I mean, could we really have chosen any other picture for our TE breakdown? Plus, bonus shot of Venables and his jet pack!. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Not to be forgotten from the powerful 2011 Sooners offense are the OU TEs, who came through in some big spots last year (see James Hanna in Stoolwater) and really started to give the offense the production it had been missing from TE. OU returns all three guys who saw playing time last year with two seniors and a rising young sophomore. Hopefully Hanna can continue to build on the success he had towards the end of last year and in his senior season deliver on the potential he came in with as a highly regarded recruit. And hopefully OU can finally find a way to put a kid like Trent Ratterree on scholarship!
It will be interesting to see how much more, if at all, new offensive coordinator Josh Heupel will try to work the TE into the offense. Ever since Gresham left, we've seen the production from our TEs drop off significantly. Which to a certain extent was definitely understandable, Gresham was arguably the most athletic TE in the history of our program. So it was only natural that once he left production would tail off, but not to the extent that we've seen where the TE has almost become an after thought. This offense, at its most powerful, has that viable seam threat up the middle of the defense creating mismatches and exploiting them. As a QB, Heupel loved to use his TE as a security blanket so it's not unreasonable to expect the TE to play a bigger role in the offense now that he is calling the shots. It would stand to reason that the TEs will have plenty of room to work with given all the talent at WR and RB, so now it's just a matter of getting Landry to look for them.
Trent Ratterree- The definition of a fan favorite and a kid who you can't help but like as he lives out his childhood dream. He's gone from being a guy fans thought should never really see the field, to a guy who is in there during clutch time situations. He's developed himself into an excellent blocker, which is one of the biggest reasons the coaches trust him out there in almost any situation. He's never going to be confused for the fastest guy on the team, but as we've seen at times he can surprise you and get behind the defense if they forget about him. He's got good hands and rarely drops a pass thrown his way. Has shown the ability to fight for the tough yards and will surely be looking to end his OU career on a high note in 2011.
James Hanna- Legend is probably a bit of a reach, but in one game last year he likely earned a pass from OU fans for at least the foreseeable future. Feared to be the possible goat of 2010 after dropping an easy catch on a fake field goal during the A&M game, in the words of Dumb & Dumber "he goes and totally redeems himself" with that catch in Stoolwater. He's a guy that came in as a recruit with a considerable amount of hype and before last year and really failed to live up to it. Seemed like things started to click for him last year and as could tell from that long TD catch, the dude has got some speed for a TE. He's the one guy on the roster who compares (and admittedly it's a bit of a reach on my part) to what Gresham was able to do in this offense. Meaning being a big receiving threat in the middle of the defense and capable of getting extra yards after the catch. I would love to see him have a big year and catch the eyes of some NFL scouts, because I think he's a guy that if he could get an invite would test really well at the combine.
Austin Haywood- Haywood came in last year as a highly touted local product who was considered to be a very good receiving TE, but like most freshman TEs somewhat lacking in the blocking department. Well ironically it was his blocking ability that kept the coaches from redshirting him last year and allowed him to get some valuable experience on the field heading into his sophomore season. Personally, I was a little disappointed that if they weren't going to redshirt him that they didn't get him more involved in the offense (he had zero catches) but what do we fans know. I would hope and expect that changes this year as Haywood brings a similar skill set to the table that Hanna does. He's probably a little bit slower than Hanna, but he's also a better blocker so it's kind of a combination of the best of both worlds. He probably won't score any 60-yard TDs, but he also isn't a liability when you ask him to block on the edge. I'm going to make a bold prediction and say Haywood becomes OU's secret weapon down around the goal line. Much like Gresham was, I think Haywood can be used flexed out and create an immediate mismatch with either an opposing LB or safety.
Max Stevenson- Stevenson is one of the two freshman OU signed in the 2011 class and is a very athletic kid who spent a lot of his time in high school split out wide as a receiver type. So he'll likely need to work on his blocking skills in a likely redshirt during 2011. He's a big kid at 6'6" though at only 240 he'll need to add some weight before he's ready to play, but with that big frame he should be able to do so rather easily. I could see him being a faster Joe Jon Finley type.
Dan Tapko- The 2nd TE member of the 2011 class, Tapko is known more for his blocking but don't sleep on his pass catching abilities. I've been using Brody Eldridge as his comparison and I think it's pretty fair. He's a guy I could see the coaches eventually moving to the o-line just because he's that kind of an athlete like Eldridge was. Of course at 6'4" 220, he's even smaller than Stevenson so there is even less chance of him playing next year. He's just not physically ready to compete at this level, especially at tight end and at that size. However both he and Stevenson could bring plenty of positives to the TE position in the years to come as both are well regarded as 2011 recruits.