BOISE — It’s one of the weirder, harder to figure out things about Boise State football fans.
What’s the infatuation with the tight ends about?
There’s been maybe no position discussed and scrutinized more around town over the years than the tight ends. And there’s seemingly no more common question every August than ‘will the tight ends finally be a bigger part of the offense this year?’
Through two games the answer appears to finally be yes.
“We’ve been talking about that for how many years now?” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said with a smile. “Four years? Five years now?”
Derek Schouman’s 2006 season probably started it, and others including Kyle Efaw and Jake Roh are partly responsible as well. The Broncos have had plenty of productive tight ends in the passing game the past decade-plus, and the position is one of the first that comes to mind with the shifts and motions of a Boise State offense.
When the tight ends aren’t involved in the passing game, fans quickly wonder why.
“I think a lot of schools and offenses don’t utilize or even carry tight ends and we do and we’ve always utilized them here at Boise State,” offensive coordinator Zak Hill said. “They’ve always been a big part of the offense, so just that history and that tradition of the tight end position here is really good.”
Except last year the Broncos didn’t use the tight ends much at all in the passing game. Just 33 of the 310 completions Boise State had last year went to the tight ends (10.6 percent). Chase Blakley led the group with 17 catches, but six receivers and a running back had more.
Granted it’s only been two games, but things appear to be different this fall. John Bates is second on the team with both eight catches and 114 receiving yards, and Garrett Collingham also has two catches for 46 yards.
Combined, the tight ends have 10 catches for 160 yards, and the 10 receptions have counted for 19.2 percent of Boise State’s 52 completed passes — nearly double the pace of last year.
“It’s been really nice just as a group to be involved more,” Bates said. “Obviously we’re going to go out there and whatever the coaches tell us to do we’re going to do, but the ball has come our way and as a group we’ve done a good job of taking advantage of it.”
Bates was expected by many to be a big factor in the passing game last year as a sophomore, but finished with just 10 catches for 155 yards. The lack of stats caused some media members and fans to unfairly say Bates underachieved last year, though nobody outside of the program knew the game plan or what the tight ends were being asked to do.
While Bates never got frustrated with his production or how others were labeling it, some in his family did. His dad, Geno Bates, publicly questioned an Idaho Press article over the summer on Twitter that said Bates didn’t live up to the expectations many had for him in 2018.
“As a dad you get kind of sensitive to those kinds of things,” Geno Bates told the Idaho Press on Thursday. “I usually never say anything, but when I saw the word underperformed, I don’t think he underperformed. I just think he did everything he was supposed to do. His blocking schemes and everything else he was doing well. They just didn’t utilize the tight ends much last year.
“That was a comment I heard from a lot of people, and when I hear that kind of stuff I didn’t think it was being fair to the kids. They were out there doing what they were supposed to do. It’s just a matter of getting their opportunities and this year those are there a little bit more and they are making the most of it. That’s the important thing.”
Bates was targeted with passes just 13 times last season. He’s already had the ball thrown his way 10 times through two games.
“I think the big thing people need to know about John is he’s all about the team,” his dad said. “He didn’t get caught up in any of that. He said I’m going to do what my team needs and when I get the opportunities I’ll take advantage of it. … It’s been exciting to get to see him get those opportunities. And seeing it get to Garrett has been great too.
“The tight ends, in general, getting them back involved, it’s exciting to see all those guys work their tails off and get a little love shown their way because they are in the trenches blocking and doing a good job. To get the opportunity in the passing game has been great.”
Tight end coach Kent Riddle has always been quick to take the blame off the tight ends when questioned about their usage. He routinely says ‘there’s only one ball to go around’, and points out how the Broncos have plenty of receivers and running backs that deserve it as well.
Asked about Bates on Thursday, Riddle pointed to his production as a blocker.
“The thing that wasn’t seen is he was at the point of attack in most of the plays in the run game,” tight ends coach Kent Riddle said. “While he might not have been a focal point in the pass game, he certainly was in the run game. And to see his maturity and development, that’s why you are starting to see more and more because he can handle more and more.
“He’s matured physically, football wise, he’s matured in every way I can think of and it’s showing up in a lot of different ways on the field.”
Harsin said Bates appears to be “on a mission to really improve his game, and Collingham is right there with him.”
The results have been noticeable. Bates and Collingham are already close to passing their production from all of last year. Collingham had just five catches for 58 yards in 2018.
Matt Pistone serves as a key run blocker and redshirt freshman Tyneil Hopper saw action last week against Marshall. Quarterback Riley Smith is being transitioned to a hybrid wide receiver-tight end role, and coaches predicted his playing time will increase.
The Broncos seem to have a plethora of options at tight end and, at least through two games, they are getting results in all areas.
And that includes in the passing game, which is sure to please Bronco Nation.
“It’s just what Boise State is known for,” Collingham said. “Growing up here I remember Derek Schouman and those guys. Tight ends are just a huge part of Boise State football.
“Our offseason goal was to get more involved and do everything we could as a group to be more involved, so it’s been awesome to be able to do that. It’s been super fun, and we’re loving it.”