Tight ends look to pick up where Higbee left off

Senior tight end Shaquille Johnson runs after catching a ball during a team practice on Tuesday April 12, at Smith Stadium. Shaban Athuman/HERALD

Evan Heichelbech

When a school’s all-time leading passer graduates, it is common for a long, drawn-out quarterback battle to come in the following season.

And while a lot of attention is being directed toward who Head Coach Jeff Brohm’s next passer will be, there is also a lot of curiosity surrounding the players who will be expected to fill the void at the tight end position left by former Hilltopper Tyler Higbee.

Higbee, a fourth-round pick by the Los Angeles Rams in the 2016 NFL draft, was responsible for a sizable chunk of WKU’s prolific offense from last season, catching 38 passes for 563 yards and eight touchdowns in only nine of the Toppers’ 14 games.

“I think tight end is an important position for us,” Brohm said following an Aug. 20 scrimmage. “Shaq Johnson’s gotta give us something and we got [Wake Forest transfer] Steve Donatell back.”

While neither Donatell nor Johnson have considerable experience playing the tight end position for WKU, both understand the importance of the position in Brohm’s offense and have no plans of slowing down.

“There’s been a big emphasis on this tight end position in the past as you can tell by the guys who have come through here, and obviously last year a lot of production came out of Tyler Higbee,” Donatell said. “We’re just trying to fill that void. We’ve got a great group of tight ends in the room. All of us can bring something to the field and hopefully win some ball games.”

Donatell, a grad-transfer from Wake Forest, is not a natural run-blocker or pass-catcher. Originally a quarterback at Highlands Ranch High School in Colorado, Donatell played linebacker for the Demon Deacons in his first two years before transitioning into a tight end last season.

“We’ve got a lot of looks in this offense — a lot of different personnel and plays that we have,” Donatell said. “I’m just trying to do my best and have [the coaches] see what I can do and plug me in wherever I fit.”

In a highly personnel-packaged offense like Brohm’s, there are a lot of multiple tight-end sets that require big bodies going over the middle to catch passes. Shaquille Johnson is expected to be one of them.

Johnson, a 6’4, 235-pound senior, spent his first two years bouncing back-and-forth between linebacker and tight end while working his way up as a special teams player as well. Now, with a clearly defined role, Johnson is ready to provide as much help as he can.

“I’ve always felt comfortable where I was,” Johnson said. “I knew it was for the better of the team, but now that I’m actually in a starting position with the offense, it feels good.”

Johnson is a versatile player as he was a three-sport athlete in high school and he started out at WKU as a wide receiver. Filling the big shoes left by Higbee is a task in itself, and Johnson said he feels the most pressure to do well from himself.

“I think the most pressure comes from myself. I know what I want to do as a player, so I pressure myself to be better,” Johnson said. “The biggest thing for me is being mentally prepared on tempo plays, knowing my alignment and assignment and then getting it done.”

With the quarterback position still in question, Donatell and Johnson know that their margin for error is slim regardless of where the ball is coming from.

“I come out pre-practice and catch balls from all three quarterbacks, so I know what kind of ball to expect when each quarterback’s in the game,” Johnson said.

A former quarterback himself, Donatell said he has an appreciation for teammates playing to their strengths.

“We’re different players on our own,” he said. “We just need to focus on our strengths and our weaknesses and build off those to become better tight ends individually. I think all of [the quarterbacks] are very talented, and it’s just kind of a plug-in with this offense. All of them have been putting the ball where it needs to be.”

Reporter Evan Heichelbech can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @evanheichelbech.