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2023 Positional Preview – Tight Ends

Part 3 of the 2023 Positional Preview finds us in Joe Jon Finley's tight end room, where a familiar face returns to lead a group of not-so-familiar faces.
He’s back, and with a new number. Bob Nguyen/OU Daily

The Room

Projected Depth Chart

  1. Austin Stogner – RS SR
    • 2022 – 12 games, 30 catches, 210 yards (10.5 AVG), 1 TD (South Carolina)
    • Career – 35 games, 67 catches, 864 yards (12.9 AVG), 9 TD
  2. Jason Llewellyn – SO (OR)
    • 2022 – No Stats
  3. Blake Smith – WO RS JR
    • Career – 6 games, 2 catches, 1 yard (0.5 AVG), 0 TD (Texas A&M)
  4. Kaden Helms – RS FR (Injured)
    • 2022 – 3 games, 1 catch, 4 yards (4.0 AVG), 0 TD
  5. Kade McIntyre – FR
  6. Josh Fanuiel – WO RS SO
  7. Hampton Fay – WO RS SO
Now San Francisco 49er Brayden Willis. Ray Bahner/OU Daily

2022 Recap

Besides the individual seasons by Eric Gray and Marvin Mims in 2022, Brayden Willis probably has as much to say about his season as anyone else on offense. While not the largest or most explosive tight end, Willis always had the athleticism to contribute in versatile ways while in Norman. Under Lincoln Riley, Willis played both TE and H-back, contributing 36 catches, 484 yards, 6 touchdowns, and 2 carries in his first four seasons before new offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby arrived. Under the new offense, Willis exploded.

Surpassing all of his career numbers up until that point, Willis accounted for 39 catches, 514 receiving yards, 7 touchdowns, and added 10 carries for 26 yards in a valiant effort against Texas as a fill-in wildcat QB. Willis flashed both as a weapon in the passing game and as a competent blocker, helping OU to a 10th ranked rushing attack.

As we will go into more detail below, the use of Willis by Jeff Lebby was a pleasant surprise, posting a career season for catches and touchdowns as a tight end under Lebby’s version of the veer and shoot offense.

Behind Willis, however, the room provided next to no production. Missouri transfer and senior Daniel Parker contributed 4 catches for 28 yards, and was okay as a situational run blocker. But the TE room accounted for only 1 other catch, and zero else to write home about.

2023 Projection

Offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby seems to have a love/hate relationship with the tight end position. Although, if you follow the trend, he has been incorporating its use more and more over time, especially since his 2019 season at UCF (wow). Here are the snap counts for the tight end rooms over Lebby’s last four seasons:

POS2022 (OU)2021 (OM)2020 (OM)2019 (UCF)

While the use grew year over year, it’s obvious that the 2019 season was an anomaly. A total snap count of 42 is basically next to zero. The WRs in 2019 were very productive, and it’s likely that Lebby just made good use of what he had on the roster. He did something similar, although to the opposite effect, in 2020 and 2022, finding a TE1 that he likes and using him extensively. In 2020, Kenny Yeboah transferred to Oxford from Temple, and Lebby made excellent use out of him, finishing the season with 524 yards and 6 TDs with a whopping 19.4 yards per catch. Last year, Brayden Willis amassed 514 yards and 7 TDs before getting drafted by the San Francisco 49ers. While those numbers don’t seem to stand out relative to some huge TE seasons in the past, they stand way out from the other two seasons under Lebby, where the TE1 finished with 150 yards (2021) and 87 yards (2019).

This tells me that Lebby does a good job identifying a usable mismatch on his roster depending on the year, mixing in the use of TE when he feels like it’s necessary, and incorporating more receivers in the slot when he doesn’t. With guys like Gavin Freeman, Drake Stoops, Jalil Farooq, and LV Bunkley-Shelton on the roster, Lebby seems to be afforded a lot of flexibility this year between the slot type receivers and his options at tight end, which could be viewed as limited.

