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SEC Football: Top five tight ends heading into next season

Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

To have players that are built like linebackers and defensive ends, but possess the speed of running backs and wide receivers is simply amazing. For the Southeastern Conference, the tight end position is starting to blossom as one that does more than block. A season ago, the league produced some of more elite pass-catching weapons in college football – including O.J. Howard of Alabama, Evan Engram of Ole Miss and Jeremy Sprinkle of Arkansas. Despite the departures of these three to the National Football League, the next wave of talent is prime for excellence.

Yours truly of Touchdown Alabama Magazine is prepared to lay out the third installment of “Top 5” in the SEC heading into next season, as we now focus on the tight end group.

5. C.J. Conrad|Kentucky Wildcats

Before giving quarterback Stephen Johnson a reliable target a season ago, Conrad emerged as a pivotal star at Kentucky through 12 games as a freshman in 2015. He led the SEC in both receptions (15) and receiving yards (149) for a tight end, while totaling one touchdown.

C.J. Conrad Scores His First Wildcat Touchdown

Conrad’s efforts led to him being named to the SEC’s All-Freshman Team, making him the first Wildcats’ tight end to receive the honor since 2010. He would start 11 of 13 games in 2016, accounting for 262 receiving yards and four touchdowns on 19 catches. Listed at 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, Conrad has turned in 34 receptions for 411 yards and five scores in two years.

4. Ethan Wolfe|Tennessee Volunteers

Depending on who Joshua Dobbs’ successor is at quarterback for Tennessee, it must build a relationship with Wolfe during the offseason. He returns as an offensive security blanket for the Volunteers, snatching 67 passes for 752 receiving yards and touchdowns through 38 games.

The rising senior brought in two touchdowns in 2016 on 21 catches.

Wolfe has proven to be a great blocker throughout his tenure, as he’s cleared the way for a 1,000-yard rusher in Jalen Hurd (1,288 yards, 2015) and a career 1,000-yard guy in Dobbs (1,917) and 31 rushing touchdowns.

3. DeAndre Goolsby|Florida Gators

Like Tennessee, Florida must get a firm handle on its quarterback play.

Gators’ head coach Jim McElwain has the weapons returning on the outside, including rising senior tight end DeAndre Goolsby. He started to breakout a little in 2016, catching 38 passes for 342 yards with three touchdowns. Goolsby had the best performance overall for Florida versus Alabama in the SEC Championship Game with 91 yards and a touchdown on seven receptions.

Standing at 6-foot-4 and 244 pounds, he is projected to have a monster year next season.

2. Hayden Hurst|South Carolina Gamecocks

College football fans love an underdog story, and unarguably the best one is returning to the SEC in the upcoming fall. Jake Bentley is one rise at South Carolina as a quarterback, but he will have the luxury of throwing to an elite talent in tight end Hayden Hurst at William-Brice Stadium.

Hayden Hurst Highlights

Before putting in a highly productive campaign last season, Hurst walked on to the team in 2015 and played at tight end, wide receiver and on special teams. He made a full transition to tight end in 2016 and set a Gamecocks’ single-season record in catches (48) with 616 receiving yards.

While he ranked among the nation’s top tight ends in receptions and yards, his output of 616 yards broke former Gamecock standout Danny Smith’s mark of 576 receiving yards in 1987.

Hurst was named one of four permanent team captains after last season.

1. Issac Nauta|Georgia Bulldogs

He’s the most freakishly athletic tight end returning to the conference.

Pairing quarterback Jacob Eason with Issac Nauta could be a match made in heaven for the Georgia Bulldogs and head coach Kirby Smart. A five-star prospect from Buford, Ga., Nauta enrolled in the Bulldogs’ 2016 recruiting class as a dynamic player from the IMG Academy.

Freshman All-American || Georgia TE Isaac Nauta 2016 Highlights ᴴᴰ

He started in five of 13 games last season, posting 29 catches for 361 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Nauta received Freshman All-American honors from ESPN, USA Today, Athlon Sports and Football Writers Association of America. With a year under his belt, Nauta has the capabilities to take Georgia to the next level offensively and help it capture a conference championship.

Honorable Mentions

Jared Pinkey|Vanderbilt

Kendall Blanton|Missouri

Austin Cantrell|Arkansas

Miller Forristall|Alabama

C’yontai Lewis|Florida

Stephen M. Smith is a managing editor and senior writer for Touchdown Alabama Magazine.  You can “like” him on Facebook or “follow” him on Twitter, via @Smsmith_TDALMag.

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Stephen Smith is a 2015 graduate of the University of Alabama. He is a senior writer and reporter for Touchdown Alabama Magazine. He has covered Alabama football for 10+ years and his knowledge and coverage of the Crimson Tide's program have made him among the most respected journalist in his field. Smith has been featured on ESPN and several other marquee outlets as an analyst.

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