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Tight Ends Emerge from Murphy's Gauntlet as Offensive Weapons

Big Ben
Crimson senior tight end Ben Braunecker has 762 receiving yards on 42 receptions this season.

­In the military, a Navy SEAL embodies the definition of versatility and physicality. After going through a rigorous selection course that tests the limits of fitness, a SEAL trains for months on end. Then once training is complete, a SEAL has the potential to be thrust into any environment, any situation, and can be expected to carry out any military special operation.

On a Division I college football roster, there is no dearth of strength and certainly no lack of athletic talent across all positions. Each player puts in hours of strenuous training over years of practice.

But on the Harvard football team, one position seems to undergo more demanding preparation, require a bit more adaptability, and perhaps possess a trace more grit, as evidenced by the Crimson alumni at this position in the National Football League.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that Harvard coach Tim Murphy draws the comparison between the elite warriors of the U.S. military and this group of players—the tight ends.

“We’re the SEALs of the football forces,” Murphy said. “We’ve got to be guys that are as athletic as wide receivers. We’ve got to be able to be in-line guys and block defensive ends, fullbacks and drop linebackers. We’ve got to be slot receivers who can beat man coverage.”

Even in the Crimson’s run-first offense, it’s easy to see that Murphy, who is the position coach for the tight ends as well as the head coach, heavily features his pupils.

In each of the last six seasons, four different tight ends have either been the leading or second-leading receiver for Harvard, an impressive feat given the speed and talent level of the Crimson’s wide receivers in recent years.

The expanded tight end operation is a relatively recent development at Harvard, however. It began in 2010, when Murphy recruited a 6’3” high school receiver in Kyle Juszczyk ’13 and converted him to play both tight end and H-back.

“[Juszczyk] was kind of the first guy that Coach Murphy utilized all over the field, kind of like what our offense has progressed into now, where you don’t know where the tight end is going to line up—in the backfield, on the line, or split out wide as a receiver,” said Cameron Brate ’14, now a tight end for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “‘Juice’ was a pioneer in that aspect.”

When the 6’5” Brate, another brawny high school receiver-turned college tight end, came along a year later, the two-tight end set pervasive in Harvard’s offensive scheme today was increasingly utilized. Murphy’s experiment paid off as Juszczyk was named First Team All-America by the Associated Press in 2012 and Brate became a two-time First Team All-Ivy selection.

Three years after Juszczyk hung up his Harvard uniform, the tight end model has yet to retire. The 2015 version of the Juszczyk-Brate tandem is the duo of senior Ben Braunecker and junior Anthony Firkser, both over 6’2” and former high school receivers.

Despite never having played tight end before coming to Cambridge, Braunecker and Firkser have taken to their collegiate roles seamlessly—Firkser was named to the All-Ivy League second team as a sophomore, and Braunecker currently leads the team in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns.

For the two rising stars, the only real fight for playing time has been with each other. While sharing the same position and head coach can be an advantage during play selection, it comes at the price of enduring Murphy’s critical judgment a little more closely than perhaps any other player on the field.

“To be honest, I think ‘Firk’ and I still have emotional scars from the criticism that we took as freshmen, maybe even as sophomores,” Braunecker said. “It’s a rigorous gauntlet, almost, that if you can pass all of his tests and get out on the playing field, you know you’ve made it.”

Passing the tests involves developing the skills necessary to play tight end in the Harvard system, including pass protection and run blocking—skills often lacking in high school receivers.

Because of that, the shift from receiver to tight end brings with it a whole new set of terminology and techniques, a steep learning curve for players also adjusting to the expectations of college football. Luckily for Braunecker and Firkser, however, the veterans already at the position meant built-in mentorship.

“When I came in as a freshman, [Juszczyk] really took me under his wing, and he was a great guy to look up to, so I tried to do the same thing with Ben and Firk,” Brate said. “When Murphy’s your coach, he’ll get on you, so having the other guys in your room have your back a bit picks your spirits back up when he brings you down.”

Toughness to survive in an unfamiliar position is something Murphy looks for while recruiting potential tight ends, as well as the versatility necessary to fill the role. Braunecker and Firkser’s flourishing is just further evidence of the coach’s aptitude for bringing in raw talent and honing receivers into polished tight ends that can hold their own on the fast-paced Harvard offense—or even in the pros.

Juszczyk became the first Harvard player drafted since quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick ’05 when the Baltimore Ravens selected him in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Juszczyk is listed as a fullback on the Ravens’ roster but seems to have continued a flexible H-back-type role in the NFL, with 196 receiving yards and two touchdowns under his belt thus far in 2015. Brate went undrafted but signed with the Buccaneers in 2014. This year, Brate has appeared in seven games and caught a touchdown.

Harvard is currently the only Ivy League team with three skill players—including Fitzpatrick—on active NFL rosters, and that number may increase if Braunecker follows in the footsteps of his predecessors.

“[Going pro] is something that I’ve dreamt of as a kid,” Braunecker said. “It’s only become a reality as of last year. Murph told me that this is a possibility...so I was like, ‘Absolutely, I’m going to commit everything to do it and give it my best shot.’ You only have one opportunity to do this, so I’m all in.”

—Staff writer Samantha Lin can be reached at samantha.lin@thecrimson.com.

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