DeSean Smith found it difficult to block.
Colin Jeter couldn’t run a crisp passing route.
Dillon Gordon, meanwhile, weighed as much as an offensive tackle — you don’t throw footballs to offensive tackles.
These were the problems LSU tight ends coach Steven Ensminger faced last season. He had three tall, wide and athletic tight ends — Smith, Jeter and Gordon — and all of them were one-dimensional. Smith was the pass-catcher who couldn’t block, Jeter was the run-blocker who couldn’t catch and Gordon was the third tackle on the line.
“That’s us three right there,” a smiling Smith said of the description.
Just more than a week before LSU kicks off the season against McNeese State, Smith is blocking better than ever — enough for Ensminger to admit that he trusts to play him. Jeter is running routes with the best of them and catching passes — like his extending grab in the spring game — like a seasoned wideout.
And Gordon? Well, he hasn’t changed — and that’s the way the Tigers want it.
“I would say our favorite runs are behind him,” Ensminger said. “We want his big butt there.”
LSU’s tight end trio is poised for a breakout year, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. The passing game plan includes them, Cameron promises. LSU will throw to them, he adds.
“This is going to be a really good year for our tight ends,” he said.
Sound familiar? The same we’re-gonna-throw-to-our-tight ends mantra has emerged from preseason practice over the past several years. The same where-are-the-tight ends result unfolds by midseason.
LSU tight ends have combined for no more than 16 receptions each of the last three seasons. They have averaged less than 200 yards receiving over that three-year span and have caught one — one — touchdown in the past 47 games.
Oh, but this year’s different, they all say. The development of Jeter and, especially, Smith from one-dimensional ends to two-dimensional guys has transformed the position group from a crew of block-centric boys to a versatile set of athletes.
“We’re going to play a bigger role in our offense,” Smith promised.
Cameron takes the Xs and Os route.
“At some point in time, if (the defense) is doubling both of the (receivers) on the outside in some kind of Cover 2 and we can isolate our tight ends on Mike linebackers and safeties, we’ve got to be able to take advantage of that,” he said. “Got big targets. Jeter’s 6-6, Jacory (Washington) is 6-5, DeSean is 6-4. They’ve all got 6-8, 6-10 wing spans.”
Cameron flashed that during LSU’s bowl game last season, when quarterback Anthony Jennings targeted Smith five times. Smith caught four passes for 66 yards in the loss to Notre Dame — his only receptions of the season last year.
He didn’t get many chances after dropping what would have been a lengthy completion in the season opener against Wisconsin — something he “beat himself up” over, he said.
The underlying reason he didn’t get many chances to catch a pass, though: He struggled blocking, a tight end’s key role in LSU’s run-heavy offense.
There’s an explanation behind that. Smith emerged from Lake Charles ranked nationally as high as the No. 2 tight end in the 2013 class, but he rarely blocked in Barbe’s spread-happy scheme.
Smith had to understand what blocking was all about — the steps, hand placement, helmet placement, the leverage. It’s taken two years, but Ensminger said things have soaked in for the 240-pounder.
“I had to be able to trust him to put him on the field to do both, and I do right now,” the coach said. “He has worked his butt off, and I look forward to seeing it.”
When did Smith realize he had understood blocking? When Ensminger’s loud barks quieted.
“This is how you know you’ve got it. If coach doesn’t walk on the field with his headset off and just get in your butt,” Smith said.
Jeter, meanwhile, had the opposite problem. Jeter, a junior college transfer from Texas last summer, caught all of 16 passes in his final two seasons of high school football in a pro-style system.
Ensminger had planned to redshirt Jeter last season, but the 245-pounder excelled in blocking and playing LSU’s H-back position. He developed into LSU’s lead guy in that role but didn’t factor into the passing game.
Gordon called Jeter a “6-6, goofy kid” last season who stumbled is the passing game. That’s changed — and so, maybe, has the tight ends’ roles.
“He’s one of the best route-running tight ends we have,” Gordon said.
LSU tight end receptions over the past five years
2013: 12- 211-0
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.