Pretty much slated in at TE1, Austin Stogner returns to Norman with plenty of experience under his belt. While his 2022 production at South Carolina (30 catches, 210 yards (10.5 AVG), 1 TD) doesn’t look great, the Gamecocks did not use the tight end position much, losing both Stogner and their other main TE to the portal after the season. Stogner’s career numbers look better (12.9 AVG, 9 TD), and plenty of Sooner fans can remember all the way back to 2021 when Stogner dressed in Crimson and caught 3 TDs. His best career year was 2020, catching 26 balls for 422 yards and 3 TDs (16.2 AVG). A prized four-star recruit out of Prestonwood Christian in the north DFW metro area, Stogner was steady, but never quite broke out and reached his recruit rankings potential.

The knock on Stogner would have to be his lack of dynamic ability as a receiver. Big-bodied and strong, the strength of his game is in-line. Stogner is a large framed TE with an enormous catch radius, and possesses some savvy for using his body well to shield defenders to do some damage in the pass game. But he is not dynamic yards after catch threat, nor someone who can really stress the deep seams in the passing game. Stogner’s ceiling is a reliable target who can block, open up the underneath routes, and catch first downs, which is still important and will likely be integrated into this year’s version of Lebby’s offense.

Behind Stogner is a crowded room of the inexperienced transfers, the oft-injuried, and the puppy. Looking at the whole list, it’s hard to point at one player and say “there’s your TE2” and feel confident about it.

In a dream world, Kaden Helms lives up to his billing as a pass-catching TE split out. Coming out of Bellevue, Nebraska, Helms had offers from Auburn, Iowa, Miami, Florida State, LSU, Michigan, Tennessee, and Wisconsin, many of which know a thing or two about tight ends. But Helms has been nicked up since he got to campus, and can’t seem to stay healthy for any long stretch of practices. His potential impact is a total unknown at this point, and he has still yet to practice this fall.

Another good scenario would also be health related, as Jason Llewellyn, Helms’ running mate from the 2022 class, has also struggled with injuries as well as weight. The much larger framed of the two, Llewellyn has gone from 250 to 265 and back to 250, in just one year. If he can stay healthy and keep his weight down, there’s no telling what he could do. Not as highly ranked as Helms, Llewellyn still added offers from Alabama, Michigan, and Texas, so you know there is some potential. Llewellyn is back at practice this fall, and even made OU Football’s highlight reel from the Wednesday scrimmage. If he can stay healthy, he could naturally fall into place at TE2 behind Stogner, giving Lebby two similar framed and styled tight ends to work with.

The rest of the room is insanely hard to project. Hampton Fay committed to and played for Michigan State as a quarterback. Josh Fanuiel transferred from Cameron where he played basketball. Blake Smith departed College Station for Norman without a scholarship offer. And Kade McIntyre arrived this summer as a true freshman, clocking in at a somewhat disappointing 6’3, 225 pounds.

True Freshman Kade McIntyre is attempting to climb the depth chart. Bob Nguyen/OU Daily

New Names & the Rest of the Room

The theme of this whole piece has been new names. Austin Stogner is technically new to this staff, but not new to the program. And besides Helms and Llewellyn, every single other face in the room is new.

Hampton Fay, as mentioned above, was a Michigan State quarterback recruit out of All Saints Episcopal in Fort Worth in the 2021 class. After moving to tight end before the start of the 2022 season, Fay finished his Michigan State career without any game action at either position. He bets on himself, heading to Norman as a walk-on tight end looking to make something out of his athletic 6’5″ frame.

Anther position change – well, a complete change in sport – story comes from Josh Fanuiel, who transferred in before the spring from Cameron University, where he played basketball for the Camels. A product of Elkins High School in Missouri City, Texas hopes to capture some of the magic of other former basketball-players-turned-tight-end. We put in our insider notes the other day that Fanuiel was seeing some run at TE2 in some practices and a scrimmage. He looks great in one of the scrimmage highlights from OU Football on their twitter page.

