The Justin Herbert era started five weeks into the 2016 season with Oregon trailing Washington State 51-26. Although there wasn’t much to cheer about, the true freshman quarterback entered the game for his first collegiate action and by the end of his first drive, he flashed the skills of a versatile playmaker who utilized his tight ends almost to perfection.
On his second snap, Herbert found tight end Jacob Breeland for a 63-yard pass. Three plays later, he found Breeland again for seven yards. After an incompletion, the quarterback got his first career touchdown on a 4-yard rush.
This was a glimpse into how important tight ends would become to a Herbert-led offense.
One tight end who was expected to have a major role in the offense was redshirt sophomore Cam McCormick. After a leg injury against Bowling Green ended McCormick’s season, Breeland is left with the most experience at tight end in the Oregon offense.
Tight ends accounted for 787 of the 1,936 passing yards from Herbert’s freshman year, due in most part to the immense talent the position possessed. The group was made up of three eventual NFL tight ends: Pharaoh Brown, Evan Baylis and Johnny Mundt.
After the switch from Dakota Prukop to Herbert, Breeland was able to crack his way into the lineup, finishing the year with 123 yards.
Through an injury-plagued sophomore season, Herbert had 331 yards to his tight ends. With another 54 thus far this season, his career total is now 1,172.
Tight ends are a hybrid between an offensive tackle and a wide receiver. If the quarterback is the king, tight ends are the bishops, moving across the field attacking the opposing team, yet ready to stay back and protect when necessary.
“We’ve got multiple guys who can step up,” Herbert said. “I’m just as confident in them as I was with Cam. Just a bunch of weapons and they make my job easier.”
Ryan Bay, a reserve tight end; Kano Dillon, a graduate-transfer from South Florida; and Hunter Kampmoyer, a former defensive lineman, are the three tight ends that were given opportunities to help Breeland fill the McCormick-size hole.
Breeland, like many tight ends, was a wide receiver in high school and had to learn blocking from scratch upon his arrival. The improvement in blocking placed Breeland in the starting lineup last season ahead of Cam McCormick.
“I came in really bad at blocking at first,” Breeland said. “Through these years working with [head coach Mario Cristobal], he’s really challenged me and made me a lot better at blocking.”
Dillon is the veteran of the group. The redshirt senior Cristobal jokingly called a “36-year old” had 499 receiving yards and four touchdowns while at USF. In Eugene, Dillon has 47 yards thus far and scored a touchdown against Portland State by carrying four Viking players on his back.
Although he is a redshirt junior, Bay might be the least known of the bunch. Lauded by Cristobal for his “tremendous training camp,” Bay should see the field a lot more.
“He may be one of our best blockers,” Cristobal said. “He’s strong, physical and does a great job of catching the football.”
Kampmoyer is in his first season at tight end. Making the switch in spring, the redshirt sophomore has one catch for four yards in his first season on offense.
Although touchdowns are what get the glory, tight ends understand the long list of what makes them so valuable. Regardless of who leads the team in snaps, the unselfish group is poised to make its mark.
“Running, catching the ball and scoring touchdowns is the best feeling, but I like to get my hand in the dirt and get dirty in the trenches, too,” Breeland said. “Whatever helps the team.”
Follow Maverick Pallack on Twitter @mavpallack