Syracuse Orange football head coach Dino Babers is widely viewed as having one of the most creative offensive minds in the fast-rising college football coaching ranks.
Babers learned under Art Briles at Baylor, helped develop New England Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo at Eastern Illinois, flourished with Matt Johnson at Bowling Green and turned Eric Dungey into one of the top statistical passers in college football last season (prior to his season-ending injury).
However, one thing Babers has continued to ignore throughout his time as both an offensive assistant and as a head coach is the use of the tight end position as a pass-catcher. While quarterbacks have thrived in Babers’ offense, tight ends have failed to come close to having similar success.
Starting tight ends under Dino Babers
In Babers’ first year as head coach at Bowling Green, Falcons tight ends went from being a fixture of the offense to being tossed by the wayside. The following season saw only slight improvement, as starting tight end Derek Lee ranked sixth on the team in receptions, hauling in just 18 passes for 108 yards and three touchdowns. And last season, in Babers’ first year as Syracuse’s head coach, Orange tight ends combined for just six total receptions across 12 games.
While the most sensible prediction would be to expect the tight end position to remain nonexistent in Babers’ passing attack in 2017, there are some factors that lead me to believe that may not exactly remain the case.
Anyone who has watched college football over the last few years has seen the change in offensive systems teams are running. Ian Boyd over at Football Study Hall dove deep into how more teams are implementing offenses with pro-style concepts that emphasize the tight end position. These schemes are also commonly used in spread sets at an uptempo pace.
While teams such as Stanford and Kansas State have ran pro-style offenses for years, more schools are now starting to incorporate what Boyd describes as “pro-style spreads” into their offensive schemes. As Boyd notes, this can be easily seen with Michigan and how they utilized All-American tight end Jake Butt last season.
Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh would frequently call an empty-set two-tight end formation (or have quarterback Wilton Speight audible into it) which would result in Butt being covered by a linebacker – an obvious mismatch the All-American tight end would constantly exploit.
What does this mean for Syracuse?
As you may know, the Orange, under Babers, run a “veer and shoot” offense, which is a variation of the air raid. In simplest terms, this offense features shotgun formations, a simplified power run game, spread sets and operates at an extremely fast pace.
As mentioned above, throughout his time as a head coach running the veer and shoot offense, Babers has rarely used it to feature the tight end position. However, Babers is also one of the brightest offensive minds in the game, and is keen to adapt to the changing college football landscape.
Although I am in no way, shape or form recommending, or expecting, Babers to completely revamp the offense he has had so much success running (especially since it’s already expected to improve in year two), tweaking it to implement some of these pro-style spread tendencies would be beneficial – especially considering the talent Babers now has at the tight end position in JUCO transfer Ravian Pierce.
Pierce was the second-highest rated recruit in Syracuse’s 2017 class, behind only quarterback Tommy DeVito. The 6-foot-3, 234-pound tight end was given four stars by ESPN and Scout, and three stars by 247Sports and Rivals. He was also rated the No. 3 tight end and the No. 22 prospect in the JUCO Class of 2017 by 247Sports.
While Pierce is no Jake Butt, he certainly has both the size and speed to flourish in an uptempo spread offense. He is also versatile, having lined up inside, out wide and in the backfield last season at Southwest Mississippi. Pierce finished the 2016 season with 50 receptions for 426 yards and two touchdowns – numbers he easily has the ability to surpass at Syracuse.
The JUCO transfer has been on campus since January and is already producing and carving out a role in the offense, having reportedly caught one of Eric Dungey’s two touchdown passes in Syracuse’s first scrimmage on April 1. Pierce also scored once more during the red zone portion of the scrimmage.
With Amba Etta-Tawo and Brisly Estime departing, there are 142 receptions and 2,000 receiving yards up for grabs next season. Despite Babers’ history, look for the tight end position (specifically Pierce) to receive a large portion of that production.