A third walk-on add, Blake Smith transferred from Texas A&M where he saw limited action, pulling in just two catches in three seasons. The Southlake Carroll product never made much of a dent in the Aggies depth chart, and heads to Norman without a scholarship, but without much in front of him either.

And finally, the lone high school recruit is Kade McIntyre out of Archbishop Bergen in Fremont, Nebraska. The three-star recruit, rated as an ATH by most services, played all over the field for Archbishop Bergen, lining up mostly at TE/H-back and Linebacker. McIntyre was also a prolific track and field competitor, racing in the 100m for Bergen. He comes from an athletic family – his father looks like he can still play, and his brother was a 2022 safety who committed to Wyoming. McIntyre, in our estimation, was overlooked by the recruiting services, and deserved a much better look as either an ATH or TE than the composite ranking of 610 overall. The twitchy athlete weighed in at 6’3, 225 when he arrived in Norman, so it is possible he is in line for a redshirt. But he also has the size and speed to contribute heavily to special teams, so it’s possible his 2023 season relies on that playing time.

Can former Cameron basketball transfer Josh Faniuel compete for snaps? Bob Nguyen/OU Daily

Projected Stats

This is a tough one to project based on the wild volatility in use of the tight end by Jeff Lebby. We’ve reviewed the snap counts from his previous four seasons, and talked about the actual production from the unit some. Here’s how the last four seasons break down for TE stats:

POS2022 (OU)2021 (OM)2020 (OM)2019 (UCF)
TE139-514-7 (13.2)17-150-1 (8.8)27-524-6 (19.4)9-87-0 (9.7)
TE24-28-0 (8.0)9-93-1 (10.3)8-115-1 (14.4)1-4-0 (4.0)
TE31-4-0 (4.0)2-7-0 (3.5)3-18-0 (6.0)
TOT44-546-7 (12.4)28-250-2 (8.9)38-657-7 (17.3)10-91-0 (9.1)

Earlier, I talked a little bit about Lebby’s flexibility year over year in use of the inside positions. If he has a TE1 he likes in the passing game, he’ll use him. Just look at Kenny Yeboah’s 19.4 yards per reception in 2020. But if he doesn’t, he could incorporate more receivers into the scheme as explained above.

While I don’t believe Stogner will have those poor of numbers he had in 2022, I don’t think he will quite get to the 514 yards and 7 TDs Brayden Willis compiled last year. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 receptions for 390 yards (12.9 yards per catch, right at career average) and 5 TDs sounds about right. I think the remaining 10 or so expected catches will be distributed to Freeman, Stoops, Jaquaize Pettaway, etc.

Could Lllewellyn and/or Helms finally string together enough healthy weeks to push for some playing time? Can Kade McIntyre show enough in his first fall camp to warrant some snaps? Does Blake Smith, Josh Faniuel, or Hampton Fay find their way onto the field for some series? I’m not sure how many more catches will be available.

Maybe add another 15 from this group total, and another 195 yards and 1 TD.

The whole position really is one giant question mark. Kaden Helms is the best receiving threat in the group, but he can’t stay healthy. Helms might be the biggest wildcard of them all.

Tight End Room Grades

These grades might even be generous. 2022 was a good year for Brayden Willis, and perhaps that kind of production (7 TDs) was somewhat unexpected from a Jeff Lebby tight end. But TE lacked a lot of explosive plays, or any depth behind Willis whatsoever. After his departure, there was exactly 1 catch left in the room. Blake Smith’s transfer added 2 more. Someone else, anyone else at tight end was a must get, and Austin Stogner ended up being an obvious choice. While he is not a dynamic threat, he is steady, and his experience gives the room some much needed leadership.

And it’s hard to project a great grade for the room overall, with limited experience, limited upside, and a lot of youth, with some questions as to how much the position will even be used relative to last year.

2022 Grade: B
Offseason Grade: B-
2023 Projected Grade: B-

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