Tight end production skyrocketed late in the 2016 season after the position seemed invisible in early games. Tight ends combined to catch 38 passes for 401 yards in the last five games of the season (80 yards per game) after catching 30 passes for 260 yards in the first seven games (37 yards per game). That is an increase of 43 yards per game.
The low early season production could have been a result of having a young quarterback who was adjusting to the college game, or it could have been the result of having a new tight ends coach adjusting to the offense, or perhaps it was a combination of the two factors, or simply a coincidence. Whatever the cause, Duke is deep and talented at tight end so the position needs to be an integral part of the offense from day one in 2017.
Duke utilizes tight ends in multiple ways: as a traditional combination inside receiver extra blocker, split out as a fourth wide receiver and in the backfield as a fullback.
Specific examples start with Duke's propensity to throw jump passes to the tight end in goal-to-go situations. Davis Koppenhaver caught the winning touchdown pass against North Carolina on such a pass. Erich Schneider caught a touchdown pass against Army on a jump pass. The tight end fakes a block, on an apparent quarterback run up the middle, then slips to the back of the end zone to receive the pass.
Splitting the tight end away from the tackle and working the ball downfield is another Duke tactic. Against Georgia Tech Koppenhaver, Erich Schneider and Daniel Helm caught passes covering 31, 26 and 23 yards respectively. Duke likes to go downfield with the tight end.
Duke utilizes a three-back diamond formation where they line up two tight ends in the backfield to facilitate a power running game. This formation was used multiple times throughout the season with running backs gaining significant rushing yards behind the blocks of tight ends.
There are six tight ends on the roster:
- Daniel Helm (6'4" 245) - redshirt junior recently named to the Mackey Award preseason watch list. Helm is the starting tight end and has caught 21 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns in 12 career games. Helms has played 620 snaps in his career at Duke. Helms played 12 games as a freshman at Tennessee catching six passes for 37 yards and a 2 point conversion.
- Davis Koppenhaver (6'4" 235) - redshirt junior who is the second string tight end. He has 18 receptions for 162 yards and two touchdowns in 15 career games. Koppenhaver has played 322 snaps in his career.
- Mark Birmingham (6'4" 240) - redshirt freshman who was an ESPN300 four star recruit. Birmingham is a player who should see plenty of snaps in 2017 so the opportunity to make an impact will be there.
- Jake Marwede (6'5" 240) - freshman who was an ESPN300 four star recruit. Marwede will most likely redshirt due to the talent ahead of him on the roster. It is unlikely the tight end rotation will be more than three deep.
- Noah Gray (6'4" 235) - freshman three star recruit who will most likely redshirt.
- Bronson Bruneau (6'5" 235) - senior who is listed as a combination tight end and long snapper. Bruneau has played 14 snaps in two games in his career.
Duke will be deep and talented at tight end with the experienced Helm and Koppenhaver leading the way, complemented by Birmingham and perhaps Marwede. A key offensive strategy is to force the opponent to defend the entire football field, from the line of scrimmage to the goal line, sideline to sideline; tight end utilization is key to successfully executing the strategy.