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Florida Football: The Growing Kyle Pitts Heisman Trophy Campaign Reflects a New Landscape for Tight Ends

Florida Football: The Growing Kyle Pitts Heisman Trophy Campaign Reflects a New Landscape for Tight Ends

Florida Football: The Growing Kyle Pitts Heisman Trophy Campaign Reflects a New Landscape for Tight Ends

With Florida Gators standout Kyle Pitts carrying the banner, 2020 is fast becoming college football's Year of the Tight End.

Pitts' performance through two games has pushed the junior into the national spotlight. His most recent effort against South Carolina resulted in four receptions for 57 yards and two touchdowns, one week after Pitts decimated Ole Miss with eight catches for 170 yards with four touchdowns.

Now, the two otherworldly outings are generating Heisman Trophy talk. A smattering of columns hit the internet over the weekend, pushing the Pitts-for-Heisman narrative.

Knee-jerk reaction? Absolutely. Any Heisman chatter after just two games can be deemed overzealous, though it's inevitable in a media landscape where professional opiners race to be first on a player.

What makes the Pitts hype different is such reaction is typically reserved for quarterbacks and sometimes running backs, although that's increasingly rare. One must go back to 1977 to find the last tight end Heisman finalist, Notre Dame product Ken MacAfee. MacAfee finished third in voting after catching 54 passes for 797 yards and as many touchdowns (6) as Pitts has through just two games.

Pitts putting up big numbers isn't a new development. In 2019, he caught the same number of passes as MacAfee in '77 (54) and his 649 yards are second among Florida tight ends only to Aaron Hernandez's 850 (on 68 receptions).

And it's not just Pitts. Tight ends across college football are showing out on unprecedented paces.

Take Coastal Carolina's Isaiah Likely. As the Chanticleers race to their best start since moving up to the Football Bowl Subdivision, earning 25 ballot points in the latest Top 25 ahead of a Sun Belt matchup with nationally ranked Louisiana, Likely ranks second in the nation for yards per reception at 30.7.

"He's skilled enough to put him out in the slot and put him in different positions to go win some one-on-one matchups. He's done that a lot," Coastal Carolina coach Jamey Chadwell said. "He's a matchup problem for a lot of different people. For us, his skill set allows us to line him up in a lot of different positions and get a matchup we think is favorable.

"It's helped this offense expand what we like to do," Chadwell added.

That concept of expanding the offense through the tight end is surfacing for a variety of programs this season, too.

Pitts and Likely are two of six tight ends ranked in the nation's top 51 for yards per game. Pitts leads the way among that group at 113.5 (No. 8 overall); next is Sean Dykes of Memphis at 111, good for No. 11 in the FBS. Hunter Long of Boston College, Kenny Yeboah at Ole Miss, and Brevin Jordan of Miami round out the group.

In contrast, just three tight ends finished the 2019 season ranked in the top 100 nationally for receiving yards per game.

To be sure, the current sample size is limited. The 2020 campaign is also unique in that nearly half of the FBS conferences have yet to kick off as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Think of this current tight-end evolution like the metamorphosis of the power forward in basketball. A generation ago, it was a position looked upon to bang on the interior, grab rebounds, score primarily around the rim. The influx of "unicorns" — power forwards like Giannis Antetokounmpo, with traditional size and strength, but outside shooting and ball-handling rivaling that of any wing — changed the complexion of the game.

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College football's current crop of standout tight ends just might be the position's unicorn generation. A workmanlike position, tight ends are traditionally asked to block in a way that sometimes makes them like a sixth member of the offensive line. Scoring opportunities usually come on goal-line packages.

Against Ole Miss, Florida showed off Pitts' versatility on a deep ball from Kyle Trask. The Gators exploited a matchup with linebacker Jacquez Jones, turning the one-on-one into a foot race like one typically sees with a No. 1 wideout against a cornerback in man coverage.

Likely scored on a 72-yard reception against Arkansas State, bursting off the line and speeding past the defense on a basic seam route. In less than three seconds after the snap, he's more than a step beyond the deepest defensive back, looking less like a lineman and more like Randy Moss.

Against American Athletic Conference West rival SMU, Dykes scores on a similar route and deep ball. Such plays don't work without a target who's particularly fleet of foot, a remarkable quality for players who range between 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-6 and can weigh in over 250 pounds.

Bringing true versatility to the position means continuing to fulfill the traditional roles of the position. Run-blocking plays a big part in that, which Chadwell expressed through the lens of Likely.

"He's a guy who can put his hand on the ground and play a traditional tight end, and block and do some of the things in the run game," Chadwell said. "He's a big receiver, but strong enough to play some of that tight end."

To that end, the concept of the tight end as football's "unicorn" takes shape. It takes a special athlete to have the combination of speed that creates passing-game mismatches and the strength to hold off the rush as a blocker. But when that kind of athlete comes along, he opens new dimensions to a playbook.

Pitts offers a good example against Ole Miss.

Here, Pitts goes in pre-snap motion to the H-back spot to give the impression that the Gators will run. He slips into the flat on the play-action fake and has ample space to reach the end zone with the Ole Miss defense anticipating a carry, the Rebels forced to respect Pitts' role in the run game.

The proliferation of air-raid offenses throughout the 21st century forced defensive coordinators to adapt their strategies. Nickel and dime formations have increasingly become teams' base, with some even going quarter to counteract pass-happy attacks.

Arkansas used a 3-2-6 look to successfully limit Mississippi State's version of the air raid, which lines up four-wide with a pass-catching running back or a straight five-wide. Replacing one of those wideouts with a bulkier tight end creates a matchup problem against an abundance of defensive backs — and the right tight end makes it possible to do so without sacrificing the principles behind the offensive scheme.

SMU coach Sonny Dykes, one of the early adopters of the Air Raid, has leaned heavily on tight end Kylen Granson. Granson has 13 receptions and two touchdowns through the No. 18-ranked Mustangs first four games.

Dykes was an early adopter of the tight end as a weapon in the air raid, coordinating an Arizona offense in 2007 and 2008 that emphasized Rob Gronkowski as a pass-catcher.

"You can change the blocking surface up and you can do a lot of different things creatively in the run game and different pass stuff," Dykes told the Dallas Morning News in 2018.

Kyle Pitts' budding Heisman candidacy may not burn as hot as it is now, for a combination of the reasons wide receivers are so rarely finalists and offensive linemen never get the invite to New York. Continuously putting up astronomical receiving numbers is a proposition not entirely in a player's control, and outstanding blocking isn't the kind of sexy football that gets the social-media GIF treatment.

But players like Pitts, Isaiah Likely, and Sean Dykes are bringing the future of offense to the present, and doing so with a nod to the past.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.