NOTE: This is the sixth installment of a summer-long series projecting the Top 10 players at each position for the 2014 Big Sky Conference football season.
We've talked before about how the rise of the Oregon-style spread offense has changed the role of the "classic" tight end in college football. The position is definitely evolving. Still, despite the lack of a household name, most teams in the Big Sky still use tight ends -- and use them to their advantage.
Who will make the biggest impact in 2014? These 10 guys are a good bet to do most of the work. And it's not easy to find 10 guys:
TOP 10 TIGHT ENDS
1. R.J. RICKERT, SR., NORTHERN ARIZONA 2013: 22 rec, 246 yds, 11.2 avg, 1 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Rickert caught at least one pass in NAU's final seven games last year, which was part of a six-game winning streak that earned the Lumberjacks a playoff berth. Rickert's numbers haven't been eye-popping, but NAU relied heavily on running back Zach Bauman, and Rickert did his job blocking down low. Bauman, incidentally, was the team's leading receiver last year with 44 receptions. But Bauman's gone, and coach Jerome Souers has said he thinks his team can be better in the passing game. That could translate into a bigger year statistically for Rickert.
2. JOSH COOK, SO., IDAHO STATE 2013: 32 rec, 317 yds, 9.9 avg, 0 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: For an Idaho State team that slings the ball all over the field, Cook emerged as a reliable pass-catcher as a freshman. At 6-3 and 240 pounds, Cook is tall and lean -- kind of an in-between version of a wideout/tight end -- and was pressed into duty last year when Tyler Wright went down with an injury. Still, coach Mike Kramer has already been quoted calling Cook "a cornerstone" of the program. Bengals quarterback Justin Arias is likely to have another 3,000-yard, 20-plus-TD season, and you can bet he'll have Cook in his sights throughout the year.
3. ZACH WIMBERLY, SO., EASTERN WASHINGTON 2013: 2 rec, 15 yds, 7.5 avg, 1 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: By default, an Eastern Washington tight end gets a top-three nod. And Wimberly, because he is the new starter at tight end in Cheney, is that man. The Eagles were so explosive on offense last season that no weapon, great or small, was spared. Last year's primary tight end, Zack Gehring, caught 19 balls and a pair of TDs and was a third-team All-Big Sky Conference selection. It's not too much to expect Wimberly to match, or even surpass, those numbers. The way Vernon Adams spreads the ball around, it'd be surprising if he didn't.
4. ANTHONY NORRIS, JR., SOUTHERN UTAH 2013: 23 rec, 237 yds, 10.3 avg, 4 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Southern Utah is a defense-first team, and that's how they made their way into the playoffs last season. But what they do on offense is efficient (if not spectacular) and Norris plays a vital role in the Thunderbirds' plan. Norris led all SUU pass-catchers with four touchdowns in 2013, and blocked in the trenches for a unit that ran the ball 108 more times than it passed it. Quarterback Aaron Cantu had a solid year replacing a star in Brad Sorensen. If Cantu makes more strides, Norris will be a part of it. At 6-5 and 250 pounds, how can he not?
5. TIAI SALANOA, SR., MONTANA STATE 2013: 14 rec, 142 yds, 10.1 avg. 0 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Salanoa was able to avoid any long, lingering injuries last year, and when he's on the field it makes the Bobcats' offense better. The surprising thing is that Salanoa has only caught one touchdown in his career at MSU. Could this be his breakout year? Salanoa has the ability to be a major weapon, and with the offense looking like it will utilize more of the spread this season, it might present an opportunity to figure out more ways to get him the ball. Of course, health is always an issue, and Salanoa has had his bouts. But the potential is great.
6. CHRIS BROADNAX, SR., SACRAMENTO STATE 2013: 9 rec, 86 yds, 9.6 avg, 1 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: You can say one thing for sure about Broadnax -- he's been a fixture in Sacramento State's offense his entire career. Like many of his Big Sky Conference counterparts, Broadnax's numbers don't jump out at you. But there's something to be said for a veteran presence, no matter what kind of statistical impact he makes. That's not to say Broadnax hasn't had his share of big games. Remember when the Hornets knocked off Colorado a couple years ago? It was Broadnax's TD that made the difference. Finally a senior, he should be solid again.
7. MIKE RALSTON, FR., MONTANA 2013: Redshirted. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Jordan Harper had a big freshman season (4 TDs) and would have played an integral role in Montana's offense again in 2014. But Harper, with his heart no longer in it, surprisingly left the program in the spring. So that opens up a variety of options for the Griz at tight end. The thinking here is that Ralston will step in and produce after redshirting last season. A product of Eugene, Ore., Ralston was one of Montana's more high-profile recruits in the 2013 class. He has good size (6-5, 245), and he's a player people have had their eye on since he arrived in Missoula last year.
8. DEREK VANDER VELDE, JR. NORTHERN COLORADO 2013: 12 rec, 131 yds, 10.9 avg, 1 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: The Bears will break in a new quarterback this season and he'll appreciate some solid pass-catching, which UNC has boasted in the past. Vander Velde, who was a first-team All-Colorado player in high school, came to UNC as a wide receiver weighing less than 200 pounds. But he has since bulked up and moved to tight end, where he's had a couple big games, including one versus FBS Wyoming. Vander Velde missed six games due to injury but remained a significant performer.
9. MARK MARTINDALE, SR., UC DAVIS 2013: 13 rec, 74 yds, 5.7 avg, 0 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: The Aggies continue to find their footing under coach Ron Gould, and they've got 14 returning starters to build around for the coming season. Martindale was not a regular starter last year, but turned himself into a quality pass-catcher. Gould came to UC Davis after a stint as the running backs coach at Cal, and the Aggies had big-time success on the ground a year ago as running back Gabe Manzanares rushed for nearly 1,300 yards. There's no reason to think they won't be a run-first outfit again.
10. CAM SOMMER, SO., PORTLAND STATE 2013: 2 rec, 19 yds, 9.5 yds, 0 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Sommer is described as having good potential, though he didn't have much of a say in the Vikings' offensive output. Portland State is another run-oriented team, so catches are relatively tough to come by. And many of them go to Kasey Closs, one of top wideouts in the conference. But Sommer is among a handful of tight ends on the Portland State roster that could make a mark this season. The real question is: Can the Vikings make up for the lost production from the departure of D.J. Adams in the ground game? He's a big loss. Time will tell.
*** NATIONAL NO. 1: MYCOLE PRUITT, SR., SOUTHERN ILLINOIS. Tennessee State's A.C. Leonard left school early and was drafted by the Vikings, so Pruitt is the obvious pick here. Pruitt was named the top tight end in the FCS by the CFPA last season. And when was the last time a tight end was named to the Payton Award watch list? Another big year should be in the cards
LAST WEEK: 2014 offensive line rankings
LAST YEAR: 2013 tight end rankings
NEXT WEEK: Wide receivers