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The SEC fielded the nation’s top tight end last season, Kyle Pitts. After a wildly successful career with the Florida Gators, Pitts has now moved on to the Atlanta Falcons after the franchise took him No. 4 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Pitts was clearly the conference’s top tight end for anyone who watched college football last season. No one will deny that, but statistically speaking, Kenny Yeboah of Ole Miss is up there as well. He ranked second only to Pitts in receiving yards per game (65.5) among tight ends, and he also brought in six touchdowns for the Rebels.
Both of those departures leave a void at the top of the position rankings for the SEC, but there are still plenty of talented tight ends set to take the field in 2021. Today, we’ll be ranking the top 5 returning tight ends in the SEC, all of whom should eventually find themselves on an NFL roster.
Honorable mention: Ben Bresnahan, Vanderbilt; Hudson Henry, Arkansas
5. Darnell Washington, Georgia
Darnell Washington is an absolute freak at tight end. At 6-foot-7, 265 pounds, his size and athleticism is similar to former Georgia tight end Leonard Pope, and Washington is only beginning to scratch the surface of what he could become down the road.
A former five-star athlete coming out of high school, the Las Vegas native started seven of a possible 10 games during his first season in Athens. He brought in only seven catches on the year, but five of them were for chunk yardage. He had catches go for 26, 33, 36, 25 and 38 yards, which is really impressive for a tight end.
In the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl against Cincinnati, Washington hauled in three catches for 46, proving that things are starting to trend in the right direction. Yes, adding Arik Gilbert puts a slight damper on Washington’s 2021 projected output, but he’ll still be the top in-line tight end over John Fitzpatrick.
After signing a recent endorsement deal with Krystal’s, Washington just has to make sure he avoids eating too many chili cheese fries. If he doesn’t, he could find himself finishing his college career at offensive tackle.
4. Nick Muse, South Carolina
Nick Muse was one of those select few players who chose to utilize the extra eligibility rule due to COVID-19. The former William & Mary transfer has had 47 catches go for 583 yards and a touchdown over the last two seasons in Columbia.
After hauling in 30 receptions for 425 yards (14.2-yard average) and a score last season, Muse is South Carolina’s top returning pass catcher, and he should continue to build off those numbers in Year 3.
Is the 6-4, 249-pounder a dynamic playmaker at the position? No, but he’s a steady presence similar to what the Gamecocks had in Hayden Hurst a few years ago. Muse got some All-SEC postseason love following last season, and he should get some preseason love heading into this year. It just might not come on the first or second team.
3. Arik Gilbert, Georgia
Yes, Arik Gilbert is still going to make this list. I know Georgia plans to play him almost exclusively at wide receiver with George Pickens hurt and the Washington-FitzPatrick combination already on the roster, but he’s a future tight end. We do have to take that into account with his numbers however.
As a former five-star, top-5 prospect coming out of Atlanta, Ga., Gilbert was supposed to be the future at the tight end position, and as a true freshman with LSU (his now former team) in 2020, he was. He secured 35 catches for 368 yards and two scores for the Tigers in only eight games. But now he’ll have an even better chance to succeed at his latest landing spot.
First off, Georgia is hurting for pass-catchers after losing Pickens, and Gilbert’s skillset matches a big-bodied wide receiver almost perfectly. Despite being 6-5, 248 pounds, he’s not a great blocker, so using him regularly as an in-line tight end at this stage of his career is almost pointless.
At LSU, he saw a significant percentage of his snaps as a big slot and perimeter receiver, showing off a ridiculous catch radius and superb athleticism. Sure, there were concerns about his commitment after he opted out midseason, but with Georgia, he’s now closer to home and should feel more comfortable. Don’t be surprised if he starts a bit slowly, but expect things to pick up as his rapport with JT Daniels gets stronger.
2. Jahleel Billingsley, Alabama
Jahleel Billingsley is one of the most underrated weapons in Tuscaloosa. After four different wide receivers went in the first round of the last two NFL drafts, that might not be the case for much longer. Billingsley is big (6-4, 230), and he’s athletic. He even returned some kickoffs for the Crimson Tide last season.
He stepped up big last year once Jaylen Waddle went down with a leg injury against Tennessee. Prior to that injury, Billingsley didn’t have a single catch all season. The workload instead went to Waddle, DeVonta Smith, John Metchie, Najee Harris and Miller Forristall. Following Waddle’s injury, that changed.
- First 5 games: 1 catch, 13 yards
- Last 7 games: 17 catches, 274 yards, 3 TDs
Of Billingsley’s 18 catches last year, 14 of them went for either a first down or a touchdown, proving he can reliably move the chains and come up big when Alabama needs a big play. In the two College Football Playoff games in 2020, he brought in six catches for 66 yards and a touchdown. Not world beating numbers, but reliable — and that was with Waddle’s return in the national title game.
With almost all of those guys listed above now gone, the weapons in the passing game lack experience. Metchie will act as the top receiver, but Billingsley should have a much larger role heading into his junior year. With Alabama looking to break in a new quarterback and new play-caller, getting Billingsley back is huge.
He’ll team up with Cameron Latu to give the Tide a nice 1-2 punch at tight end.
1. Jalen Wydermyer, Texas A&M
Jalen Wydermyer is easily the best returning tight end in the SEC. After breaking out in 2019 to the tune of 32 catches for 447 yards and six touchdowns, the Dickinson, Tex. native built on that in 2020 by taking another step forward.
His 46 catches led Texas A&M, and he tied the lead in receiving touchdowns (6) to go with 506 yards. And while Wydermyer was mainly an in-line tight end in 2019, he saw a lot more action splitting out wide this past season, showing off his growth as a player.
At 6-5, 265 pounds, he’s a massive weapon, and he should finally get the recognition he deserves with Kyle Pitts no longer in the conference. There could be some growing pains now that quarterback Kellen Mond has left after four seasons, but Wydermyer will provide a nice, reliable safety blanket for whoever ends up starting between Haynes King and Zach Calzada.
If former five-star tight end Baylor Kupp could finally stay healthy, the Aggies would field one of the best tight end duos in the country. That’s a big if, however. But either way, they’ve proven they’ll be just fine with just Wydermyer out there.
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Follow Clint Lamb on Twitter @ClintRLamb.