Texas utilized the tight end position both in conventional and unconventional ways during the 2022 season.
After spending 2021 redshirting, Ja’Tavion Sanders became the TE1 of the Big 12 and one of the best in the nation not named Brock Bowers or Dalton Kincaid. He accumulated stats that a Texas tight end hadn’t put up in over a decade, serving as both a primary target and safety valve for Longhorn quarterbacks in the pass game while giving the needed effort blocking for Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson.
The unconventional tight end was Andrej Karic, who lined up as a receiver-eligible sixth offensive lineman 144 times over the course of a 13 game season. Even with around 10 snaps per game, the Longhorns never targeted Karic in the passing game.
Sanders returns for 2023 and Karic is off to Tennessee. The room looks different, just like the identity of the offense that led to Karic seeing regular action likely will too. For a position that Steve Sarkisian calls the second most important in the offense, what questions need to be answered ahead of training camp?
Does Ja’Tavion Sanders play like a first-round pick?
Sanders garnered first-team All-Big 12 honors in 2022, serving as one of the best examples of development within the Texas football program after a year in training. Deployed mostly as a wideout and pass-rusher at Denton (Texas) Ryan, Sanders needed to cultivate the physical skills needed in the trenches before he was ready to see the field.
To his immense credit, he did just that over the course of 2021 and the 2022 offseason and became one of the most feared tight ends in the country. He was second on the team in receptions (54) and receiving touchdowns (5) and third in yardage (613). The 54 receptions broke David Thomas’ single-season school receptions record for a tight end of 50, and Sanders’ 613 yards were 24 shy of William Harris’ single-season school record for the position set in 1984.
Looking at 2023, Sanders has a chance to etch his name at the top of several UT tight end records.
He’ll need to maintain, or possibly elevate, his level of play in order to do that. Texas may not have the reliance on the run game like it did last season, so Sanders could find himself as the only tight end on the field a majority of the time. He has the capability to stress offenses by splitting out wide, as evidenced by the handful of goal-line fades Sarkisian gave him a chance at.
Bowers may be the country’s TE1 entering 2023, but Sanders should be mentioned in the same breath with him barring anything unforeseen.
Can Gunnar Helm earn the snaps available to him?
Helm, a member of the class of 2021 with Sanders, played in 13 games with four starts and caught five passes for 44 yards in 2022. He saw an amount of snaps close to Karic’s volume early in the season before getting more and more opportunity as the year went on, including 65 total split evenly across the Kansas and Baylor games.
There’s little question Helm is the TE2 for the Longhorns right now. The question is, can Helm become a player the Longhorn coaching staff feels the need to use often as opposed to a third wide receiver? Twelve personnel has a place in the Texas offense under Sarkisian, but how much of a place will be determined by Helm’s ability considering the ability of Xavier Worthy, Jordan Whittington, and AD Mitchell is a more known commodity.
Outside of Helm, the next tight end spot is up for grabs. Is it another offensive lineman in a eligible receiver number? Kyle Flood mentioned in the lead up to the Alamo Bowl last year that it was going to remain part of their plans for the game even with Karic in the portal at that time, but it’s usage was near non-existent versus Washington.
Davis has athleticism but played more on special teams than on conventional downs last year. He may not have the needed size (yet) to be more than a flex tight end as opposed to one of the every-down variety. For Shannon, the issue appears to be the opposite. He can block, but his open-field ability may take some time to develop. Bayouth, a converted walk-on defensive end, could factor into the conversation.
There’s talent and ability at the top of the room, but that’s something not as apparent looking further down the depth chart.