By Scott Haynes, Senior College Football Editor
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - The collegiate tight end has traditionally received little-to-no fanfare, except for the truly exceptional in that category. However, the position remains a quarterback's best friend. Whether it is serving as the ultimate relief valve in the middle of the field, or blocking both in passing and running situations, a talented tight end can create mismatches and make a real difference in any given game.
A look at the top FBS tight ends heading into 2010:
KYLE RUDOLPH, NOTRE DAME
The favorite to win the Mackey Award as 2010 commences, expect Rudolph to
flourish in Brian Kelly's offensive system. The 6-6, 265-pounder is coming off
a sophomore season in which he flashed great potential, grabbing 33 balls for
364 yards and three TDs. If he remains healthy, he has first-round NFL talent.
A big target with wide receiver-type skills, Rudolph is poised for a big
season, regardless of who earns the QB job in South Bend. With All-American
talent in Michael Floyd on the outside and Rudolph at TE, it is hard to imagine
whoever is under center struggling for an extended period of time with the
WESLYE SAUNDERS, SOUTH CAROLINA
This Gamecock certainly passes the eyeball test. A huge target at 6-6, 273
pounds, Saunders could also receive a first-round grade come draft time. His
size and athleticism jump out at you. He hauled in 32 balls as a junior, for
353 yards and three TDs, but his modest numbers had a lot to do with
inconsistency under center. With better play from the QB position this year,
Saunders could put up bigger stats. South Carolina won't vie for an SEC crown
in 2010, but playing in the top conference in the country should allow Saunders
to showcase his talents week-in and week-out.
D.J. WILLIAMS, ARKANSAS
Williams had a huge sophomore season in 2008, leading the Razorbacks in
receptions (61), receiving yards (723) and receiving TDs (3), en route to All-
American accolades and a spot as the school's first-ever Mackey Award
semifinalist. His numbers tailed off considerably in 2009, with just 32
receptions for 411 yards and three scores, but with steadier play under center
from Heisman hopeful Ryan Mallett, Williams could return to his 2008 form this
season. He has decent size (6-2, 250) and is a veteran presence who has seen
it all. Arkansas is not an elite SEC squad, but Bobby Petrino has put his
stamp on this offense and will undoubtedly utilize his assets to the fullest
LANCE KENDRICKS, WISCONSIN
There is plenty of hype surrounding Wisconsin heading into 2010, as the
Badgers are the front-runner for the Big Ten title in the eyes of many. Their
talented tight end is one of the reasons for the optimism. At 6-4, 239 pounds,
Kendricks is more of an oversized receiver than conventional tight end, and
finished 2009 with 29 receptions, 356 yards and three TDs. In his final outing,
he torched Miami for seven catches and 128 yards in the Champs Sports Bowl.
Head coach Bret Bielema has all the pieces in place in 2010, including a
devastating ground game and solid play under center, assets that can only help
open things up for Kendricks and allow him to soar to the next level.
ORSON CHARLES, GEORGIA
The Bulldogs have an All-American on the outside in A.J. Green, which should
help the development of the ultra-talented Charles, as there will likely be
plenty of room for him to roam. The 6-3, 235-pounder isn't especially big for
the position, but his talent is in catching the football and making plays
after the catch. He showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman in 2009,
earning Freshman All-American honors when he appeared in 12 games with three
starts and finished the year with 23 receptions, for 374 yards and two TDs.
The goal for Georgia is to return to elite status in the SEC, and if the
Bulldogs are to attain that, expect Charles to have big numbers when all is
said and done.
GEORGE BRYAN, NC STATE
Bryan emerged as the ACC's top tight end in 2009, earning First-Team honors
after catching 40 balls, for 422 yards and six TDs. He may not get the
publicity that other TEs around the nation get, but the 6-5, 265-pound senior
has developed into one of the better players at the position. The Wolfpack are
still trying to return to ACC prominence, but may be a year or two away,
especially if talented QB Russell Wilson (a recent fourth-round selection of
the MLB Colorado Rockies) decides to forgo the rest of his eligibility to
concentrate on his baseball career. Still, regardless of who is under center,
expect Bryan to see plenty of balls thrown his way.
JOE HALAHUNI, OREGON STATE
Mike Riley's Beavers are an offensive juggernaut, with playmakers at all the
skill positions. That includes tight end, where Halahuni reigns supreme. He
plays more of an "H" back for OSU, but really came on strong down the stretch
in 2009, finishing the year with 35 receptions for 486 yards and three TDs,
despite starting just two games. The 6-2, 252-pounder continues to improve and
this could be the year he really bursts on the scene. With the talented
Rodgers' brothers garnering most of the attention in Corvallis, Halahuni will
have a great opportunity to exploit matchups in 2010.
BEN GUIDUGLI, CINCINNATI
Butch Jones takes over for the departed Brian Kelly and has the unenviable
task of trying to hold onto the momentum gained by two straight Big East
crowns. However, the cupboard isn't exactly bare at Cincinnati and the
Bearcats will head into 2010 with a solid QB under center in Zach Collaros and
Guidugli at the TE position. Despite being undersized at 6-1, 239 pounds,
Guidugli was effective as a junior in 2009, grabbing 27 balls, for 364 yards
and three TDs. The younger brother of former UC signal-calling star Gino
Guidugli, Ben has steadily improved his numbers each year, and 2010 should be
no different. A third conference crown may be too much to ask, but expect
Guidugli to remain a key weapon in the Cincinnati arsenal.
KAVARIO MIDDLETON, WASHINGTON
The rebuilding process in the Pacific Northwest continues for head coach Steve
Sarkisian, and there is some real talent, especially on the offensive side of
the football, that has the Huskies fan base interested. All-American candidate
Jake Locker is poised for a huge 2010 before taking his talents to the NFL and
with targets like Jermaine Kearse and Middleton, big numbers are likely. The
6-5, 253-pound Middleton showed his potential as a sophomore, finishing 2009
with 26 receptions for 257 yards and three TDs. With Locker feeling more and
more comfortable in the pocket, expect Middleton's numbers to increase
significantly in 2010.
CHARLIE GANTT, MICHIGAN STATE
Unlike the aforementioned players on this list, Gantt is more of a "lunch-
pail" type of tight end. The 6-5, 255-pound Spartan will do anything to
contribute, and is a solid blocker who continues to improve as a receiver.
Gantt earned All-Big Ten Honorable Mention in 2009, finishing the season with
career-highs in receptions (22) and receiving yards (348). MSU finished 2009
just under .500, and if the Spartans fail to build on a six-win season, it
won't be due to a lack of effort from Gantt.
OTHERS TO KEEP AN EYE ON: Luke Stocker (Tennessee), Mike McNeill (Nebraska),
Anthony Miller (California), Kevin Koger (Michigan), Willie Jefferson
(Baylor), Jordan Reed (Florida), Jeffrey Anderson (UAB), Kendrick Moeai