One sure way to get Colorado football coach Jon Embree to smile is to start talking about tight ends.
A former tight end himself for the Buffs and then in the NFL, he wore a wide grin on media day last weekend as he told of the running joke in the offensive meeting room that "Every pass read begins with the tight end."
"That's OK," Embree said with a smirk. "It should."
All jokes aside, the tight end position does figure to be key this fall for the Buffs as they transition to a more smash-mouth, run-oriented style of offense. The shift is one that has made for an added dose of excitement for the guys playing the role.
"The emphasis really is just power football," sophomore DaVaughn Thornton said after Wednesday's practice. "That's what it is and I like it."
It's not that the position was ignored under the former coaching staff. Riar Geer led the team in receiving in 2006, and he and Patrick Devenny were both among the Buffs' top five pass catchers in 2009.
But the increased emphasis on the run game -- and an increase in the number of tight ends on the field at any one time that comes along with it -- should also mean increased opportunities in the passing game for the big men, too.
"Generally, when you're play-actioning, tight ends are in the game, so that gives us better chances to get more guys the ball," said senior tight end Ryan Deehan, who caught a touchdown pass on the final play of practice Wednesday as time expired on the offense.
Deehan caught 25 passes last season, good for fifth on the team. But the only other returning players at the position to catch a pass last season are Matt Bahr (two catches) and DaVaughn Thornton (one catch). Graduate Luke Walters caught 10.
The ratio is one passing game coordinator/tight ends coach J.D. Brookhart expects to change this fall.
"I would think you'd have at least three guys catching a number of balls per game," Brookhart said.
Deehan remains the leader at the position. But Thornton played in 10 games last year and started twice, with his lone catch a 12-yard touchdown against Kansas. Those two, along with redshirt freshman Kyle Slavin, were all among the team's top six pass catchers in the spring.
Then there's converted running back Cordary Allen who also has been seeing a lot of time in practice, while other players like Bahr are in more of a blocking role.
"They all have a little different skill set," Embree said.
One of the big reasons Embree -- who coached Kansas City Chiefs great Tony Gonzalez for three seasons -- is so fond of the position he played is the mismatches that can be created downfield against slower linebackers or smaller safeties. It's an aspect that allows the offense to dictate what it's going to do and opens up all other aspects of the offense.
Quarterback Tyler Hansen has already seen the value of forcing the defense to focus on the big guys in the middle of the field.
"Then that opens up (wide receivers Paul Richardson) and Toney Clemons," Hansen said.
Deehan said his position group has benefited from having a head coach who played the position. Instead of just one coach's perspective, the tight ends are often getting two, from Brookhart and Embree.
Given the added emphasis to the position, Thornton said it's motivating, too, to play at a school where the tradition at tight end includes players like Don Hasselbeck, Christian Fauria, Daniel Graham, Joe Klopfenstein and, oh yeah, Jon Embree -- all of whom were drafted by NFL teams.
"That's what you strive for," Thornton said. "Now that coach is here and that's his expertise, that's great."