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2021 Illinois Football: Tight Ends Preview

Two elite athletes highlight a key position group for the Illini.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 14 Illinois at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It seems clear that Illinois Fighting Illini offensive coordinator Tony Petersen likes to use a wide assortment of tight ends and H-backs. According to the official team roster, Illinois has eleven tight ends available in 2021, which is a monumental shift from the five players at the position last season.

Now, the 2021 roster also lists fullbacks/H-backs like Michigan State Spartans transfer Max Rosenthal as tight ends, but that’s still a large number of players at a position that many other offensive coaches, like former Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith, de-emphasize in their schemes.

Projected Starters

Daniel Barker (JR)

Though he was lightly recruited as a high school prospect, Barker has turned into one of the most explosive tight ends in the Big Ten since his debut as a starter in the 2018 season opener. Barker solidified himself as one of Brandon Peters’ favorite targets in 2019, and he had the second most receptions (19) and receiving yards (268) on the team in 2020.

Barker isn’t only a receiving tight end. At 6-foot-4, 250-pounds, he can clear lanes in the running game as well.

This offseason, Barker was named to the Pro Football Focus Preseason All-Big Ten Third Team. Expect him to be a major component of the Illinois offense this fall.

Luke Ford (JR)

Ford is one of the most heavily recruited players to wear the Orange and Blue in recent memory. As a former four-star recruit in the class of 2018, Ford boasted offers from most of the SEC, including the Alabama Crimson Tide, as well as from other powerhouses like the Oklahoma Sooners and Michigan Wolverines, before ultimately committing to the Georgia Bulldogs. In addition to his innate athleticism, Ford garnered such an impressive offer list due to his 6-foot-6, 260-pound frame, which makes him an ideal perimeter blocker.

Ford transferred to join the Illini in 2019. He was infamously denied a transfer waiver despite demonstrating compelling personal reasons for the move, and was forced to sit out the 2019 season. Ford finished the 2020 season with two receptions for 15 yards, but he also showcased his abilities as an effective run blocker.

Max Rosenthal (JR)

Rosenthal transferred to Illinois this past offseason after playing two seasons with the Michigan State Spartans. A Glencoe native and graduate of New Trier High School, Rosenthal returned home to Illinois likely to play H-back in Tony Petersen’s offense. Since the position wasn’t emphasized at Illinois last season, few existing players on the roster would seem like more of a fit than Rosenthal given his experience at the fullback position.

Traditional fullbacks are mostly blocking players, and it’s clear that Rosenthal was used in that manner by Mark Dantonio at MSU. Even though he’s likely to be more of an H-back in this offense, he’ll no doubt be used for his ability to open running lanes. Still, he finished his career in East Lansing with two catches for four yards and one receiving touchdown, so expect him to get a few looks here and there in the passing game.

Depth Players

As noted above, the Illini have plenty of talented depth at the tight end/fullback/H-back position group. Some of the most likely to see the field include...

Michael Marchese (SR)

A former walk-on like his brother, Marchese has played several different positions for the Illini including safety and linebacker, as well as various special teams roles, before landing at tight end with a scholarship this offseason. Marchese measures in with a 6-foot-4 frame and at 235 pounds, which certainly points to him either being an H-back or receiving tight end. He showed off his athletic ability during his first career interception in 2018.

Marchese was also named to the preseason Wuerffel Trophy watch list in 2021, which is annually presented to the FBS player who best combines “exemplary community service with leadership achievement on and off the field.”

Branden Hohenstein (SR)

Hohenstein comes to Illinois after spending three seasons with the Nebraska Cornhuskers (2016-18) and the past two with Abilene Christian. He certainly has experience to go along with his 6-foot-4, 240-pound body, and he figures to provide depth at either tight end or H-back. He accumulated 521 yards on 39 receptions, as well as two touchdowns and one 2-point conversion, in 18 games at ACU.

Griffin Moore (RS-FR)

At 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, Moore has the athleticism and size to play a fairly traditional tight end. Moore is a third-year freshman, since he redshirted in 2019 and played in two games in 2020. He could also be an emergency quarterback should the need arise, since he passed for almost 3,000 yards and 36 touchdowns in his accomplished varsity career at Bloomington High School in Illinois.

Preston Engel (SO)

Engel saw playing time as an H-back and jumbo set blocker in 2019 and ‘20, but he’s likely to be a more traditional tight end going forward. Engel is slightly undersized at 6-foot even, but he should be able to create space with his 250-pound frame. Look for him to be a main competitor for a backup role behind Barker or Ford this season.