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Brooks: Irwin Steps Up At Right Time Among Young TEs

Aug 5, 2014

(Second in a series of position-by-position previews of the 2014 Buffs to be posted on CUBuffs.com during preseason camp. Today: Tight ends.)

BOULDER - Here's your contradiction for the day: Sean Irwin is a sophomore sharing seniority - at least at his position on the University of Colorado football team.

That position would be tight end, and with the exception of wide receiver and perhaps defensive end there's not a younger (which is kinder, gentler for greener) spot on the Buffaloes depth chart.

Lest he break out the Legos and training wheels, tight ends coach Klayton Adams won't dwell on his crew's median age and lack of experience. Irwin feels the same way.

"It's just kind of weird; I guess I am an older guy now," he said. "So I am helping teach them."

"Them" would be the array of redshirt freshmen and true freshmen - five in all - lined up behind Irwin and senior Kyle Slavin. The youngsters: Chris Hill and Connor Center - both returnees - and newcomers Brian Boatman, Hayden Jones and Dylan Keeney.

Irwin, who came to CU from Cypress, Texas, with his brother/left tackle Jeromy, shouldn't have been the lone sophomore tight end on the Buffs roster this season. Also in Sean's recruiting class were Austin Ray and Vincent Hobbs, but attrition claimed both and left Sean as the last 2012 tight end standing.

"They just left me, man . . . just about everyone in that class did," he said. "I didn't plan on that. I was close to Austin, me and him were pretty cool. Me and Vince were just teammates, but we were all right."

After spending his first season in a redshirt, Irwin played in 12 games last year and made one start (vs. Cal) at tight end in addition to playing on the PAT and field goal teams. That should offer a clue as to his strong suit. If it doesn't, here it is: blocking.

"In high school that's what I mainly did," he said. "I could do both (blocking, receiving) and they were going to utilize me in my senior year, but then I broke my ankle. I've always been a good blocker. I know coach Adams likes that; when I'm in he wants to run the ball."

The good news for Adams and the Buffs running game is that Irwin now more resembles a tight end than at any time in his career. In a little over a year he's gone from about 230 pounds to just under 250, giving his 6-3 frame more of a true TE look.

Plus, in spring drills Irwin began playing like a true tight end, according to Adams: "The guy who came out of the spring as the most improved was Sean Irwin . . . he's a guy to watch. I'm excited to see what he can do. He has just made so much improvement in every phase, whether it was the first spring to last fall to this spring to now I'm looking for another big jump from him. He's a pretty talented guy, explosive in the run game and really learning a lot in the passing game. I'm excited to see what he's capable of."

Irwin traces most of his improvement to "getting the playbook down" during his second spring under Mike MacIntyre and his staff. "I definitely picked up a lot in the pass and blocking game in the spring, more than I did when (coaches) came in last spring," Irwin said. "It was good. I understood the scheme more, memorizing who to block with the different (defensive) looks. I figured out who I needed to block if it was read option or whatever - just the whole scheme of it and understanding why we run it."

Comparatively speaking, those things are old hat to Slavin, who has started 16 games (all 12 in 2013) over his career. Adams has as much confidence in Slavin as anyone he's coached. "He's very steady in all phases - smart and savvy in both the run and pass games," Adams said. "We talked about a couple of things before summer like him being able to move a safety (out of position). If he's able to do that then we'll be able to use him more."

If the talent in that personnel layer below Slavin and Irwin is obvious but untapped, the game experience is non-existent. Nonetheless, Adams contends his position's vast greenery won't limit what is tossed its way schematically during August camp.

"I think the top two guys (Slavin, Irwin) will be able to handle anything we throw at them," Adams said. "I definitely feel that way about Slavin and I think (Irwin) is pretty close to that. He's taken so many reps and I did try and play him a lot at the end of last year - and he played pretty well. I'm hoping with Sean and Kyle there's not a limit to what you can put on them.

"The rest of the guys will get the full install, and as you get toward the end of camp you try and figure out who's the best three or four guys, figure out what they do well and put them in positions where they're confident with what they're doing. Then you narrow it down as you get toward a game plan. But they're all going to be asked to do everything."

