Tight end hasn’t been a very popular position in recent years in the Arkansas-Pine Bluff offense.
The best season for a UAPB player in a traditional role was T.J. Shelton’s nine catches for 161 yards and two touchdowns in 2011. Other than that, Dezmond Beverly mastered a tight end-wide receiver hybrid called the H-back in Eric Dooley’s offense.
The page has now turned to the Anthony Jones era of the Golden Lions’ offense, and the former NFL tight end is making the position more visible with a pair of experienced players.
“The system that coach Jones has put in, it has a lot of plays going to the tight end, being a real impact player on offense,” redshirt senior C.J. Branch said.
This is Branch’s third year to play the position after the Watson Chapel graduate joined the program as a quarterback. The move helped him see playing time on the field after settling for backup roles to Josh Boudreaux and Ben Anderson.
“As far as me coming in from quarterback, I guess the main thing I had to get used to was getting more physical as far as working with offensive linemen and blocking drills,” Branch said.
He’s the only returning tight end from last year’s team, but doesn’t have any receptions in his career to his credit. Cameron Williams, a freshman last year, is no longer on the team, although Williams is listed on UAPB’s most recent camp roster.
Enter Ghaleb Al-Saleh, who at 6-foot-4 makes up for the height lost by Williams’ departure. Al-Saleh transformed to a tight end from the defensive line last year while playing for Mount San Jacinto College, a two-year school in California. The Arizona native began his career at NCAA Division III University of Redlands, also in California, with a linebacker/defensive end background that helps him on offense.
“Tight end and defensive end, I feel more comfortable in,” Al-Saleh said. “Both have their specific things that make it a difficult position. Playing tight end, coming from a defensive lineman’s perspective, you get to be a little more physical than some tight ends, because most tight ends play (only) offense. I come in with more of a D-line mentality where guys are coming at me, but I’m going to come right back at them the same way. Being a bigger tight end, it helps being able to move and being able to block D-linemen.”
Recruiting on the West Coast is nothing new to UAPB, but Al-Saleh was in the middle of moving to Memphis when he said Jones called him about joining the Golden Lions.
Branch has added about 25 pounds since moving from quarterback, currently weighing 250. The heavier weight helps him meet the challenge of improving his blocking technique.
But one would be anxious to see how often he or Al-Saleh can make plays in Jones’ offense.
“Coach Jones played tight end and he wants to see the tight ends shine,” Al-Saleh said. “If you can get open and make plays, the quarterbacks are going to get you the ball. It’s our job to be able to run the right route, get past the linebacker, make a play and get upfield.”