Gophers
Minnesota Golden Gophers tight end Jake Paulson (80) rushes for a touchdown in the first half of a 2018 game against Purdue at TCF Bank Stadium. Paulson had the Gophers’ lone touchdown reception from a non-receiver in 2018. Jesse Johnson / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Golden Gophers football team had the worst pass-catching production from tight ends in the Big Ten last season.

All 13 other programs had at least one tight end catch more passes than all of Minnesota’s tight ends combined in 2018. Half the conference’s teams had two or three tight ends catch more than the six total receptions from the Gophers’ Bryce Witham, Ko Kieft and Jake Paulson a year ago.

But the Gophers have ingredients for change in 2019. The biggest source of optimism is redshirt freshman Brevyn Spann-Ford.

The St. Cloud Tech alum didn’t catch a pass in four games a year ago, but the best-rated player from the state of Minnesota in the 2018 class looks like a handful. At 6-foot-7 and up to 270 pounds, Spann-Ford has been channeling his high school basketball days by winning jump balls in the corner of the end zone during preseason camp.

Paulson, who had the Gophers’ lone touchdown reception from a non-receiver in 2018, started six games and has an off-the-field chemistry in a friendship with a fellow Kentucky kid, starting quarterback Tanner Morgan.

Also in the mix are Kieft, who started three games a year ago, and Witham, who reclassified to remains a redshirt junior this season. Kieft is also a redshirt junior.

Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca went more basic in what he needs to see in tight end development this season.

“Well, they’ve got to do a great job blocking, so we’ve got to start there with them,” Ciarrocca said.

The Gophers’ biggest offensive question mark comes at left tackle, so if Sam Schleuter or Jason Dickson can’t hold down the spot without keeping a tight end in to help block, any talk of tight ends catching more passes becomes moot.

But for blocking, Spann-Ford and Paulson both have put on at least 10 pounds during the offseason.

Yet pass-catching is the next frontier. The Gophers tight ends accounted for only 3 percent of the team’s receptions and 4 percent of its receiving yards a year ago.

“I felt like last season that they weren’t all the way there yet,” Ciarrocca said.”They were more than willing from a competitive-nature standpoint and they competed their butts off every week, but the skill set wasn’t quite there yet for them.”

Ciarrocca has seen them show the coaching staff they deserve a bigger role in the offense this fall.

“How do you do that? By making plays out there, getting yourself open consistently,” he said. “They have shown improvement in that area. They are much better pass-route runners than they were a year ago and they are catching the ball better, so we’ll see.”

In the end, there might not be enough footballs to go around. Minnesota leads the Big Ten with 90 percent returning production on offense from 2018.

The Gophers welcome back their full complement of receivers in Tyler Johnson, Rashod Bateman, Chris Autman-Bell and Demetrius Douglas, and a stable of running backs in Mo Ibrahim and Bryce Williams, plus Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks coming back from knee injuries.

A consistent pass-catching threat — even a reliable option — from the tight end position could open things up across the board for Minnesota this fall.

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