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Portland State tight ends help power run game
The looks of confusion on the faces of the Northern Arizona defense every time the Vikings lined up with two tight ends Saturday night provided all the evidence Portland State offensive coordinator Bruce Barnum needed to know he was onto something.
“They couldn’t stop it,” he said.
By the time the game was over, the Vikings had lined up in their 1″heavy” two tight end formation 22 times, and it is a safe bet that a big chunk of the team’s 361 rushing yards came with one or both of those tight ends clearing out defenders downfield.
The strong showing by the “heavy” unit provides evidence that after a three-year hiatus and an impressive return debut last year, the role of the tight end is on the upswing at Portland State.
Senior running back Cory McCaffrey is one of the prime beneficiaries of a tight end core that has been replenished following the tight end-less days of Jerry Glanville’s run-and-shoot.
“It definitely gives us another advantage as far as the sets and the formations we can put out there to give teams different looks,” he said. “Coming from the run and shoot, all we had were receivers. We didn’t have that tight end group. Now that we have some guys in there it’s a major advantage.”
Last year the Vikings got more than they could have expected at tight end by turning to a converted basketball star and a converted linebacker. Julius Thomas, the converted basketball star, earned all-conference honors and was drafted by the Denver Broncos. While Rory Richards, the converted linebacker, proved to be a solid blocker and a gritty contributor.
Still, Barnum said the Vikings pistol offense wasn’t firing on all cylinders.
“We didn’t have the personnel or the confidence to put in a package like (heavy) in knowing that if one guy goes down, it’s done,” he said.
The Vikings may not have an athlete of Thomas’ caliber this year, but they have a crew of diverse strengths that allow Barnum more room to tinker.
Senior Kalua Noa, a converted wide receiver, is the best receiver and offers some of the deep play ability that made Thomas so dangerous. Junior transfer Gage Loftin is a solid blocker and decent pass catcher in the mold of Richards. Junior Greylin James made a name for himself Saturday night with a number of pretty blocks downfield. Senior Kyle McMillin has a year in the system and solid all-around skills.
That’s not even mentioning senior Phillip “Tree” Thomas. Like Julius Thomas before him, Phillip Thomas came to the team from the basketball court, but he brought even less football experience. Tree isn’t the threat Julius was, but his hard work and size (6-foot-8) have coaches optimistic about his ability to contribute.
Head coach Nigel Burton likes the newfound versatility.
“We’re just scraping the surface of the things you can do with this system,” he said. “When you’re really doing it right you can spread it out and do so many different things. It’s the flexibility of the offense that’s the fun part.”
Notes: McCaffrey was named Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Week after running for four touchdowns and 222 yards. Senior Myles Wade was named Special Teams Player of the Week for blocking what would have been a game-winning field goal with seven seconds left in Saturday1’s 31-29 win over Northern Arizona.
By Ian Ruder, The Oregonian