A starting tight end playing a full season at Oregon has been the exception rather than the rule over the last decade. That unfortunate run of health problems continued through 2019 with Jacob Breeland breaking his leg midseason and being unable to play the rest of his senior year. He and his fellow senior, former walk-on Ryan Bay, have both graduated; Bay did play a full season in 2019, and while a very good run blocker, he didn’t have Breeland’s complete set of route-running and pass-catching tools.
Oregon’s returning tight end roster is an interesting mix. In 2019, #48 TE Kampmoyer, a converted 3-star defensive end from the 2016 class, played the entire season as a surprisingly effective run-blocker, though like Bay it was an adventure on the rare occasions he went out for a pass. And #18 TE Webb, a former 4-star from the 2018 class, was the opposite - playing entirely as an effective Y-receiver, and as far as I could see never blocked as an in-line tight end. The Ducks have also converted another defensive end to the position, #89 TE DJ Johnson, a 4-star transfer from Miami - he played some tight end in high school but we haven’t seen him catch a pass in college. Oregon didn’t take a tight end in the 2020 class.
That leaves two scholarship players who I think will be the first- and second-string as the “do-everything” tight end - that is, who can line up either in-line or split out, effectively block with the o-line or downfield on outside runs and screens, and run routes as a pass-catching threat. One is #84 TE McCormick, a mid 3-star from the 2016 class, and the other is #81 TE P. Herbert, a 4-star in 2019 who played a bit as a true freshman (younger brother of former QB Justin, now the starter with the Chargers).
As a redshirt freshman in 2017, McCormick was the second-stringer behind the redshirt sophomore Breeland. But we saw McCormick pretty extensively that year, including two games in which he got the start, against Cal and Arizona. That season is where almost all the film we have on him is from, because his career in Eugene epitomizes Oregon tight ends’ misfortune over the years: after a promising debut, he was named the starter in 2018 over Breeland (the first four plays in the opener against Bowling Green are in 11-personnel with McCormick as the lone TE, and he’s in on all but three of the offensive reps of the first quarter), but on the final play of the opening frame he broke his fibula and missed the rest of the 2018 season. History repeated again in 2019: after reportedly leading in Fall camp, he injured his ankle just before the opener and had corrective surgery, causing him to miss the entire season again.
The good news for McCormick is that the NCAA granted him two extra years of eligibility in April, meaning he’ll have 7 to play 4, of which he’s used only 1 (the 2017 season). The story of his recovery from injuries is a long and ultimately inspiring one, full of support from his family and teammates. I believe he’ll come through it all to win the starting job next season, because his 2017 tape is excellent.
Let’s start with his receptions. As the second-stringer at the time and primarily a blocker, he didn’t have too many targets, but he made the ones he got count. He caught just about everything thrown his way, including a number of tough-to-handle balls from three different inconsistent quarterbacks (the only thing close to a drop I saw was when the elder Herbert tried to take his head off with a bullet pass 10 yards out). Here’s a representative sample:
(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any video to play it in ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 - Smooth release from the slot, clean turn, locates the ball that’s thrown too high, still comes down with it and survives the hit to the back from a future NFL safety.
- :08 - My biggest criticism of Breeland’s film over the years has been that he didn’t always go into contact with smaller DBs with his full force and fight for extra yardage. McCormick certainly doesn’t have that problem. The second DB he runs over is also in the NFL.
- :23 - McCormick is lined up on the LOS, gives a chip block and then heads out on this high-low read. He presents soft hands to his QB then turns and dives for the endzone over yet another future NFL safety.
- :42 - The QB is holding onto the ball way too long, giving the zone defense plenty of time to close off this route. The ball is pretty high and McCormick has to stretch out for it, but pulls it down over the safety, who is, once again, now in the NFL.
Anybody else with this kind of injury history would make me concerned that he’d lost a step, but McCormick’s tape makes me think that won’t be a problem at all. In 2017 he was playing after recovering from both a high school ACL tear and a stomach-turning fight with rhabdomyolysis, but after all that he looks no less quick or aggressive to me:
- :00 - Running the long way around on this flood concept to get in just the right spot — between the backers and directly in front of his QB rolling out — means running a comparable distance to a post route downfield.
