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Recruiting road isn't exactly paved in gold for tight ends

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Wed. September 21, 2011 | Matt Baker | Email

Recruiting road isn't exactly paved in gold for tight ends

TALLAHASSEE — On the sidelines of a hazy field tucked away in the Panhandle, football’s future watches a part of its past.

Tallahassee Godby receiver Brandon Holifield seems comfortable in basketball shorts as he nurses an injury near the bench. The Miami commit is a long and lean 6-foot-6, 215 pounds and looks ready to jump out of the stadium to snare a pass.

His teammate, Laith Harlow, stands out on a field loaded with Division I-A athletes, ramming his powerful 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame into linemen and linebackers.

Rivals calls Harlow, a blue-collar Oklahoma recruit, one of the country’s top 10 tight ends.

His coach calls him part of a dying breed.

“The tight end position, it’s becoming a dinosaur,” Godby coach Ronnie Cottrell said.

The hard-nosed hand-to-the-ground tight end might not be extinct, but it looks like an endangered species. It is threatened by the spread of the spread offense, which prefers quicker players like Holifield to bulkier ones like Harlow.

In 2003, D-I programs signed 148 tight ends, according to Rivals.com. Eight years later, those schools signed only 119 tight ends — a drop of 20 percent. The country’s top five college passing offenses have completed 449 passes. Tight ends caught six of them.

“If you’re a spread team, you have no need for me,” Harlow said. “I know I’m not a wide receiver. That’s just that. That’s not going to change.”

Harlow is more traditional than cutting edge. He blocks like a lineman, pancake blocking one opponent, picking himself up and attacking another on the same run. He sealed off defensive ends on two fourth-quarter touchdown runs in Godby’s 42-6 win over Jefferson County on Friday.

And Florida is one of the remaining outposts for tight end recruits. Seven of Rivals.com’s top 35 prospects at that position come from Florida, including top-ranked Kent Taylor (Land O’Lakes) and No. 20 Sean Culkin (Indian Rocks Christian). That’s more than Texas, California and Pennsylvania combined.

But the position’s roles are changing here, too. When Rob Taylor was an NFL lineman, he usually had a blocking tight end nearby.
Now as he helps his son, Kent, choose between programs like Florida and Penn State, he’s learning that tight ends are more valuable in the passing game.

“Now they really like to see tight ends who can stretch the field vertically,” Taylor said.

Or horizontally.

Cottrell, a former tight ends coach at Florida State and Alabama, said teams are recruiting hybrids who can park next to the tackle one play, move out to receiver the next and line up at fullback after that.

“They’re looking for that multiple, talented guy who can do a lot of things,” Cottrell said.

And more are looking for talents like Harlow’s teammate.

Holifield dropped football as a freshman to focus on basketball. He first dunked in middle school and thought he was “hot stuff” on the court with a future in hoops.

“This is what I want to do,” Holifield said. “Dunk on people and everything.”

But he received only lukewarm interest from D-II recruiters after his junior season, so he picked up football in the spring. By his second week in the program, he had a major college offer. And by mid July, he was a Miami commit as a spread-the-field tight end.

“It’s kinda funny,” USF basketball coach Stan Heath said. “A lot of times you find guys like this that just have a tremendous passion for basketball but are better suited for football.”

Heath should know. He was the basketball coach for Antonio Gates at Kent State and Matt Jones at Arkansas before they became NFL tight ends.

Though the position is disappearing from some programs —- Northwestern scrapped the tight end for a fullback/receiver/H-back hybrid heroically dubbed the “superback” — it remains a fixture at others.

Twenty-four hours before his top-ranked Sooners played No. 5 Florida State, Oklahoma’s tight ends coach stood on the Godby sideline with his arms crossed.

With one of the season’s marquee matchups looming, the Oklahoma assistant kept his eyes on Harlow, studying a part of his program’s future and a relic of football’s past.

Staff writer Matt Baker can be reached at mbaker@sptimes.com.

Photo courtesy of the Tallahassee Democrat.

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