Tight end may be an oft-overlooked part of a football team, especially since the college game is moving towards spread offenses in which the tight ends are left off the field entirely for many plays. The Western Michigan group, however, became a focal point of the spring when basketball star Flenard Whitfield decided to try his hand at football.
Whitfield was not the only surprise of the spring at tight end, though he certainly was the most publicized. As expected for a player who was out of football for four years, Whitfield had his share of ups and downs this spring, culminating in a three-catch, two-fumble performance in the WMU Brown and Gold game. The 6-foot-7, 238 pound former power forward did show an innate ability to get open, though, and Western Michigan tight ends coach Steve Casula is taking a patient approach.
"He'll certainly have a role with us this upcoming season. To what extent, I don't know, but I can certainly assure you that he's going in that direction," Casula said.
The Broncos' coaching staff has put together an individualized summer plan for every athlete, and Whitfield's obviously takes on particular importance with the amount of development left to do. While it all starts with the mental aspect of the game and learning the playbook and where to be at all times, there is physical work to be done as well. Casula said that Whitfield needs to add a small amount of weight and gain flexibility in order to transition his body to football instead of basketball.
This spring also introduced a new name to WMU football fans, as redshirt freshman Eric Boyden of Hamilton Square, N.J. burst onto the scene and impressed coaches and fans alike. Boyden looked comfortable in grabbing 4 balls for 41 yards in the spring game, and this was just a more public display of something that had been seen all spring.
Casula indicated that the coaches' knowledge of Boyden was not high coming into the spring either, but he opened their eyes.
"It was kind of baptism by fire, but I really believe that he may have been the most improved guy from day one of spring to day fifteen of spring," Casula said.
Blake Hammond is entering his senior season following a 2011 campaign that head coach Bill Cubit acknowledged as disappointing for the 6-foot-5, 247 pound Mokena, Ill. product. Cubit also said that since the end of the season, Hammond had been one of the hardest workers on the team, and coach Casula echoed that sentiment following the end of camp.
"The thing that was most impressive and encouraging this spring about Blake is that he was an absolute winter workout warrior. He was a leader of not only the position, but the team," Casula said.
Casula also said that Hammond is beginning to understand that the end of his college career is coming soon, and that the sense of urgency is setting in. With someone who is already a team leader in the workout room, summer workouts will be largely more of the same for Hammond.
Six-foot-three, 232 pound Clark Mussman is also expected to contribute for WMU, but his spring was cut short by injury and coaches did not see as much as they would have liked. Mussman will rehab over the summer and his injury is not expected to be serious.
Adding local interest to the mix is Portage (Mich.) Central's Matt Cutler, who is a walk-on but expects to see time in the fall as a primarily blocking tight end. At six-foot three and 251 pounds, Cutler is the biggest of the group, and doesn't look out of place among the scholarship players.
"The great thing about Matt Cutler, he's tough, it's important to him, and he takes coaching. He's a pleasure to be around," Casula said. "Watching spring ball, you'd never look out there and say he's the walk-on of the group. He doesn't play like one."
Incoming recruits Ben Arnold and Gabe Hantsbarger will join the crowded group this fall and battle for time.