By Will Vandervort.
By Will Vandervort
This time last season, Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris told the media that they will be asking, “How to you replace a playmaker like Brandon Ford at tight end?”
He was right.
Ford had a phenomenal season in his first and only year as a starter at a position that has housed Mackey Award winner Dwayne Allen and before him NFL veteran Michael Palmer. Expectations, by many, were low for Ford when the 2012 season started, but it did not take long for him to prove his worth.
After a sloppy first half in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic versus Auburn, Ford bounced back to catch five-second half passes for 51 yards, including a key catch on the game-winning drive. He followed that up with a 30-yard touchdown catch against Furman and then two touchdown receptions, plus two more catches for 69 yards against Florida State.
It was obvious the former wide receiver had become a big weapon for the Tigers at the tight end spot. Against NC State a few months later, he hauled in a 69-yard scoring pass from quarterback Tajh Boyd, while outrunning the Wolfpack secondary the final 50 yards for the longest scoring pass by a Clemson tight end in history.
Ford finished the 2012 season with 40 receptions for 480 yards, while tying a school record for touchdown receptions in one season by a tight end with eight.
So when the Clemson media comes together to interview Morris at Dabo Swinney’s Media Golf Outing next Tuesday, one of the first questions should be, “How to you replace a playmaker like Brandon Ford at tight end?”
The Tigers were hoping to do it with Sam Cooper, who has played as one of their top reserves the last two years. But the junior tore his ACL in the Orange & White game this past spring and will miss all of the 2013 season.
“The big thing you lose with Coop is he is a four-year vet,” Swinney said. “He is crafty and he has figured it out. He knows how to get it done. He was our thumper at the point of attack. He is a 255-pound guy that has been in the battles and is battled tested.
“He is as smart as anything, simply because of the reps and the experience. We are losing that experience factor from that position.”
With Cooper now done for this year, Clemson will try to rely on three guys – Stanton Seckinger, Jordan Leggett and Jay Jay McCullough – to get the job done. Seckinger is a converted wide receiver playing tight end, while Leggett and McCullough are freshmen.
“All three of those guys are going to be outstanding,” Swinney said. “They are very talented. They can all run and catch…The biggest drop we have is in knowledge.”
All three players are similar athletically. They have the ability to catch the ball, run with it and make people miss in space.
Leggett (6-6, 245) is the only one to have played tight end before and it showed in the spring, when he proved he could be someone the team could use this fall, despite coming to school in January.
“Leggett has played tight end,” Swinney said. “That’s what he has done. He has been a split out guy or you can put him on the line some. That’s what he has always done.
“He has caught on. He was the surprise of the spring for me. It’s not that he was not a good player, but how quickly he caught on. It is a very difficult position that he plays. We ask are tight ends to do a lot of things and next to the quarterback they probably have the most challenging role on the team.”
Seckinger is considered by the coaches to be a lot like Brandon Ford, though he is more athletic and faster than Ford.
“He is kind of making that same transition as far as kicking out on the power; wrapping on counters and understanding pass protection,” Swinney said. “These are things you don’t do as a wideout. He has bought in.”
McCullough is gifted athletically, but mentally he is not where Seckinger and Leggett are at right now. He will come in as the third tight end, but will play because of the lack of bodies and the number of tight ends Morris likes to use.