After putting up the best numbers by a tight end since Gronk, and thus rediscovering the tight end as an offensive weapon at Arizona, what might Tanner McLachlan do for an encore?
Re-write the UA record book, perhaps.
McLachlan was arguably the biggest surprise from last season’s offensive outburst, had 34 catches for 456 yards and two touchdowns in 2022. The 34 receptions were the most by a Wildcat tight end since Rob Gronkowski had 47 in 2008 and also seven more than all UA tight ends amassed from 2019-21.
And that was with quarterback Jayden de Laura having a tight end as a target for the first time in his career, college or high school. Now both passer and pass catcher are in the second year of Jedd Fisch’s pro-style offense, and McLachlan said his understanding of it all is far better than it was at this time last year.
“It’s been cool to see how everything started to connect, the dots are starting to connect, and I’m really just able to go play and have fun,” he said. “I like to say to (de Laura), I’m gonna be your best friend throughout the year. I’m hoping I can get open for him and do what the offense needs me to do.”
Last preseason, McLachlan was a little more than a year removed from ACL surgery and was also a walk-on, having transferred from FCS Southern Utah. At the time, he knew he could make an impact with Arizona despite the uphill battle he faced.
“Being in the situation I was in, you kind of have to come in with a chip on your shoulder,” McLachlan said earlier this month. “Obviously you got to hope for the best in those situations, and obviously the best turned out for my case, but you have to believe it, you have to. You come to work every day you got to have that mindset to be able to get past those obstacles and get to where you want to be.”
UA tight ends coach Jordan Paopao said McLachlan began making “splash plays” the second week of fall camp last year. He was put on scholarship the night before the season-opening win at San Diego State, where he had one catch for 10 yards, then he caught four for 80 yards the following week against Mississippi State.
For Week 3, against North Dakota State, McLachlan was in the starting lineup and remained there the rest of the season. Not long after, Alex Lines—who had started the first four games but had just one reception—left the program, firmly establishing McLachlan as the top tight end on the depth chart.
That breakout performance had an unexpected, but not unwanted, byproduct in that it took pressure off true freshman Keyan Burnett to have to make an instant impact. The 4-star prospect played in 11 games, starting two, but was used more as a blocking tight end than in the passing game.
Entering his second season, this camp has been one in which Burnett has started to show that potential. He had several catches, including one for a TD, in Saturday’s scrimmage.
“I think you just see a young man that’s playing with a lot of confidence right now,” Paopao said of Burnett. “The way he catches the ball, the way he’s attacking, the way that he’s fitting runs, his pad level. I think you can see the growth of a young man that, like I said, is comfortable, he’s getting used to playing inside the box, the different things that we’re going to ask him to do.”
Said McLachlan: “Every day I’ve watched this kid grow and grow and grow. And I saw in the spring as well, he continues to get better every day, continues to improve his run blocking, his catching ability. I’m really excited to see this fall up because I know he’s gonna help out our team a lot.”
The school record for career catches by a tight end is 75, by Gronkowski in 2007-08, meaning McLachlan would need to average 3.5 receptions over a 12-game season to break that mark. He’d need 742 yards to break Gronk’s career yardage record, while the TD record of 16 (also Gronk) is a little out of reach.
There will be no shortage of opportunities for McLachlan in Arizona’s offense, which will want to run the ball more this fall but still figures to throw it 30-plus times per game. The key will be navigating what’s sure to be stingier coverage from opponents now that they know what he can do.
“It comes up, but at the end of the day, I’m gonna do my job,” he said. “I’m gonna do what the offensive scheme tells me to do. And if I’m not open, someone else is gonna be open. So it really doesn’t matter, it’s doing my 1/11 and that’s all that matters.”