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Purdue Football: Spring Tight End Preview

Payne Durham is off to the NFL, who steps up and fills the sizable hole in the offense?

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Purdue Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, Payne Durham was Purdue’s #2 target behind Charlie Jones. Now that Payne is off to ply his trade on Sunday, new Boilermaker Coach Ryan Walters and new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell need someone to step up and fill the sizable vacancy left by Durham.

These are the options at their disposal

The Known

Garrett Miller

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Purdue Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, Purdue was set to feature a one-two punch at tight end with Payne Durham and Garrett Miller. Miller suffered a season-ending knee injury in fall camp after beginning to see regular playing time in 2021 and suddenly the tight ends room was looking thin.

Miller, occasionally referred to as Thor, will be back this season at TE1. Entering this 2023, the 6’5” 245-pound former three-star recruit out of Round Rock, Texas has hauled in 21 receptions for 213 yards and a touchdown. All he’s done since arriving in West Lafayette is put on muscle. Despite his weight gain, Miller has maintained his speed and still exists as a deeper threat than Durham’s role in the offense provided.

That said, coming off an injury of this severity, I think he’ll be dipping his toes in the proverbial long ball waters before developing into a true deep threat, ideally by mid-season.

I hate to see this in college sports: a player expected to make a big jump in production gets injured pre-season. Obviously it’s less than ideal for the player first, the team and coaching staff second…but upon return to health, a lot of expectations by staff and fans alike are thrown out the window. He’s maintained speed while putting on weight, but a season-ending non-contact injury almost always results in losing a step or two, at least initially.

Assuming he’s as close to full strength as he can be by the season opener, hosting Fresno State, Miller should be one of the main offensive targets in the passing game. I’ll get into this more later, but with the new offensive staff and a changing of the guard at quarterback (with the newbie having a vastly different style than his predecessor), I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that Miller has a season that includes something like 40 receptions for 500 yards and six touchdowns. Factoring into that prediction: He’s gonna be a target whenever his new dual threat QB can extend plays while also being the main target in a goal-to-go scenario, should the Boilers elect to pass.

As hinted toward by the next tight end, some of the players predict more long balls to tight ends than we saw last season. Durham’s style of play has always been more possession/short yardage oriented, so that possibility should provide some excitement for Boilermakers faithful with a revamped coaching staff.

Paul Piferi

NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Purdue vs Michigan Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

Piferi, the former quarterback, seems to be optimistic about the tight ends unit entering 2023. In practice last week, the redshirt senior mentioned the tight ends existing more as deep threats in mismatches under Graham Harrell. He also noted the change in offensive style with Texas transfer Hudson Card being the (presumed) starting quarterback following the departure of Aiden O’Connell. Card, much more of a dual threat, will be able to extend plays that AOC could not, and Piferi sees that as an opportunity to simply “get open.”

According to the man himself, he’s up to 255 pounds.

Piferi was able to get solid on-field experience following the injury to Miller last season, doubling his catches from his first season following the position change, posting ten catches for 143 yards and a touchdown. In his first year, that was five catches for 61 yards and a touchdown.

Between he and Miller, whom Piferi refers to as “a menace” at his position, a new quarterback with a penchant for extending plays, and an offensive coordinator who knows how to utilize tight ends in pass pro, run blocking, short yardage and long yardage scenarios, I tend to agree with the former QB’s outlook on the 2023 scheming for tight ends.

Keep in mind: new tight ends coach Seth Doege was Graham Harrell’s successor at quarterback at Texas Tech before working under Harrell at Southern Cal. I think that synergy will be of paramount importance in a transitional year that has the potential to be a lot more.

Takeaways From the Top Two Guys

They’re both versatile: semi-deep threats, definite possession TE’s like Durham when targeted. Eager to block, big enough and quick enough to be a mismatch in multiple situations. Willing to test their athleticism in attacking DB’s on routes while big enough to exercise leverage in run and pass protection. Given the offensive philosophy of their new coordinator and position coach, combined with a QB who can prolong plays and play off-script, they’re primed to be a pain in the keister for defensive coordinators.

