Ole Miss’ plan to replace tight end Evan Engram? ‘Quality’ and quantity

Published 6:00 am Sunday, April 16, 2017

Ole Miss may be losing a first-round talent at tight end.

A couple of weeks remain before Evan Engram finds out exactly where he’ll go in this year’s NFL Draft, but Engram got the most out of his unique skill set to put himself in position. The 6-foot-3, 235-pounder turned into a three-year starter and finished his Ole Miss career with more receptions and receiving yards than any tight end in school history.

This spring gave Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze and his staff their first chance to extensively evaluate what’s left at the position as the Rebels begin the unenviable task of trying to replace their All-American. Rising sophomores Octavious Cooley, Dawson Knox and Jason Pellerin, who split reps between quarterback and tight end this spring, have separated themselves from redshirt freshmen Jacob Mathis, who’s recovering from a broken foot, and Gabe Angel, whom coaches didn’t mention when assessing possibilities at the position.

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It may take a group effort to fill the void left by Engram, but Freeze is high on the trio.

“Evan’s hard to replace because he’s a special kid, but I’ve said all along that I really believe Dawson Knox, Cooley and Pellerin … I think those three are quality, quality players there,” Freeze said.

Cooley and Knox got most of the reps with the first-team offense this spring, but if there’s a favorite among the group to be the No. 1 option come the fall, Cooley is it. While it may be hard for any of them to duplicate the headaches Engram, who blazed a 4.42-second 40-yard dash at this year’s scouting combine, gave bigger linebackers and smaller safeties in the passing game, coaches believe the big-bodied Cooley can be a different kind of matchup problem while giving Ole Miss a more physical in-line blocker at 6-3 and 257 pounds.

“Cooley is a physical specimen, and he plays that way,” offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. “I just think he fits what we do at tight end. You want every position on the field to be a physical position, but you rely and depend on the offensive line and tight end to be very physical, and he is definitely that. That will certainly be the No. 1 thing we do with him.”

Longo called Knox’s performance “one of the brightest spots” of the spring. Coaches praised the former walk-on’s ability to do a little bit of everything with his 6-4, 243-pound frame as well as his knowledge of the position despite having played just six games in his career, most of that coming on special teams last season.

“With his weight and his height and to run the way he does, it’s a mismatch problem for people,” Longo said. “He catches the ball well and run blocks well. … He can handle the things we do at that position.”

Jason Pellerin (7) made the move from quarterback to tight end this spring with coaches hoping he can stay there full-time in the fall. (Davis Potter)

The wild card is Pellerin, the backup quarterback last season who’s working on making the position change with Shea Patterson firmly entrenched as the starter. Most of Pellerin’s snaps a season ago came as a chance-of-pace runner in short-yardage and goal-line packages (29 carries, 90 yards, three touchdowns), a skill set that could allow the Rebels to line the 6-4, 235-pounder up at different spots on the field similar to the way they used Engram.

“Pellerin is more of a hybrid kid. He’s doing the tight end things, but he’s doing them out of the spread sets,” Longo said. “We’re kind of using him in a lot of roles because, one, he’s bright enough to handle it and, two, he’s just a football player. He’s a playmaker.”

Whether Pellerin can stay at tight end full-time come the fall will depend on the continued development of junior college transfer Jordan Ta’amu, who enrolled early and went through the spring as the second-team quarterback. Ta’amu capped it by going 6 of 11 for 188 yards and a touchdown in the Grove Bowl while also rushing for a score.

Freeze said Pellerin won’t take any more snaps at quarterback if things go according to plan.

“I hope he can go be a receiver,” Freeze added. “We’ve got to kind of see how the dynamics of our team play out between now and then and that will kind of determine it, but he needs to be on the field for us.”