SEATTLE — Hunter Bryant is a playmaker. He has, in the words of Washington tight ends coach Jordan Paopao, a “unique knack for catching the football.”
Cade Otton’s strengths are different, yet complementary. He’s a skilled blocker, and he often does his best work at the line of scrimmage. Combined, the two make up one of the top tight end tandems in the country.
Just don’t ask either of them to admit the other is better. At anything.
“Nobody wants to be second best,” Paopao said. “So you see Cade running routes and making plays downfield and Hunter’s done a great job of blocking at the line of scrimmage. Again, just because those guys are so inherently competitive, they don’t want to be second best.”
At least one thing is for sure: Together, they probably won’t be.
Both Bryant and Otton were named to the watch list for the John Mackey Award, given to the nation’s top tight end. Boston College was the only other school to land two players on the list.
Bryant, who was named an ESPN Freshman All-American after the 2017 season, missed all but the final five games of last season while recovering from a knee injury. As a freshman, he caught 22 passes for 331 yards and one touchdown. Even in limited games in 2018, he finished with 11 receptions for 238 yards and a touchdown.
With Bryant out for most of last season, Otton played in all 14 games, starting 10, as a redshirt freshmen. He caught 13 passes for 174 yards and three touchdowns. And now that Bryant is healthy, it looks like the Huskies will have both of them on the field at the start of the season — often at the same time, if fall practice is any indication.
“I don’t know what the game plan will be but I think we want to block really well and we want to make plays down the field,” Otton said. “That’s all part of the plan. Just whatever we’re called on to do we want to do it really well.”
After practice on Tuesday, Paopao could only shake his head and grin at some of the plays he’s watched the two make. It’s hard, he said, to refrain from admiring them like a fan.
And while they might be overly competitive, Otton said that doesn’t really stop them from learning from each other. Bryant often shares tips for making plays down field, but it’s just as common to find him asking Otton for advice on how to improve his blocking. The back-and-forth has helped them both.
“(Bryant’s) just a dynamic playmaker so his mentality is just go make a play, and that’s what gives him success,” Otton said. “I’ve been trying to take some of that. I think all the tight ends try to take something from each other because we all have unique skill sets. It’s been really cool learning from other guys and guys learning from me. It’s a really cool spot to be in.”
With the departure of Drew Sample — who was drafted in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals — Bryant and Otton are now two of the most experienced tight ends in the room.
The group also includes freshmen Zeke Pelluer and Carson Smith, redshirt freshmen Jack Westover and Devin Culp and sophomore Corey Luciano, a former offensive lineman. Junior Jacob Kizer, who played in 12 games last year and 13 as a freshman, has yet to participate in fall camp due to a back injury.
When players initially enter the program, Paopao said they spent most of their time just trying to keep their heads above the flood of information. Through experience, they grow more comfortable. The next step is making the transition from following to leading, a skill Bryant and Otton have taken to seamlessly.
“As they have grown in terms of just game experience, playing experience, they’ve been able to be more comfortable and you’ve seen them reaching out to young guys, spending more time with young guys,” Paopao said. “I think that’s the cool growth. I think they’re paying it forward from what they experienced with guys like Drew and Will (Dissly), who helped them out when they were younger.”
Last season, Paopao said Sample was a safety blanket for the young tight ends, the same way Dissly was for him. Now, it’s Bryant and Otton’s turn to take on that role. The most vital lesson Otton learned — and the one he’s trying to pay forward — is the importance of preparation.
“Those guys were in everyday, watching extra film and getting themselves right and ready to go for practice,” Otton said. “Tight end is a tough position. We got a really tough job to do but they kept their head down and prepared really well and that translated to games and obviously to the next level.”