POCATELLO — A year ago, Idaho State tight ends coach Aaron Prier wasn’t seeing the physicality he wanted from young tight ends Jake Johnson and Nate Shubert.
So, last summer, he gave the then-sophomores some unorthodox advice.
“I told them to go fight somebody to get more physical, get a little mean,” Prier said, laughing, “but I don’t know if they actually did.”
That’s emblematic of the attitude that Prier wants to see from his position group this year.
In a changing game, tight ends are often thought of as receivers first, but for an Idaho State team that ran the ball 132 more times than it passed last year, the work all starts at the line of scrimmage.
“I’ve tried really hard over this offseason to get stronger and a little more physical in the run game,” Johnson said. “That’s what a lot of our offense is, just running downhill and trying to beat people up in the middle, so we have to be ready for that stuff.”
Johnson and Shubert are juniors this year. Together with senior Austin Campbell, they’re a deep and talented group — in more ways than one. All three have been named to at least one Big Sky Conference All-Academic Team.
“They’re probably, GPA-wise, the smartest on the team,” head coach Rob Phenicie said. “I think dadgum Nate Shubert’s in some type of engineering, I don’t even know what it is, and he’s got well over a 3.8. ... Their majors aren’t communications. They’re smart, they work hard. They don’t say a word, and all three of them are interchangeable, and that’s a good luxury to have.”
Campbell, from Blackfoot, is the unquestioned leader of the group. An older player because he served a mission before coming to Idaho State, he hasn’t missed a game in three years, playing in all 11 games as a freshman in 2016 and repeating that performance in each of the last two seasons.
In 2018, he had career-highs of 14 receptions and 131 yards. Five of those catches went for touchdowns, and he was named honorable mention all-Big Sky Conference.
Those aren’t crazy receiving stats for a tight end, but coaches say Campbell, at 6-foot-4, 248 pounds, is one of the best run-blocking tight ends that Idaho State has ever seen.
His nickname is DH, for Designated Hitter, because, well, that’s what he loves to do.
“When I took over the tight ends, I didn’t know his name for like the first three weeks,” Prier said. “I was like, what’s really your name, because nobody called him Austin, it was DH. I don’t know who it came from or how it started, but it’s been like that for years. ... We’ll see what happens this season, how well he performs, but yeah, he’s one of the best run-blocking tight ends I’ve seen.”
Behind him, Johnson is the downfield receiving threat of the group. Currently listed at 6-foot-6, 236 pounds, he was a two-time all-state wideout at Kuna High School, just south of Boise.
Shubert, at 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, splits the difference between the two, equally capable in both the pass and the run game.
Having all three around gives the new ISU quarterback, whoever it turns out to be, a reliable safety blanket on the field at all times. Early in fall practice, both Gunnar Amos and Matt Struck were targeting the tight ends with consistency.
It also gives the Bengals’ coaches a lot of options, because they can all play traditionally, lined up tight to the offensive line, or split out to give defenses different looks. Seeing more multiple-tight-end sets from ISU this year is definitely a possibility.
“The fact that they have the ability to be both in-line and split out, that’s the nature of today’s tight ends,” Phenicie said. “I was a tight end in college, and I couldn’t play in this offense. I was (told to) line up and block that dude, that’s what I got to do, and they’re so much more athletic now, and bigger. ... The ability to have multiple tight ends and play multiple positions is critical.”
With all the talent coming back on offense, the tight ends might not draw too many eyes, but with their experience, they’ll be one of the most quietly valuable groups for ISU this year.
“I think we have a really good group that pushes everybody in all aspects of our game to improve and get better,” Campbell said. “We have the expectation on this team that we want to be a well-rounded group and block like a lineman and run routes like a receiver. ... I still feel that we’ve got a ways to go, but where we’re at right now, I feel like we’re looking pretty good in my perspective.”
- One of the tight ends wasn’t even on the roster Idaho State distributed at the start of fall camp. Freshman Matt West, from Orofino, joined the team shortly before camp. Prier had a little more background information.
“He actually played quarterback in high school, quarterback and D-line,” Prier said. “He was kind of a late addition to the team. We had some space open up, so we called him in and he was just ready to go. He had been in contact with (defensive coordinator Roger) Cooper for some time. He was just waiting for his shot, so now he’s in. We threw him in at tight end to see how he’ll fit in with that, and he’ll probably contribute on special teams. He’s been a good addition.”
- Idaho State holds its first scrimmage of fall camp on Saturday in Holt Arena. It will be closed to media and the public.