Breaking down the Gophers TEs: Is Rabe the offense's 'secret weapon?'
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
Each Tuesday and Thursday until the Gophers football team opens fall camp on Aug. 1, 1500ESPN.com's Nate Sandell breaks down the "U" roster position-by-position, with input from conversations with coach Jerry Kill, as well as offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys.
On the roster
• John Rabe -- Senior, 6-foot-4, 255-pounds, Iowa Falls, Iowa
• Drew Goodger -- Sophomore, 6-5, 255, Shawnee Mission, Kan.
• Kendall Gregory-McGhee -- RS Junior, 6-5, 260, Aurora, Colo.
• Sahr Ngekia -- RS Junior, 6-4, 245, Richfield, Minn.
• Moses Alipate -- RS Junior, 6-5, 280, Bloomington, Minn.
• Maxx Williams - Freshman, 6-4, 235, Waconia, Minn.
• Alex Bisch -- RS Sophomore, 6-6, 245, Northfield, Minn.
• Gabe Mezzenga -- RS Sophomore, 6-4, 240, Shoreview, Minn.
• Collin McGarry -- Starting all 12 games last season, McGarry blended seamlessly into the new offense, ranking second on the team in receptions with 16 for 120 yards.
• Eric Lair -- A mainstay on the Gophers offense and special teams for the last four seasons, Lair was a quality receiving tight end, finishing his career with 700 yards (51 receptions) and three touchdowns. However, after a 526-yard season in 2010 -- the second most all-time by a Gophers tight end -- Lair didn't have the same high statistical impact in his senior year (11 receptions, 168 yards) as he tailored to his new role.
With the losses of McGarry and Lair, the Gophers entered the offseason severely lacking size and depth at tight end. Rabe and Goodger were the only members of the (at the time) five-deep group who logged playing time in 2011. In an effort to quickly bolster the unit, coach Jerry Kill looked first at what he already had.
Gregory-McGhee, who spent his first two seasons at defensive end, was brought over to the offense, while Alipate, a big-bodied back-up quarterback, switched to tight end, where he is both a better fit and has a better chance at seeing the field. The addition of Williams during recruiting was also the obvious next step in cultivating depth for the long-term. The Gophers are still by no means deep at tight end, but they have enough capable options to forge ahead in the interim.
Apart from being integral to the blocking scheme in the run game, offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover showed in the Gophers' first season under Kill that he won't hesitate from using his tight ends as a key part of the passing game, especially in short-yardage situations. McGarry, Lair, Rabe and Goodger combined for 331 yards on 33 receptions and five of the Gophers' 10 touchdowns. While McGarry started all 12 games, the others were also used in the offense as an H-back or third wide receiver. That strategy isn't likely to change this season. With a youthful and unproven wide receiver corps, the Gophers must get production from their tight ends if they intend to shed the label as the Big Ten's worst offense.
Rabe is the lynchpin in making that yearning a reality. The only senior and the clear leader of the group, Rabe is equipped with the physical make-up and mental aptitude to be a danger to any defender in the Big Ten. Though his transition from Ellsworth Community College to the Gophers in 2011 was hindered by a knee injury suffered in fall camp, Rabe still played in all 12 games (six starts) and tallied touchdowns on two of the four receptions he hauled in (36 yards). While his initial season was spent primarily as a secondary option behind McGarry, Rabe's ascent to the top spot is now underway. Shouldered with an upgraded confidence and ability to get off the line quicker, he was a common target for quarterback MarQueis Gray in the spring, taking on a high number of passes up the middle. Gray and Rabe have obvious on-field chemistry, which could translate well to the stat line this season.
"John is one of the secret weapons on this team," Gray said after a practice in April. "Not many people know about him, but he's a big weapon and is going to be able to do some things for us to help us score points."
Rabe, a strict self-critic, wasn't satisfied with his spring, expressing his displeasure about several dropped passes and what he perceived as missed opportunities. Regardless, he has done nothing to dampen the confidence he has instilled within the coaching staff. Instead, his constant self-evaluation and mature pursuit of improvement suggests the Gophers have targeted the right guy to front their tight ends unit.
"I think that's what John kind of started to show because now he's stepped out of Colin's shadow and now he's that guy," Limegrover said during an interview with 1500ESPN.com in June. "He's moving around and he's really picking that part of it up."
Success for Rabe and the Gophers is also heavily reliant on the output from the rest of the group. Goodger is the likely No. 2 option. He is more of a blocking, defensive minded tight end then Rabe. Recruited out of the same hometown as backup quarterback Max Shortell, Goodger played in 11 games last season and made at least a small impact in the passing game with two catches for seven yards. His experience alone puts him near the top of the depth chart.
Expectations for the newly adopted Gregory-McGhee and Alipate is harder to formulate. The pair made the transition in the spring with relative ease, but there is still a sharp learning curve that must be overcome once thrust into game-time situations. Gregory-McGhee played tight end in high school before being recruited as a defensive end, but three years later he now must shed his defensive thought process and replace it with the offensive scheme. His 6-foot-5, 260-pound frame fits the position and he has the speed to get to a defender to block quickly or dash downfield when needed.
Alipate is much more of a wild card. Given the trajectory of Gophers offense, Alipate never fit what the coaching staff was looking for at quarterback and would have been destined to spend his final two seasons on the bench. At tight end, the former Bloomington Jefferson High School star at least has the opportunity to have an impact. Alipate's sound athletic ability can sometimes be overlooked as a result of his hulking frame. But as he shapes into the position more -- Kill requested that he shed a little weight in the off-season -- Alipate is growing increasingly comfortable with the heightened physicality required at tight end. The question is how those skills will translate to the playing field once the season gets underway. The redshirt junior will have to prove by trial and error that he has a stanch grasp on what is being asked of him before he granted a game-to-game role.
Williams is the only true newcomer at tight end. A three-star recruit, Williams adds a level of versatility with his speed and the strength to make a catch while tagged by a defender. There is a possibility that Williams is able to play right away and have an impact in position where options are limited. But Williams was recruited to be a key part of the Gophers' tight end corps of the future, making a redshirt season a desirable option. Listed at 235 pounds, he could use a year to bulk up and learn the playbook.
Getting help from Ngekia, Mezzenga or Bisch is essential if the Gophers keep a redshirt on Williams. None of the three has seen game action, but they will have a chance to compete with Gregory-McGhee and Alipate for playing time. Junior Mike Henry, originally recruited as a linebacker, was used as an H-back last season and found a role for himself on special teams. Henry - the only listed H-back on the roster -- is expected to have similar responsibilities this season.
Matt Limegrover's take on ... John Rabe
"I think if you talk to defensive coaches who play us, they don't think of us as a tight end, throw game oriented team. I think that works to our advantage when you have a guy like John. The thing about John is that he is so smart that he doesn't just have to be that guy who lines up next to a tackle. We can move him all over. He can be a third wide receiver type of guy. That's a great thing to have.'
After their first full offseason under the guidance of strength and conditioning coach Eric Klein, the "U" tight ends are starting to adopt the shape and maneuverability Kill is looking for at the position. But that process is still in the early stages. Rabe is vital to Gophers offense. With Gray's tendency to look Rabe's way, he is set up to finish as one of the team's top three in receiving yards. Keeping him healthy and maintaining his on-field leadership is a major factor in the development of the rest of the tight ends. The position switches made by the Gophers were necessary. However, it will take several games before the impact made Gregory-McGhee or Alipate can be evaluated. With Goodger and possibly Williams factored in, the Gophers will be searching for another tight end capable of stepping away momentarily from blocking and make a catch in a pinch.