Adams said Hill "made some strides" during spring work "but is still kind of learning exactly what's expected of him." And then there's Center, the very large redshirt freshman from Clifton Park, N.Y., whose high school athletic resume doesn't mention football.

Baseball got top billing - and for good reason. Hitters saw a 6-7, 235-pounder staring them down from the mound.  In his senior year, he pitched a pair of no-hitters and seven shutouts. Major League Baseball had him squarely in its sights had he decided to stay with that sport.

But Center, who's now at 6-7 and topping 260, made a seismic sport shift. According to Adams, Center gets "consistently better at a faster speed than probably anybody. But it's because he has so much ground to make up, being a guy who hasn't played. He's still in the infantile stages of his development. But, really, from some of the meetings this summer, he's able to answer questions fast and doesn't have to think about it. I think we'll see some real improvement from him, plus I think his body has changed a lot."

From his observations during summer workouts, Irwin said Center "is coming along" and that the pair of incoming freshmen - Keeney and Jones - "are pretty darn good. Dylan is actually pretty fast; he's going to be more of a receiving end. And the good thing about Hayden, he's a pretty good blocking tight end but he's not slow. He's like me. They're both really coachable, that's what I like. We'd tell them something in PRPs (player run practices) and they'd actually do it the next time out."

Adams agrees, but says Keeney and Jones now need to step it up quickly in camp to earn playing time. He only played tight end as a senior but took to it very well, catching 40 passes for 791 yards and 13 touchdowns.

"You would hope he could help us there," Adams said. "Both of those guys are really bright and well-coached in high school. I hope that makes an easier transition for them. If you're a true freshman and a guy who was split out a lot in high school, that part of it should obviously come a little easier for you early on.

"In terms of their football background and knowledge, they both worked really hard this summer and appear to be really good kids. I recruited them both, so I know them pretty well. I'm excited to see what both can do. But they're still going to have a lot of things to learn. I'm excited to watch the entire group really."

In the grand scheme of the CU offense - particularly in the receiving department - Adams' position is cruising below the radar. It wasn't that way when Adams coached the position for MacIntyre at San Jose State, where the tight ends were a featured part of the offense.

"We'd love to be able to get to that point," Adams said. "But that position group has to kind of earn that spot in the offense to where you feel comfortable doing all those sorts of things with them. And it takes really kind of a special athlete who's respected in the run game and in the pass game. We just have to develop to where we feel that way about someone."

If for no other reason than having a year's experience in MacIntyre's scheme, Irwin believes CU's offense will be more productive in 2014 - particular on first and second downs.

"That was our struggle last year," he said. "First down last year maybe we'd not complete a pass or get a yard or negative one. This year we should be able to help ourselves get better third down situations, just because of the system. I kind of feel like it's all coming together."

THE INSIDE LOOK AT . . .

Tight ends

Coach: Klayton Adams, second season on CU staff

Returning starters: Kyle Slavin, Sr.

Returnees: Sean Irwin, So.; Chris Hill (WO), RS-Fr.; Connor Center, RS-Fr.   

Newcomers: Brian Boatman (WO), Fr.; Hayden Jones, Fr.; Dylan Keeney, Fr.

Key losses: Scott Fernandez, Alex Wood, Austin Ray (transfer).

Stat line: Coach Mike MacIntyre would like to see the receiving productivity at this position go up - and with Paul Richardson's departure the tight ends might get more looks in 2014, provided one or more players at the position give CU's QBs a reason to look their way. Last season, the TE corps made only 19 of CU's 225 receptions and accounted for one TD. Slavin, who had the lone scoring reception, and Fernandez had nine catches each, Irwin one. Tight ends blocking in the run game is as much a priority as catching passes. That won't change. But for the sake of helping balance the offense, the Buffs need the diversity an impact receiver would bring to the position.   

Bottom line: Slavin is consistent and experienced and Irwin showed well in the spring. At 6-7, 265, Center is a physical specimen but he's still learning the position - as are most of his young cohorts. On National Signing Day last February, MacIntyre touted the receiving abilities of Keeney, a 6-6, 220-pounder who could be the receiver the tight end position cries out for provided he develops swiftly in camp. Overall, this is a position that needs to grow up quickly.

Next: Special Teams

Contact: BG.Brooks@Colorado.EDU