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Indiana football position preview: Tight ends

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IU’s coaching staff seems to really like what they have in the tight end room this fall

Indiana v Ohio State
Peyton Hendershot #86 of the Indiana Hoosiers warms up before a game against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium on November 21, 2020 in Columbus, Ohio.
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of previews Crimson Quarry will publish in the coming weeks looking at each of IU’s position groups entering the 2021 season.

On multiple occasions this month, Indiana head coach Tom Allen has gone out of his way to praise his tight ends.

“I thought our tight ends played really well and continue to play really well,” Allen said after IU’s first full-contact scrimmage of fall camp.

“I like our tight ends room,” Allen said when asked which offensive players stood out in last week’s second scrimmage of the preseason.

It’s not surprising to hear Allen share those sentiments. On paper, Indiana does, indeed, appear to have a versatile, well-rounded group of pass catchers and blockers working under the guidance of position coach Kevin Wright. The question, of course, is how effectively IU’s tight ends can complement each other after turning in a mixed bag of results in 2020. Although production from the position occasionally underwhelmed last fall, Indiana certainly has good reason to feel excited about the potential of this group in 2021.

The depth chart

TE

86 Peyton Hendershot, 6-4, 254, Sr.

89 Matt Bjorson, 6-3, 241, Sr.

88 AJ Barner, 6-6, 245, So.

The potential starters

By now, the Big Ten is quite familiar with Hendershot, a two-time all-league honoree who is entering his fifth season with the program. Last season, he finished third on the team with 23 receptions — fifth-most among conference tight ends — for 151 yards and four scores. And yet, even with that production, Hendershot could’ve been better. A lot better.

Hendershot dropped a little more than 20% of the catchable passes targeted for him last fall, the worst mark in the Big Ten according to Pro Football Focus. He had a team-worst six drops, including at least one in all but two games. Considering all of the trouble he had with holding onto the football, it wasn’t surprising to see Hendershot’s overall receiver grade drop from the third-highest score in the conference among tight ends in 2019 (72.1) to the third-lowest grade (53.4) last season.

Of course, Hendershot has the talent and experience to bounce back. He’s demonstrated before that he can be a weapon for the offense. And as IU’s most seasoned player at the position, he’ll have plenty of opportunities to author a rebound performance in 2021.

Bjorson should also get plenty of opportunities to work. While Hendershot saw 553 offensive snaps last season, per PFF, Bjorson logged 160 snaps for the offense. In that span, he did not allow a single sack, quarterback hit or pressure, according to PFF, making him the league’s highest-graded pass blocking tight end and its seventh-best run-blocking tight end during the abbreviated season.

The backups

IU’s staff seems especially high on Barner’s upside. The sophomore, who was a standout linebacker in high school, played in all eight games last year, primarily as a special teamer. He’s added 15 pounds to his frame since last fall and projects as a player who could help both as a pass catcher and as a blocker in time.

An injury kept Khameron Taylor off the field last season, though IU likes the depth the South Alabama transfer provides as an experienced blocker.

Bloomington native Aaron Steinfeldt, a freshman, is also in the fold this year. The former three-sport star at Bloomington North projects as a player who could help the Hoosiers down the line.

The final word

Despite some of the uneven results at the position in 2020, there’s still a lot to like about what IU returns at tight end in 2021. A few more well-timed checkdown tosses, too, from quarterback Michael Penix Jr. might help this group get going. Of course, it’ll be up to them to prove they can capitalize when called upon.