Michigan football's tight ends emerge as offense continues to find its groove

·3 min read

As the final minutes of a scoreless first quarter ticked away, Michigan football needed 5 yards to avoid a three-and-out on its third possession of the game. All season, quarterback Cade McNamara stressed the importance of picking up the initial first down on any given drive as the offense searches for a rhythm at the beginning of each half. The failure to accomplish that against Rutgers, he said, is why the offense petered out in what remains this season’s benchmark for offensive stagnation.

This time, as the Wolverines sought their first score, the first down was achieved by connecting with tight end Erick All, who settled into the soft spot of a Northwestern zone. McNamara connected with All for a 7-yard gain to move the chains on a drive that eventually reached the end zone.

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“I thought Cade threw the ball really accurately and saw the field really well,” coach Jim Harbaugh said. “There was a lot of good.”

Michigan Wolverines tight end Erick All (83) catches a pass against Northwestern Wildcats linebacker Chris Bergin (28) during first half action Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021 at Michigan Stadium.
Michigan Wolverines tight end Erick All (83) catches a pass against Northwestern Wildcats linebacker Chris Bergin (28) during first half action Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021 at Michigan Stadium.

How much good there was on an afternoon? Michigan won 33-7, but McNamara threw for just 129 yards and no touchdowns is open to interpretation, but the increased involvement of All and fellow tight ends Luke Schoonmaker and Joel Honigford is a trend that has percolated over several weeks.

Coached by Jay Harbaugh, the trio of tight ends combined to make six catches for 69 yards during the first four games of the season — all of which by All — as U-M searched for production to offset the loss of No. 1 wideout Ronnie Bell. The same group has now produced 17 catches for 152 yards in games against Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern. All led the Wolverines in catches (five) and receiving yards (34) in Saturday’s win over the Wildcats.

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“Great to see Erick All and the tight ends really get in the game plan,” coach Jim Harbaugh said.

While none of Michigan’s tight ends provide the type of dynamic downfield threat associated with some of the best players at that position, they’ve developed a chemistry with McNamara on shorter throws to help move the chains. Three of the seven combined catches for All and Schoonmaker produced first downs against Northwestern on the heels of a win over Nebraska when the tight ends were responsible for 33% of the first downs through the air.

That trait is especially applicable to All, who entered Saturday’s game having moved the chains on 54% of his receptions this season.

“I thought we did some good things in the passing game,” Harbaugh said. “How many third downs did we have? Twenty. And picked up 12. A lot of them through the air.”

The tight ends have offset their relatively shallow depths of target by finding ways to gain yards after the catch. Prior to Saturday, All gained more than half of his total receiving yards after the catch while Schoonmaker hovered above 66% in that category.

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Those numbers will increase following Saturday’s performance in which the two players accumulated 74% of their combined yardage after securing passes from McNamara. That proved vital on a day when McNamara struggled with deep ball accuracy and failed to complete a pass longer than 18 yards.

“I think the deep passing game, probably forced that a little bit today,” Harbaugh said. “Their safeties were playing back. ... Maybe just forced that a little bit too much with how they were playing.

“But I thought (we did a great job) coming down hitting the check downs, hitting some of the out routes, dispersing the ball really all over the field in the passing game. We didn’t connect on a deep one, but I don’t think the deep ones were there.”

The tight ends helped move the ball instead.

Contact Michael Cohen at mcohen@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13. Send questions for his next U-M mailbag.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football tight ends come up big vs. Northwestern