—as well as another set to arrive this summer—were either recruited to Arizona ( or was converted to that position) by the current staff. And the ones with the biggest expectations on them for 2022 have the size to go with them.

“The guys that came in, that are better at a couple different facets of play, start to push the other guys,” tight ends coach Jordan Paopao said. “It just starts to create a little bit of that internal competition of, I don’t want to be shown up.”

Alex Lines, who is 6-foot-5 and 256 pounds, is the “veteran” of the group after starting 11 games last year and catching 10 passes for 138 yards. This will be his third year playing for Paopao, as both were at UNLV in 2020, but his job isn’t safe with the arrival of 4-star freshman Keyan Burnett.

The 6-foot-5, 225-pound Burnett, son of ex-UA linebacker Chester Burnett and one of four players the Wildcats signed from Anaheim’s Servite High School, has the skills of a receiver in the body of a tight end. He caught 34 passes and six TDs as a senior.

“We’re gonna put them in the game (together) where the majority of the time Alex Lines would be the Y and (Burnett) will be the F, which is a little bit more of your traditional flex-out receiving tight end,” Paopao said. “But I also want to see what both of those guys can do in terms of flipping that role and seeing what we can get done because it’s going to be trial by fire.”

Also added in the offseason is 6-foot-6, 249-pound Tanner McLachlan, a walk-on who previously played at Southern Utah. He’s coming off an ACL injury and has been limited in spring, but with the Thunderbirds had 15 catches between 2019-21.

Arizona also converted 6-foot-1, 261-pound redshirt junior Issaiah Johnson from linebacker. Paopao said the decision was mostly for depth purposes, but he said Johnson’s play on special teams last season showed he has a knack for the blocking schemes needed at the tight end position.

Johnson could end up being this year’s Clay Markoff, serving as more of a fullback or H-back if he continues to develop.

“Isaiah did a lot of return work for me in the special teams game, so I saw how smart he was and how capable he was in terms of understanding fits,” Paopao said. “And for what we were able to do with Clay, I see being able to potentially build a role out for him in that manner as well. I’ve been really, really surprised … I think just in terms of how well he fits the run and how well he does stuff at the line of scrimmage as well.”