NORMAN — The offense Oklahoma is trying to build requires a lot of pieces. Some are essential, while others are more bit parts.
The tight end spot fell into the latter category last season.
The absence of the position from the Sooners’ passing game last season was a major change from prior seasons. It wasn’t a change OU wanted to make.
“Literally, we played in a different offensive scheme than we had. Basically, we changed it halfway through two-a-days. How many times in the Coach (Bob) Stoops era had you played without tight ends? Last year we played without them 90 percent of the time. We were a lot different than we had been in the past,” OU offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “We want to play with a tight end. We will play with a tight end as long as we’re going to play at a level that gives us a chance to play.”
The reason OU didn’t employ a tight end outside of short-yardage situations last season was simple: It had better receiving options.
The wealth of wide receivers OU possessed made four-receiver sets feasible the majority of the time. Also, OU only had one healthy tight end — Brannon Green — available by November.
However, the lack of a tight end made the Sooners the spread offense they’ve never aspired to be.
ESPN “Monday Night Football” analyst Jon Gruden noticed the difference when he analyzed former OU quarterback Landry Jones for next week’s NFL Draft.
“Remember, Oklahoma didn’t have a tight end much this season. In the past, they’ve had a tight end and a strong running game and a play-action passing system,” he said. “With the injuries they had at the tight end position, it made them more wide-open and it puts more on your quarterback. They didn’t run the ball particularly well or often and were one-dimensional.”
The Sooners will have a new starting quarterback this season. Blake Bell has played in a lot of games, but he’s never played in a situation where he had to make reads and check off to outlet receivers.
Tight ends tend to become young quarterbacks’ security blankets. In 2001 and 2002, Trent Smith was OU’s leading receiver as OU broke in Jason White and Nate Hybl. Sam Bradford quickly formed a connection with Jermaine Gresham in 2007.
Heupel wants the same for Bell, Kendal Thompson or Trevor Knight.
However, the tight ends must elevate their play to make it possible.
Green, who was a junior college transfer last season, showed improvement in the spring. It would be hard to regress after only catching three passes last season. Taylor McNamara and Sam Grant are coming out of redshirt seasons.
Heupel has confidence the position can be a larger part of the offense, but he’ll need to see improvement when OU returns to the practice field in early August.
“We have an idea of what we can and can’t do. That’s not a final grade on any one of those guys,” he said. “We’ll look and see what happens in June, July and then early in fall camp. Whoever we feel has earned the right to play and play at a high level will be the guys that we play with.”
If they don’t, OU will adjust and put something together, but it’s not ideal. A quarterback transition gets a lot smoother with reliable tight ends.
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