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April 17, 2006

Georgia becoming an NFL tight end factory

As the nation's second-ranked tight end in the 2006 recruiting class, NaDerris Ward could have played college football just about anywhere.

Ward's desire to move all the way across the country initially puzzled his high-school coach.

"I kind of looked at him sideways and said, 'Georgia?'" said Alonzo Carter, the head coach at Oakland (Calif.) McClymonds High School.

It turns out Ward had done his homework.

He learned that Georgia has turned into a breeding ground for successful NFL tight ends.

"He'd done a lot of research," Carter sad. "He told me about their current tight end (Leonard) Pope and (Ben) Watson and (Randy) McMichael and all those guys. He knew that a lot of their tight ends had gone on to the NFL."

A couple more of them soon should join the fraternity.

Pope probably will get drafted in the first two rounds this year after catching 39 passes for 541 yards last season. Martrez Milner, who will start at tight end for Georgia this fall, gives the Bulldogs another NFL prospect.

"It's just the tradition that started when Coach Mark Richt got here," Milner said. "He gets the ball to the tight end."

Richt believes the tradition actually started before he took over as Georgia's coach in 2001. Two former Georgia tight ends now in the NFL McMichael and Jermaine Wiggins played at least part of their college careers for former Bulldogs coach Jim Donnan.

"We've been very fortunate," Richt said. "When we got here, Coach Donnan had been very much into using two-tight end sets and making use of the tight end. Because of that, there were some pretty doggone good ones here big, strong guys who could run, catch and block."

One of those guys was McMichael, who has caught 221 passes for 2,456 yards during his four-year career with the Miami Dolphins. McMichael's departure from Georgia cleared the way for Watson, who won a Super Bowl ring in his first NFL season and had 29 receptions for 441 yards with the New England Patriots last year.

Wiggins preceded both of those players at Georgia. The six-year veteran has played in a pair of Super Bowls and averaged 70 catches for 637 yards each of the last two years with the Minnesota Vikings.

Position: Tight end
School that rules: Georgia (Randy McMichael, Ben Watson, Jermaine Wiggins).
Coming attractions: Leonard Pope, Martrez Milner.
Runners-up: Arizona State (Steve Bush, Matt Cercone, Todd Heap, Brian Jennings, Mike Pinkard), Brigham Young (Doug Jolley, Chad Lewis, Itula Mili, Tevita Ofhengaue, Gabe Reid), Colorado (Christian Fauria, Daniel Graham, Brody Heffner-Liddiard, Brady McDonnell), Iowa (Dallas Clark, Zeron Flemister, Tony Jackson, Erik Jensen, Austin Wheatley), Miami (Kevin Everett, Bubba Franks, Mondriel Fulcher, Ivan Mercer, Jeremy Shockey, Kellen Winslow Jr.), Michigan (Mark Campbell, Bennie Joppru, Tony McGee, Jay Riemersma, Aaron Shea, Jerame Tuman), Penn State (Kyle Brady, John Bronson, John Gilmore, Matt Kranchick, Tony Stewart), Stanford (Greg Clark, Teyo Johnson, Brett Pierce, Alex Smith, Russell Stewart), Washington (Eric Bjornson, Jeremy Brigham, Mark Bruener, Cam Cleeland, Ernie Conwell, Reggie Davis, Jerramy Stevens, Kevin Ware).
Sleeper school: Yale. The Bulldogs had three tight ends on NFL rosters last year: Eric Johnson of the San Francisco 49ers, Nate Lawrie of the New Orleans Saints and Ralph Plumb of the Oakland Raiders.
Why Georgia is Tight End U: Although other schools have more quantity, most of them can't match the quality of Georgia's NFL tight ends. McMichael is one of the top young players at his position. San Diego's Antonio Gates, Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez and Dallas' Jason Witten are the only tight ends with more catches than Wiggins over the last two years. Wiggins and Watson both own Super Bowl rings. Georgia owns a slight edge over Miami, which had three tight ends (Franks, Shockey and Winslow) get drafted in the first round from 2000-04. Georgia's tight ends have produced better statistics over the past two years than their peers from Miami, though the Hurricanes may have come out on top if injuries hadn't sidelined Winslow and Everett last season. Penn State and Washington also deserve credit for producing such a large quantity of NFL tight ends, but Brady is the only former Nittany Lion who has been productive at the next level and many of the Washington alumni are either retired or approaching the end of their careers.
"Georgia has put out a lot of good tight ends," Pope said. "That really pushed my decision to go there. I know what type of tight end I can be, and I wanted to be part of a family that has produced great tight ends."

Georgia isn't the only program with that kind of history. Penn State, Washington, Michigan and Brigham Young actually have sent more tight ends to the next level over the last two decades.

But no school currently has three NFL tight ends as productive as Georgia's trio of McMichael, Watson and Wiggins.

The only school that comes close to matching Georgia's combination of quality and quantity is Miami. In fact, if Kellen Winslow Jr. hadn't torn his anterior cruciate ligament in a motorcycle crash last year, we might be referring to Miami as Tight End U instead.

Bubba Franks, Jeremy Shockey and Winslow all were drafted in the first round from 2000-04 after starring at Miami. Kevin Everett went to the Buffalo Bills in the third round last year, and current Hurricanes tight end Greg Olsen is a future early-round draft pick.

Franks and Shockey both have appeared in Pro Bowls an honor that has eluded Georgia's active NFL tight ends. A closer look at the statistics, however, gives Georgia's tight ends a slight advantage.

Wiggins and McMichael have more catches over the last two years than either Franks or Shockey. Wiggins, McMichael and Watson also have more combined receiving yards than Miami's NFL tight ends over the last two years.

Injuries have prevented a couple of former Miami tight ends from translating their college success to the NFL. Winslow has played only two games since the Cleveland Browns selected him with the sixth overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, while Everett was sidelined for his entire rookie year.

Georgia and Miami have enjoyed so much success throwing to the tight end that it raises the question of why more teams don't utilize this position in their passing attacks. Miami coach Larry Coker offers a simple explanation.

"When we got Shockey, we had this guy who could run like a wide receiver and cut like a wide receiver, yet he was 250 pounds," Coker said. "We really moved him around. Then we got Kellen Winslow, who's the same type of player. And now Greg Olsen is that kind of player.

"It doesn't surprise me that more teams don't use the tight end that way because not every school is fortunate enough to have those types of guys. You could say we were lucky in recruiting."

Georgia has enjoyed the same type of good fortune. Richt believes the program's reputation for developing quality tight ends helps the Bulldogs land more of them.

"Once you get the momentum going the way Coach Donnan and his staff did, we're able to recruit (tight ends) because of the success we've had."

That's how the Bulldogs added Ward.

Carter remembers how Ward narrowed his list of potential schools to Georgia, LSU, Tennessee, Florida and Arizona. After analyzing the pros and cons of each school, Ward knew exactly why he wanted to sign with Georgia.

"The edge Georgia had was the history they had with their tight ends," Carter said. "That was the deciding factor."

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