Top Returning G5 Tight Ends
The talent pool in the Group of Five sometimes gets overlooked for the big names of the Power Five conferences. However, teams in the five smaller conferences have been recruiting at a high level and landing some of the nation’s most talented transfers. Group of Five schools often present a great opportunity for players to get more playing experience and development all while still competing at the Division I FBS level. This year’s top returning Group of Five tight ends are some of the best examples of this. These three returning players for the 2022 season each extend the ceiling of their programs’ potential for success this season.
Number 3: Gary Williams – Colorado State
The Colorado State Rams had a tight end selected in the second round of last year’s NFL draft in Trey McBride. Their tight end room ran deep last season, and Gary Williams will continue the tight end success in Fort Collins in 2022.
As a redshirt junior in 2021, Williams split targets with McBride. He still managed to haul in five touchdowns and just shy of 300 yards on the year. Williams lined up on the outside at a slightly higher clip than his counterpart. McBride took 70% of his snaps from the line of scrimmage. Williams took just 53% of his snaps on the line. This allowed Williams a little more field to work with while experiencing one-on-one matchups on the outside. Of the returning tight ends in the Group of Five, the North Carolina native has the highest receiver rating according to Pro Football Focus, at 78.9.
At 6’-2” and 235 pounds, Williams has a solid frame and the athleticism to make plays in the open field. His sample size was low in 2021 with just 25 targets, but he averaged 11.5 yards per target. Williams came alive in the red zone. Four of his five touchdown receptions resulted from red zone opportunities on passes of three, three, nine, and 13 yards. The Rams may have lost their receiving leader from last season, but Williams will fill the slot seamlessly. Expect the senior to continue his heavy presence near the end zone.
Jay Norvell takes over the Colorado State program this season and comes from an offensive background, having coached receivers and tight ends in his past. He also has a redshirt freshman tight end in Tanner Arkin, a highly-touted recruit out of high school. The coaching transition will be an advantage for the pass catchers in Fort Collins.
Number 2: Josh Whyle – Cincinnati
Cincinnati made College Football Playoff history last season, becoming the first Group of Five teams to earn a spot in the Playoff. They were a great offensive team all year, and tight end Josh Whyle was among their best playmakers.
In 2021, Whyle played in all 14 games while making eight starts. He tallied 332 reception yards and six touchdowns while averaging 12.8 yards per completion. His receiving touchdown count was good for second on the team and helped him earn All-AAC Honorable Mention status. In 2020, Whyle had nearly identical statistics with six touchdowns and 356 total reception yards. His consistency at the position will be pivotal entering the 2022 season, as Cincinnati will be starting a new quarterback, likely to be Ben Bryant.
At 6’-6” and 252 pounds, Whyle has the frame to be one of the leading tight ends in the country this season. Whyle brings great pass-catching abilities and blocking technique to the Bearcats’ offense. His size and skill set will be significant in the success of Luke Fickell’s team this year. 2022 will be Whyle’s redshirt senior season. He could be one of the top tight ends next spring on NFL Draft boards.
Number 1: Zack Kuntz – Old Dominion
Of the top returning Group of Five tight ends, this one is a step above the rest. Zack Kuntz of Old Dominion has all the key ingredients to be one of the nation’s leading pass catchers at tight end this fall. Kuntz stood out in 2021 for the Monarchs as the team’s leading receiver in nine of their 13 games. He had 73 receptions last year which was second most in the country for his position group.
At 6’-8” and 245 pounds, the former Penn State graduate transfer earned First Team All-Conference USA last season at several media outlets. His size presents a mismatch against nearly any defender in the country. Kuntz’ ability to bring down contested catches and gain vertical separation from the defender will be among the best on the field this year. Last season in Norfolk, Kuntz brought down eight contested catches. A contested catch is essentially a 50/50 ball, or a pass thrown into tight coverage in which the intended receiver makes the catch. Those eight catches were the most in that category among returning tight ends in the Group of Five.
Last year in Conference USA, Kuntz tallied 692 reception yards, second most on the team, and five touchdowns. Offensively, the Monarchs return 10 starters from last season including their quarterback, Hayden Wolff. The chemistry and familiarity of this offense will be pivotal as Old Dominion moves into the Sun Belt Conference this season. With one of the most talented tight ends in the country, the Monarchs will be well positioned to have a good season in 2022. Kuntz is likely to have another team-leading performance this season and transition his skills to the next level.