College football is almost here. USA TODAY Sports is getting you ready for the 2018 season by breaking down the best players at each position in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Next up: the tight ends. The position has its share of agile, seam-busting receivers and more traditional dual-threat blockers and pass-catchers. None are better than Iowa’s Noah Fant, who should earn first-team preseason All-America honors from every selector.
From the Atlantic Coast Conference to the Pac-12 Conference and all points in between, here are the best tight ends in college football for 2018.
There’s some debate over which quarterback, wide receivers and offensive linemen make your random preseason All-America list. There’s no doubt at tight end. Fant is the nation’s best player at the position after pulling down 30 receptions for 494 yards and 11 touchdowns as a sophomore. Add teammate T.J. Hockenson, who just missed the cut for this list, and you get the best tight end combination in the FBS. Fant is an offensive coordinator’s dream and a defensive coordinator’s nightmare.
Okwuegbunam tied Fant for the national lead among tight ends with 11 touchdown grabs, and did so as a freshman in a conference not always friendly to inexperienced skill players. All but one of his scores and 18 of his 29 receptions came during Missouri’s six-game winning streak to end the regular season. He’s may be flying under the radar, but Okwuegbunam is a crucial piece for the SEC’s best offense.
Sweeney is a throwback. Not just an elite receiver — he led the Eagles last fall in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns — Sweeney also is an effective blocker in his team’s run-heavy scheme. If not quite Fant’s equal as an offensive weapon, Sweeney’s entire skill set puts him in elite company.
It will be interesting to see how Chip Kelly uses Wilson, who fits the modern profile for what many teams are looking for at tight end: speed, athleticism and just enough size to contribute in the run game. At 235 pounds, give or take, Wilson isn’t a bruiser. But he proved to be a weapon through the first give games of 2017, when he pulled in 38 catches for 490 yards before being lost for the season.
Bryant flashed All-America potential as a true freshman before an injury in late October effectively ended his season. The question is whether Bryant will be ready and healthy for the opener, if not the start of conference play. If so, he would give Jake Browning and UW a huge boost as the Huskies tweak their receiver corps.
The run of Pac-12 tight ends continues with the next in line for Stanford: Smith follows in footsteps of Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz, Levine Toilolo and Austin Hooper — and that’s just since 2008 — as the Cardinal’s next NFL prospect at tight end. He capped last season on a roll, with 10 receptions for 188 yards and 4 touchdowns in the final three games of the regular season.
Bushman provided a bright spot during an otherwise miserable season in 2017. His 49 receptions ranked fourth among all tight ends in the FBS, behind just Oklahoma’s Mark Andrews, Penn State’s Mike Gesicki and Adam Breneman of UMass. Not bad for a freshman playing on one of the worst offenses in the country.
Conrad’s an example of one early recruiting win for Mark Stoops and Kentucky that’s beginning to pay off. Conrad signed with the Wildcats in 2015, before the program’s active two-year bowl run, and has combined for 35 receptions and 8 touchdowns across the past two seasons. If not as flashy as some other names on this list, Conrad is an all-SEC lock and an irreplaceable piece for the UK offense.
Raymond’s best month during the 2017 season came in October, when he made at least five receptions each week during the Aggies’ four-game stretch against Colorado State, Wyoming, UNLV and Boise State. You’d like to see Raymond be a bigger factor in the red zone, where his size should come in handy, but his explosive growth between his freshman and sophomore seasons paints the local product as a player to watch during the next two seasons.
Much like teammate Devin Singletary, who appeared on our list of the nation’s best running backs, Bryant’s career has taken off in Lane Kiffin’s offense. Lightly used as a freshman, Bryant made 32 grabs for 408 yards and five scores last season in helping the Owls roll off 10 wins in a row to end the year. He’ll be even more productive as a junior in 2018.
FIVE JUST OFF THE LIST
Jacob Breeland, Oregon
Grant Calcaterra, Oklahoma
T.J. Hockenson, Iowa
Brycen Hopkins, Purdue
Tyler Petite, Southern California