Wildcards/Run Blockers/New Comers

Redshirt junior Ben Furtney, a former linebacker, has seen plenty of playing time in run blocking schemes, appearing in nineteen games over the past two seasons. His lone catch came on a 20 yard scamper in his first season as a tight end/fullback. He’s got a motor, it’ll be interesting to see how he can be utilized.

Redshirt junior Ben Buechel has appeared in five games for Purdue, posting one catch for twelve yards. At 6’3” 240, he’s also kind of one of those in-between fullback/tight ends (good gosh tight ends have gotten so huge in the past 20 years), so expect him as more of a run blocker.

Redshirt sophomore Drew Biber, a former three-star recruit, has appeared in fourteen games for the Boilers with one reception for six yards. At 6’5” and 225 pounds, his smaller frame makes him more of a receiving threat than a three-down tight end like Miller or the recently departed Durham. He should be targeted a few times this year.

Charlie Kenrich was a consensus 3* recruit out of Liberty Township in Ohio in the 2022 recruiting class. The 6’3”, 230 pound tight end / H-back is known for his receiving ability and physical play, despite being on the smaller size of the tight end spectrum.

According to Allen Trieu, national recruiting analyst for 247 sports, Kenrich, “Plays a slot-back position at his high school but projects as an H-back in most systems come college. Very good receiver who shows ball skills, not just as a short to intermediate receiver, but also tracking deeper passes. Has some twitch as a route runner and runner after the catch. Will be physical as a runner and also as a blocker. Has explosion getting into his blocks. May not fit into every single offense as he is not as big and long as a traditional tight end, but used correctly, he has a very unique skill set that can make him a very productive college player and there are a number of players in the NFL with similar builds and skill sets.”

Max Klare is another consensus 3* recruit from the 2022 class out of St. Xavier high school in Ohio. Klare and Biber are similar players. They came in as tall, skinny undersized tight ends that specialize in catching passes. They both spent their redshirt season getting bigger and stronger and figuring out the blocking game. Now they’re both up to 240 and ready to contribute. Klare, at 6’4, has the length the coaching staff wants at tight end, and flashed the ability to go up and get it in high school. I’m not sure how much you’ll see him on the field this year, but Purdue has a nice stable of tight ends to work with moving forward.

The newcomer of the group is freshman George Burhenn out of Mt. Vernon Indiana. In terms of potential, I think he has the highest ceiling in the tight end room. At 6’5, 205 pounds, he was utilized all over the field in high school. On one play he might be lined up as a traditional tight end, the next play, he’s out wide playing receiver, and the next, he’s in the backfield taking a hand off. The mantra of high school football is to get the ball in the hands of your best player by any means necessary, and his coaches understood the assignment. In fact, he was utilized all over the athletic department, as he also starred in track and basketball. I anticipate a redshirt year for Burhenn while he gains weight and settles into playing tight end full time, but he’s someone to watch for in the future.

Finally, Tristan Cox has moved over from LB/DE to play fullback/H-back this spring. He was a 3* athlete in the 2021 class out of Pulaski County High School in Somerset, Kentucky. I feel bad for Tristan because when he signed he said, “What made it right for me is that they knew exactly where they wanted to use me. I believe Coach (Jeff) Brohm is building something special, and I want to be part of that.” That didn’t play out, and he’s only appeared in two game thus far in his career.

Now he’s moving over to fullback/H-Back under Coach Walters. He played on both sides of the ball in high school. He ran the ball 51 times for 200 yards and 8 touchdowns as a senior, and at 6’3”, 255, he has the potential to be an absolute tank on the goal line. He’ll share the position with Ben Furtney, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Cox eventually takes over the job full time, based on his high school film. This is a case where a coaching change helped a player. Cox was buried on the depth chart at linebacker, and was going nowhere fast (except perhaps the portal) now the Kentucky high school star has a new lease on his Purdue career with the move to offense.

Take Away From the “Bench” Group

There is plenty of diverse talent available for the Coach Doege to develop. He’s got pass catching specialists, blocking specialists, and a freshman with a star potential. If Miller and Piferi stay healthy, it may be another year before you see a few of them, but expect to see guys like Furney and Cox on the goal line. All-in-all, tight end is one of Purdue’s deepest positions on the roster. If the young guys pan out, the Boilermakers are set for the foreseeable future.