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A tight race at tight end

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A tight race at tight end

Post  BestdamnUKfanperiod on Sat Apr 16, 2011 6:57 pm

A tight race at tight end

With six tight ends on the depth chart in spring practice, the Kentucky football coaching staff is trying to look at the competition with a view that you can never have too much of a good thing.

The Cats entered the spring with seven tight ends, five of which have received prior playing time. Highly touted tight end Alex Smith was dismissed from the program a week ago for a violation of team rules, but that still leaves UK with a surplus of six players.

After nearly four weeks of spring football practice, no one has emerged as the favorite to win the job, but it's not for the wrong reasons. With so many players competing for just one position, the competition has forced everyone to step up their game.

"Only the best can play," tight ends coach Greg Nord said. "Those guys go out there and know that they have to work hard every day or they'll just get bypassed."

When the competition is all said and done and head coach Joker Phillips has to choose a starter in the fall, there's little doubt the victor of the competition will be a valuable asset in the passing game and the blocking scheme.

"What it's going to produce out of this competition of tight ends is a winner," Nick Melillo said. "Whoever comes out of it, you're going to be a winner, you're going to be tough and you're going to fight to the end no matter what."

If there are two or three guys that have separated themselves from the pack, Melillo would certainly have to be considered in that group. The lone senior of the competition, Melillo is probably the most dangerous receiving threat as a former wide receiver.

It was just two springs ago that Melillo, a transfer from Lindenwood, was the star of the Blue/White Spring Game, where he caught two touchdown passes. Melillo switched to tight end that offseason and went on to grab five passes for 44 yards as sophomore.

That experience, along with an established ability to catch the ball and some added size, made Melillo the guy at tight end heading into last year. A high ankle sprain, however, forced Melillo to miss the first half of the 2010 season.

"I don't know if he was ever well last year," Nord said. "He hurt himself in two-a-days and never really bounced back totally."

When he returned for the final seven games, he caught just one ball as he struggled to crack a crowded position group while recovering from a nagging injury.

"It was definitely frustrating," Melillo said. "I played pretty much every single game my sophomore year and then coming in my junior year I had the spot locked down. Stuff happens. It's a physical game. Everything is not always perfect and you have to take things in stride. Even though I wasn't able to play on the field, I tried to stay as mentally focused and positive for the younger guys around me. Being the oldest guy, I feel like the leader of the tight end group."

The misfortune of the injury, coincided with a return to a position now abundant with players and talent, never made Melillo second guess or regret his switch to tight end.

"I'm very confident in my athletic ability," Melillo said. "I'm confident playing this position. Competition doesn't scare me or bother me. I'm competing with a bunch of my brothers. It's honestly fun. The best part about the competition with all these guys is, in my mind I'm going to emerge on top, but the competition is what is getting me better. If you're not competing, you're going to stay stagnant and not change."

Despite the ongoing battle to lock down a spot at tight end, Melillo said the group has bonded.

"We're not just a group of tight ends but a group of brothers," Melillo said.

If Melillo is one of the favorites to win the job, so too are sophomores Tyler Robinson and Jordan Aumiller. Robinson, a physical beast at 6-foot-3, 254 pounds, caught 11 balls last year for 80 yards and one touchdown. Aumiller had the best numbers of the entire group with 18 receptions, 193 yards and a touchdown en route to Southeastern Conference All-Freshman honors.

Robinson, however, has battled hand injuries this spring, and Aumiller lost playing time as the season wore on as he struggled to block against the bigger defenders of the SEC.

"He does everything I ask," Nord said of Aumiller. "The thing he's always got to battle and continue to improve on is his strength. A lot of times it's just been his physical strength that has gotten him into trouble. As he continues working in the weight room and he continues getting better, he'll have more success."

The sleeper in the group is sophomore Anthony Kendrick, who picked up significant playing time late last year. At 6-3, 261 pounds, no one in the cluster of tight ends possesses the frame Kendrick can boast.

"You don't realize how big he is," Nord said. "All of a sudden you get up on him and he's a big guy."

The coaching staff is trying to transform the excess of tight ends into an advantage, implementing more two tight end packages this spring. With question marks at wide receiver at running back, the tight end position could be utilized and valued more than it has been since the days of Jacob Tamme.

"We've got a lot of guys that we're going to be counting on at receiver getting ready for the prom right now," Nord said. "We've got a couple of running backs that are in the same position, so right now is a good time to get these tight ends going and learning two tight end formations and different schemes we'll be doing."

Ideally, Nord said he'd like for one or two of the guys to emerge atop the pack by the fall, but having too much of a good thing is never a bad idea.

"I'd like to have the best guy in America," Nord said. "I'd like to have one All-American and two guys behind him that know what they're doing and can go in there. If you don't, you want a bunch of guys that know the offense, that can compete and can go play at this level and win games."

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