Only a handful of schools target the tight end as often as N. C. State, and even if George Bryan never managed to replicate, much less improve on, his outstanding sophomore season, the Pack has a huge hole to fill after the two-time All-ACC tight end's departure. Tennessee, on the other hand, has a Mackey Award candidate in redshirt senior Mychal Rivera, who was second on the squad in receptions a year ago.
After the dismissal of UT reserve TE Cameron Clear (it is clear that theft is bad), the Pack does enjoy more depth than their Kickoff Classic opponent at the often-overlooked position, and both Mario Carter and Asa Watson are excellent candidates to meet or even exceed Bryan's production. Tight end contributions are especially important given the Pack's lack of a proven big-bodied wideout (click here for more on that situation).
The tight end prognosis is below the fold.
Rivera (6-3, 251) originally signed with Oregon out of high school before detouring to the College of the Canyons for a year en route to Knoxville, where he has 40 catches in 2 years. Last year he caught 29 balls, averaging an impressive 11.9 yards per catch, but he hauled in just one 6-pointer. That his 29 catches were second on the team shows just how much UT missed Justin Hunter after he went down with a season-ending injury. Other than Rivera and leading receiver Da'Rick Rogers, UT QBs simply did not have many reliable options.
One would assume Vols' offensive coordinator Jim Chaney would try to pick on the Pack's inexperienced linebacking core by going to Rivera early an often in the passing game. Quick hitters to the TE would also keep the vaunted Pack pass rush from putting licks on Tyler Bray. But, the Pack can counter by blanketing Rivera with Rodman Noel, an athletic converted safety, who should have well above average cover skills for an LB. And Dontae Johnson, another safety with above-average cover skills, will be on the field a lot in 4-2-5 packages, so it is not a forgone conclusion that Rivera will run free all evening.
Behind Rivera there are a handful of walk-ons and unproven youngsters. The behemoth Clear (6-6, 283), a 4-star recruit many thought would grow into a lineman, played in 12 games at TE as a true freshman, though he only caught one ball for 4 yards. He remains listed second on the depth chart, so it is hard to know who will replace him now that Clear has been banished from the team. Brendan Downs (6-5, 254 SO) got some snaps as a true freshman, hauling in 3 passes for 34 yards, so he should see time in two-tight sets and to spell Rivera. (6-5, 223 FR) will likely play right away rather than redshirt. Meredith is a 3 or 4-star recruit depending on the scouting service and played in both the Shrine Bowl and Under Armour all-star games. The only other tight ends on the roster are non-scholarship players.
While State lacks a proven contributor at TE, the roster is stacked with highly regarded prospects poised to shine now that they have an opportunity. With Bryan and his Pack career TE records (126 catches, 1,323 yards, 17 TDs) gone, the door is ajar for Carter (6-4, 252 RS SR) and Watson (6-4, 225 RS JR). After Bryan's big sophomore campaign (40 catches, 422 yards, 6 TDs), he seemed to grow increasingly less athletic and more drop-prone as his career continued, and not entering the NFL draft early probably cost him a chance to play at the next level at all. Watson, in particular, is a far superior athlete and could make Bryan's loss seem like addition by subtraction by year's end.
As J. P. Giglio noted in this excellent feature, Watson has had as many heart surgeries as receptions in his career, but now that his health problems have been managed and he is cleared to play, the sky's the limit for NFL TE Ben Watson's little bro. "He's got more speed and quickness than all of them," TOB said about Watson compared to the other Pack TE candidates before the spring game, and Watson proved his coach correct with a 74-yard catch and run against the Pack's starting secondary in the annual spring contest. Slimmed down from his former weight by about 10 pounds, Watson may not be a bruising blocker, but he should give Mike Glennon the big, athletic target the Pack so desperately needs to compliment all of their smallish wideouts. It would not be surprising to see Watson split out wide at the line of scrimmage as more of a slot receiver or used coming out of the backfield in shotgun sets and play action, much in the way Taylor Gentry was utilized. He has the pedigree (in addition to his older brother, his father played college football), the praise (he was the 10th ranked TE according to Scout coming out of high school), and now the opportunity. And, given all he has been through, it will be an awesome story when Watson produces for the Pack. I believe he will.
While Watson will help in the passing game, Carter (6-4, 252 RS SR) will likely be the starter and more of an every down end for the Pack due to his larger size and better blocking ability. Like Watson, Carter drew high praise as a recruit (ranked 9th at TE by ESPN out of high school), and like Watson, Carter has battled his own health problems. He drew a top 10 TE ranking from ESPN despite missing his senior season due to a knee injury, and he missed all of 2009 after a second knee blowout. Despite the injuries, he has 25 games under his belt and has made 10 catches for 98 yards and a touchdown in his career. Combined, Carter and Watson are likely to at least match Bryan's production and, hopefully, negate the advantage UT would seem to have at the position with Rivera.
Benson Browne (6-5, 246 RS FR) is the future at the position for the Pack and will likely see some snaps as the year progresses. A consensus 3-star recruit, Browne had offers from Big 10, Big 12, and Big East schools. TOB has praised his athleticism and potential, but noted that he needs to get tougher. Anthony Talbert (6-4, 254 RS JR) was more lightly regarded than the other TE in the group; Miami (OH) was his only other published offer. But Talbert has found his way into every game over the past two seasons, mostly on special teams, and should prove serviceable if the Pack needs him on regular downs from scrimmage.
Because of Rivera's proven production against SEC competition, UT has a head-to-head advantage at the TE position, but I would take State's overall TE stable over UT's, and I would not be surprised if Watson and Carter play a huge role in a State game plan that hopefully results in a State victory.