Whoever plays quarterback for Texas Tech on Saturday — likely Davis Webb, perhaps Michael Brewer, almost certainly not the injured Baker Mayfield — will have at his fancy three very good, very different targets.
There's tight end Jace Amaro, who does things wide receivers wish they could. Amaro destroys man coverage — linebackers are too slow, safeties too little — and is adept at finding a soft spot in zone coverage. The No. 5 tight end in the 2011 class, Amaro has been on the map for a while; even this preseason coach Kliff Kingsbury insinuated Amaro could jump to the NFL after his junior season. But 2013 has been his breakout. In three of five games, he's caught nine passes to tie a career high. In another he had eight receptions for 142 yards and a touchdown. His "worst" performance of the year was a three-catch, 42-yard day. Ho hum."This past game [Kansas] kind of tried playing me, not actually letting me go inside or outside. They double teamed me with two safeties, especially two-by-two. They're really trying to take the long ball away from me," Amaro said Monday. "That's kind of why I've just been able to catch five-yard balls and seeing what I can do after that. They're really not allowing me to go too deep on them. They're trying to keep everything in front of them. They're throwing a lot of bracket coverage at me. It really opened up Eric [Ward] last game. Eric and Jakeem [Grant], and they did a great job of adjusting to the man-to-man side on the left side.
"If that's what it takes, I'm just going to — especially since we're running the ball a little bit better now, that's going to help me with the coverages that they throw at me. Hopefully they'll start falling away from that."
Amaro knows how to use his 6-foot-5, 257-pound frame very well. Here he'll slip past some shallow zone coverage and make himself at home in space. By the time he's catching the ball, he has his shoulders turned and braced for contact. In this play Amaro bumps off the man who's lining up for the tackle and scampers for a few extra yards.
"They use him as a slot receiver," Iowa State safety Deon Broomfield said. "He's probably one of the best tight ends in the conference."
The strangest thing about Amaro this season is his lack of receptions in the red zone — just three. He's productive everywhere else, with 27 receptions between the 20s (and eight inside the other 20).
Grant, in this offense, is used like Wes Welker. Short, underneath routes, stemmed double-moves, bubble screens, some crossers over the middle. Easy throws for any quarterback, as long as the timing's right. Grant is a tiny 5-foot-6 and a thick 160 pounds so he doesn't provide the biggest target, but it's worth feeding him for what he can do after the catch (the sophomore is also a dynamite return man).
Warning: Grant will get touches out of the backfield, too. He's averaging 7.57 yards a rush on seven attempts.
Ward is the most traditional of these three weapons, an outside receiver who plays bigger than he is (6-foot). With a young quarterback still building his confidence, it's not surprising Ward's receptions per game have dipped compared to 2012 and 2011, as his routes are of the more complex variety, further away from the pocket than Amaro and Grant. But it's not like Ward has been quiet, or anything. He's hauling in 5.4 passes a game with 343 yards and two scores.
Ward was shut down against TCU star corner Jason Verrett, the first time he didn't catch a pass in a game since his freshman season. The Cyclones don't have anybody like Verrett — few do — but Jansen Watson, dropped interceptions aside, is a talented cover corner. If he can limit Ward, it'd make covering Amaro and Grant in the middle a lot easier.