NORMAN — When Taylor McNamara was being recruited, Oklahoma’s storied tight end tradition made the Sooners appealing to him.
“You hear all the names they throw at you: (Jermaine) Gresham, Brody Eldridge, (James) Hanna, all those guys,” McNamara said. “That’s appealing. You want to be like those guys, making plays, and that definitely had some influence on me.”
Over the San Diego native’s first two seasons on campus, tight ends haven’t been a huge part of the OU passing game, though if Saturday’s Red-White Game is any indication, the position could be in for a comeback in 2014.
McNamara caught two touchdown passes and true freshman fullback/tight end Dimitri Flowers was targeted on the first three pass attempts of the game, won 28-13 by the White team on Owen Field.
“I think it’s a testament to the way they’ve been working,” said quarterback Trevor Knight. “If they’re working as hard as they can, which they have been, we need to get them on the field because that’s what is working for us. They’re producing right now.”
Sooner tight ends McNamara, Flowers and Isaac Ijalana accounted for eight receptions Saturday, a significant improvement over the pass-game production from the position group over the past two seasons.
And that was without senior Blake Bell, who started eight games at quarterback last season but switched to tight end in January. Coaches have praised Bell’s performance throughout the spring, but a knee injury last week cost him the chance to show his pass-catching skills Saturday.
Oklahoma coaches are often quick to point out that tight ends were part of the Sooner offense last season, when fullbacks Trey Millard and Aaron Ripkowski often lined up at the position and were effective run blockers.
But players who were recruited as tight ends like McNamara haven’t been involved as much, particularly in the passing game. McNamara graduated from high school early and went through spring football in 2012, and even started a game early in his true freshman season before suffering a season-ending injury.
He didn’t make his first career reception until a 4-yard catch in the Sugar Bowl three months ago.
Ijalana, a junior-college transfer from Pierce Community College in Woodland Hills, Calif., made an 18-yard reception Saturday.
Flowers, who coaches and teammates have frequenty compared to Millard, came out with the first-team offense and was impressive, catching the first pass of the game from Knight.
There was a brief scare in the fourth quarter when cornerback Zack Sanchez came in for a low tackle on Flowers, who appeared to suffer a knee injury.
Coach Bob Stoops said after the game, though, that Flowers’ injury was just a hyperextension.
“Obviously, a knee is a scary thing,” Flowers said. “But as soon as I got up and got it moving, I felt pretty good.”
After Saturday’s spring game, OU fans everywhere have to feel pretty good themselves about the future of the tight end position.
“It’s a position we want to keep in the mix and keep on the field,” McNamara said. “I think we proved ourselves a little bit today.”