LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) — The task that faced Tyree Mayfield, Austin Fort and Josh Harshman last season was a simple but unenviable one: make up for Jacob Hollister’s production.
Hollister, now a tight end with the New England Patriots, caught 32 balls for 515 yards and seven touchdowns in 2016 en route to first-team all-Mountain West honors. As a unit, the Wyoming tight ends caught 40 balls for 598 yards and seven scores that year.
Last season, those numbers dipped to 33 catches, 363 yards and three touchdowns between Harshman, Fort and Mayfield (plus a Fort run TD). Even adjusting for Wyoming’s overall offensive regression in 2017, the tight ends accounted for about 2 percent less of Wyoming’s receptions, 3 percent less of its receiving yards and 7 percent less of its receiving touchdowns than the year prior.
The good news, though, is all three of them return, making up a three-headed monster of seniors at tight end.
“Just having us three together, we’re just competing with each other and just making each one of us better,” said Harshman, a Natrona County graduate. “So it’s been a great thing. I’m just excited to see what we can do this year.”
As seniors, the trio has taken on a bigger leadership role in the entire offense. Of Wyoming’s five skill position seniors, three are at tight end.
“Us three are still the leaders of the tight end group,” Mayfield told the Casper Star-Tribune, “but me personally, I’m trying to expand it.”
Assistant coach Mike Bath is entering his first season in charge of Wyoming’s tight ends. Graduate assistant Jacob Claborn previously coached the group, while Bath coached the running backs. (He still coaches the fullbacks.)
“I was out there on the field the last several years with those guys and not coaching them, but hearing them,” Bath said. “I think they’ve all really embraced being senior leaders. I talked to (offensive coordinator Brent) Vigen before fall camp, and he talked about Tyree Mayfield had been with the young quarterbacks during the summer when they were doing (7-on-7s) and stuff like that. He was helping them out.
“You could see it from their effort on the field finishing plays. You could see it from communication with young guys that I think they’ve stepped it up. That’s what you expect and that’s what you hope for out of seniors, that they take that next step in leadership. I really honestly am — this isn’t false pretenses — I’m really excited about the leadership role that they’ve taken. So far, it’s been fun to see them grow.”
There is no departed tight end to make up for this season, but Wyoming’s tight end depth could help account for the loss of Drew Van Maanen, a four-year starter at fullback.
“Having three senior tight ends really has helped,” head coach Craig Bohl said. “There was a time we hardly had a tight end in the program. Those guys have been here a long time. Certainly they can move.”
The Cowboys have experimented with putting tight ends in the backfield this camp, including 6-foot-7 redshirt freshman Nate Weinman, who has also practiced with the first-team offense.
“We’re going to put in some different personnel things with us three on the field at the same time,” Harshman said.
Expecting a Hollister-like performance at tight end each and every year might not be realistic, considering the former Poke is currently fighting for the title of Rob Gronkowski’s backup. But with three seniors in the mix, the Cowboys’ tight end group could be a big factor in the overall performance of Wyoming’s offense this season.
“We still help each other quite a bit, because we’re seniors — we’re pretty experienced — but we still have a lot to work on, and we’ve got strengths and weaknesses,” said Fort, a Gillette graduate who missed the first five games of last season with a PCL tear. “So we try to point out each other’s weaknesses and help each other make those better and become just as well-rounded as we can. And at the same time, we’ve got these young guys asking us questions, and we want to help them as much as we can.
“But I would say Jake, his senior year, he was a really well-rounded, really good tight end, and all three of us strive to be as good as he is.”
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com