Having worked with the best tight end in the National Football League for the past three years, Taylor Embree knows there is great potential in that position.
Now at Colorado, Embree is trying to help the Buffaloes’ tight ends reach their full potential.
Hired in March, Embree was an offensive assistant with the San Francisco 49ers, working under his father, Jon, the 49ers’ tight ends coach. The Embrees coached All-Pro George Kittle, one of the most productive tight ends in NFL history.
“George Kittle is putting a lot of pressure now on tight ends,” Embree said. “You see it in the league, especially if you’ve got a good tight end, how impactful that is to your offense. I say we’re the jack of all trades. We have to pass (protect), we got to block in the run game and we’ve got to win on routes and catch the ball in the pass game.”
CU doesn’t have a Kittle-type on the roster, but they do have a clear-cut leader in junior Brady Russell, a former walk-on who had 23 catches for 221 yards a year ago.
“He’s finding his role right now as a leader on the team and on the offense,” Embree said. “He’s really starting to master the playbook and his technique. He’s what you want. He shows up to work every day and I think with him he can play anything he wants. He’s good at the fullback type stuff, he’s good at route running, he’s good at blocking on and off the line of scrimmage. So he’s exactly what you want in your room.”
It’s a room that doesn’t have much experience – at least at CU.
Junior Jared Poplawski is in his fourth season at CU, but he hasn’t played since 2017 because of injuries. Sophomore Luke Stillwell is in his second year at CU, playing sparingly in the final four games of 2019.
Beyond that, it’s a group of newcomers, including two true freshmen (Caleb Fauria and Louis Passarello) and three walk-on transfers (seniors Matt Lynch and Nick Fisher and sophomore Jake Peters). Walk-on sophomore C.J. Schmanski is also competing.
It all starts with Russell, however. The 6-foot-3, 255-pound junior has 14 career starts under his belt and has become a leader. In particular, Russell believes he can help the Buffs’ trio of inexperienced quarterbacks, Sam Noyer, Tyler Lytle and Brendon Lewis.
“I take a lot of responsibility, absolutely, because it not only reflects on my leadership but I want to be able to lead and bring them down the right path with me since they might not have as much experience on the field and keep their head straight,” Russell said. “I also want to be a big, consistent target for them that they know is going to be sure handed and catch the ball. Or if I’m in pass (protection) then I’m blocking for them, I’m blocking for the running backs, whatever it might be. I need to be consistent because if I’m going to lead I have to play like a leader, too.”
The rest of the tight end group is intriguing.
At 6-4, 220, Stillwell is lean, but Embree said, “He has the opportunity to be a big mismatch in the pass game.”
Lynch, from Legacy High School, got a scholarship to play quarterback at UCLA in 2016 and switched to tight end last season. Embree said Lynch “is going to be playing a lot for us this year,” and said he’s solid in the run and pass game.
Fisher (6-5, 265) and Peters (6-5, 255) are both bigger bodies that could help as run blockers. Russell said Schmanski, who is 6-3, 240, has “looked really good, too. He’s real consistent and gets his job done every time.”
Fauria and Passarello are developing in their first season, while Poplawski continues to work his way back from a torn ACL last winter.
Now under his third head coach, Russell has seen the position evolve at CU and said this year, “We’re being utilized in more unique ways. We were used a lot last year but it was kind of repeating the same thing a lot of the time. (This year), we’ve got a lot of unique things that we get to do now, in terms of pulling or blocking on the edge or whatever it might be. In the pass game too, we have more concepts that we get to do some different things in.”
Embree’s plan is to teach that versatility because of what he’s seen in elite tight ends. Jon Embree played tight end at CU (1983-96), worked as an assistant for the Buffs (1991, 1993-2002) and as head coach (2011-12). Now, he’s one of the best tight ends coaches in the NFL.
Although Taylor grew up as a receiver, he’s learned from his father the value of a great tight end and hopes to develop the position at CU.
“One thing I brought when I came here is my tight ends are going to be able to do it all and I think that’s kind of where the game is headed as a tight end,” he said. “If you’re just limited to the run game or the pass game, there’w little use of you, so you got to be able to do both.”