April 14, 2017
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- At the end of practice Tuesday morning, after meeting with their position coaches, most University of Virginia football players headed to the locker room at Scott Stadium.
At the north end of the field, in the shadow of the goalposts, Evan Butts, Richard Burney and Tanner Cowley stayed behind to work with Robert Anae. The Cavaliers' offensive coordinator, Anae also coaches the team's inside receivers and tight ends, and the latter group this spring consists of three players: Butts, Burney and Cowley.
In the fall, Butts (6-4, 250) will be a redshirt junior and Burney (6-4, 255) and Cowley (6-4, 230) will be redshirt sophomores, and they're hoping to raise the profile of their position in the Wahoos' offense.
The 2016 season was the first at UVA for Anae, who came with head coach Bronco Mendenhall from BYU to Charlottesville. More often than not, the `Hoos lined up without a tight end, but that group expects to have a larger role in the offense this year.
"Coach Anae has started introducing more tight end sets and more plays where tight ends are more involved," said Burney, a graduate of Hickory High in Chesapeake who's also a long-snapper.
"Blocking at the point of attack, releasing downfield, we're doing it all, so we're looking forward to doing that. Coach Anae is finding creative ways to get us involved in the passing game as well as blocking."
Butts said: "When you compare the plays in which tight ends are in, virtually every play in this spring ball has a tight end in it, compared to last year where we didn't really have too many."
Cowley, who's from Manasquan, N.J., is probably the fastest of the three, and he's also played inside receiver. He appeared in eight games last season but did not catch a pass.
Butts, who's from Newtown Square, Pa., near Philadelphia, had seven receptions for 46 yards and one touchdown, a score that came on a trick play against North Carolina at Scott Stadium.
Burney's only catch in 2016, in UVA's win at Duke, went for a 3-yard touchdown. He also ran for a 2-point conversation, against Central Michigan.
Like Butts, Burney missed four games with an injury last season, and that limited the tight ends' production. Still, the eight combined receptions were the fewest in a season by Virginia's tight ends in this century. In 2015, Butts alone had 16 receptions (for 182 yards and three TDs).
As the Cavaliers progress through spring practice, "I think we have a little more of a handle on our skill set," Anae said, "and there should be better production by the tight ends this year as opposed to last."
Burney said: "Last year was a big learning year for me and for Butts and for all the tight ends. I feel like this year I'm a lot more comfortable in doing what I'm really good at: blocking, releasing downfield, going out for passes."
The tight ends, Butts said, "had a really good offseason. We got bigger, we got stronger, and I think we sort of proved to the coaching staff that they can rely on us this year. So hopefully we're doing that this spring ball and come fall you'll see us out on the field more."
With a new coaching staff, Butts said, "I guess you're sort of like feeling each other out. So you kind of have to earn their trust, and I thought we did a decent job of that last year.
"We want to help the team whatever way we can. That doesn't have to mean catching the football. If we're in there every single play and we're run-blocking and that's what the team needs to win, then we are more than happy to do that. But I think this year you'll see the tight end being used more, not only in the passing game, in the sense of running routes, but also helping out in protection, and definitely in the run game as well."
"In terms of football, if you're not striving to be one of the greatest players that you could possibly be and this program possibly can have, you're not really striving for much, in my opinion," Butts said. "So having those guys go through this program and setting the tone of what it can be, it's definitely special and we're definitely thankful for those guys."
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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