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USF 2014 Football Preview: Tight Ends

Tight end may be the best position on the USF roster.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

While he was being recruited by USF, Marlon Pope said:

When I got my first letter from South Florida, I was like,'‘Yeah, this guy, he uses his tight ends."

This isn't always the case in college football. Historically, it hasn't been the case at USF, either. In the days of the spread offense, tight ends often yielded to three- and four-receiver sets, and didn't see a lot of passes when they were in the game. Occasionally a USF tight end would catch a dump pass and rumble 20 yards. Or slip away undetected for a big touchdown, as Ben Busbee did here:

But Willie Taggart's pro-style offense uses the tight end position in ways never seen before at USF. There are often multiple tight ends on the game, and they are expected to be versatile. The offense uses a lot of shifting to create mismatches, in hopes of matching the tight end against a slower linebacker, or a smaller defensive back.

#1 on the depth chart is junior Sean Price. Price has been lauded for his work this off-season, and his mastery of the USF offense. Coming out of high school, Price was one of the top tight end prospects on this country, and chose USF over the likes of Notre Dame, Michigan, Oklahoma, and several SEC schools. By the way, he has no regrets about that. Taggart has gone so far as to say Price is "starting to live up to that potential that we all thought when he came out of high school" and that he "expects a big-time year."

His first two seasons, the smaller (6-foot-3) Price has been more of a receiver than a blocker, but the coaching staff has praised his efforts getting stronger in the weight room. Also, Price has embraced the team concept, telling his hometown paper that he wants to "be a better teammate, hopefully go to a bowl game, and just have a winning season."

Expect Willie Taggart to shift Price all over the field to create mismatches. Last season, this even included shifting Price into the offensive backfield.

It is a testament to the strength of the tight end position at USF that someone as good as Mike McFarland is listed second on the depth chart. McFarland is a rare package of size (6-foot-5), soft hands, and athleticism. Check his highlight reel, which includes a variety of tough catches, and two Huey Whittaker-like field goal blocks:

At 6-foot-5, McFarland is more of a prototype pro tight end, who can stay in to block or head downfield with equal aplomb. He's been facing lingering knee issues in fall camp, however; hopefully he will be 100% soon. Willie Taggart says he will be ready for the season opener versus Western Carolina.

If Sean Price and Mike McFarland are the big-play tight ends, Marlon Pope is the blocking specialist. Pope, who joins USF this season from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, relishes his role as a blocker.  "When my number is called I just have to make a play, but other than that I like get dirty and block," said Pope, as if the occasional pass thrown his way is one of life's little inconveniences. But Pope is no glorified lineman: in two seasons at junior college, Pope had 9 catches for 133 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Other tight ends in the roster include:

Jake Carlton is a senior whose career has followed the traditional trajectory for USF tight ends. He was always one of five or six tight ends on the roster; contributed on special teams for two or three seasons; took a redshirt year; and did all his work off the field. Players who do all that, and hang around long enough, have a chance at a decent spot on the depth chart as a senior. This was the path of players like Andrew Ketchel, Jeff Hawkins, and Derek Carter.

In various reports out of campus, Carlton has been mentioned with the top three tight ends, but only in a "senior with experience" kind of way. It remains to be seen if he will be rotated in among the top three, and in what capacity.

Redshirt sophomore Guito Ervilus was a crazy mix of size, speed, and strength coming out of high school, but hasn't been able to earn any playing time at USF. Former coach Skip Holtz signed Ervilus as a defensive end, but the regime moved him to tight end. He has remained there despite massive personnel losses at defensive end, and an abundance of other options at tight end. Will Ervilus have more of a role when McFarland and Carlton graduate, or yield to Taggart's own recruits at the position?

Redshirt freshman Spencer Adkinson is a walk-on with good size (6-3, 237 lbs.) With so many players ahead of him, it's unlikely he will see significant action this season. He could get on the Jake Carlton career path, as described above.

Elkanah "Kano" Dillon is a true freshman whose size, versatility, and Ocala-area roots remind Taggart of Sean Price. With so many upperclassman tight ends on the roster, he could redshirt to gain size and experience.

Another tight end recruit, Nick Nataro, left USF after a few days for unspecified reasons.