- :18 - This pass goes to the slot receiver in the middle instead of McCormick towards the top of the screen (the QB probably should have thrown it to him instead, given the way the backer’s hips are turned); I included the clip to show that he’s reaching the 12-yard depth at the same time as two different Duck WRs are.
- :25 - McCormick is split way out on the bottom of the screen here and the camera loses him for a bit when the QB scrambles. Good job finding something to do - blocking the DB (who later signed with the Bears) so he can get extra yardage.
- :35 - The linebacker (now with the Saints) doesn’t want to give McCormick a clean release but he gets through him anyway, then repays it with a hard block when the QB runs for a 1st down.
The majority of reps that McCormick has taken are in-line or H-back run blocking, at which he was excellent - his blocking error rate on my tally sheet was the second lowest on the team in 2017, behind only future NFL starting offensive tackle Tyrell Crosby. Even as a redshirt freshman, his strength and technique were well developed, and I had hundreds of clips to choose from:
- :00 - Crosby and McCormick combo block the DE, comically driving him back 7 yards before he peels off to block the DB.
- :08 - Here he’s lined up in the slot against press-man coverage (from the future Saints player in the previous video), which he turns into a crushing block for this outside run. I also like the situational awareness to roll and tuck his legs in to get out of the back’s way.
- :26 - McCormick is in motion at the snap, then turns the corner and takes over the block of the OLB from the slot receiver (so the latter is freed up to hit the ILB). The extra effort to clear his man back and out of bounds is what turns this play into a 1st-down gain.
- :36 - This is 12-personnel with Breeland in as well, while McCormick is the end man on the line to the offense’s right during the only quarter of play he got as starter in 2018. His block lifts his man off his feet and allows the QB wide open grass for a huge gain.
By contrast, I have extremely few reps on tape of McCormick in dropback pass protection. Then-HC Taggart’s offense simply didn’t use 6-man protections very often, and as the second-stringer that year McCormick was getting a fraction of an already small number of them. I thought he looked good when I was able to see him in action on those plays, and it’s a rare tight end that’s great at run-blocking but lousy at pass-blocking, but still … the reader should take this video with a grain of salt because it’s almost every one of such snaps he’s ever taken as a Duck:
- :00 - McCormick is on the right side of the offensive line here, and he works the DE to the outside to give his QB a nice wide throwing lane.
- :07 - The Ducks are on the lookout for a blitz here (from film study, the Beavs that year were prone to them in this situation), but none comes and McCormick keeps his head on a swivel, eventually taking over the block from Crosby and driving his man (a 316 lbs DT who later signed with the Jaguars) out of the QB’s lane.
- :15 - Lined up as the H-back here, McCormick points out the creeping blitzer to the back before commentator Herbstreit can with the telestrator, then takes on the DT from future Oregon DC Avalos’ defense.
- :21 - Another H-back snap, this one from 2018. He seals the DE inside on this rollout to give the QB plenty of time, then follows him out and even chips the crashing backer.
I think that the younger Herbert will emerge as the second-stringer behind McCormick in the same type of role. He preserved his redshirt by playing only 13 total snaps in 2019, 12 against Nevada plus one against Colorado, all in garbage time. That’s too small of a sample to say much about, but he threw enough quality run blocks that I don’t think it’s misleading to show a few here (these clips each include the all-22, so spotting #81 shouldn’t be hard):
Considering that both Breeland and McCormick were out with injuries in the second half of 2019, Herbert was the only healthy “do-everything” tight end the Ducks had on scholarship at that time: they were using him as an in-line blocker in week 2, and we know from his high school film that he’s got good hands in the passing game. They elected not to burn his redshirt and instead played a rotation of Bay, Kampmoyer, and Webb in different roles - essentially, not replacing Breeland’s niche in the offense. So I would infer that Herbert is unlikely to be ahead of McCormick at this point and will probably be the second tight end of that type the Ducks rotate in.