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Rob Blanchflower leads emerging UMass tight ends

University of Massachusetts junior Rob Blanchflower is the leader of a deep group of tight ends for the Minutemen.

University of Massachusetts junior Rob Blanchflower is the leader of a deep group of tight ends for the Minutemen. Purchase photo reprints »

AMHERST — In early October, the University of Massachusetts football team struggled to have two tight ends available. Injuries and attrition left coach Charley Molnar turning to converted wide receivers to line up at the spot.

But as spring winds down, the position appears to be a strength for the Minutemen. Junior captain Rob Blanchflower will be joined by redshirt freshman Brandon Howard, who has returned to the team after being dismissed in the fall. Derek Beck, who converted from wide receiver during the season, has improved and Rodney Mills will line up at receiver, tight end and fullback at times.

Philadelphia native Sharif Custis will join the group in the fall as a true freshman.

“We have four good tight ends on this team,” Blanchflower said. “Derek Beck and Rodney Mills are stepping up, learning it and getting good at it. I try to mentor them as much as I can and give them good advice.”

While Molnar has been generally hesitant to name full-time captains — he used game captains last season as a way to honor different players from week to week — he made an exception with Blanchflower this season.

“Each and every day Blanch gets better and better, not only as a football player, but as a leader. He’s a good presence on the football field, but also in the locker room, making sure guys are where they need to be at the right time,” Molnar said. “I see really big things for Blanch coming into this season.”

During his two seasons as the offensive coordinator at Notre Dame, Molnar coached tight ends Kyle Rudolph, a second round NFL draft pick in 2011 who reached the Pro Bowl for the Minnesota Vikings, and Tyler Eifert, who is considered the best tight end in this month’s draft. Molnar thought style-wise Blanchflower was comparable to Rudolph.

“He’s probably more similar to Kyle Rudolph. Rudolph was a little bit bigger, maybe a little better in-line blocker (than Eifert). That’s more what Blanch is for us,” Molnar said. “At the end of the day, Blanch is going to be like any other great tight end I’ve been fortunate to be around. We’re going to find ways to get him the ball and also depend on him blocking at the point of attack.”

Howard’s return gives the Minutemen another big body for blocking and catching. The 6-foot-5 former quarterback at King Philip High School was dismissed by Molnar before the 2012 season started for an undisclosed team rules violations. Neither the coach nor player would discuss the circumstances of his dismissal, but both were glad he was back in the fold.

“Brandon worked really hard in his time off and he’s actually in better shape than he was before. He’s much more focused, much more mature,” Molnar said. “He’s really a different man, from my perspective right now, it looks like for the better. He’s definitely in the mix to help us.”

Howard hoped to make an impact.

“It’s great to be back. It was tough, but I put that in the past. I’m back now,” he said. “I love this campus. I love the team. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to do something here.”

Howard said he’s looking to Blanchflower as an example.

“Me and Blanch are pretty similar size-wise. He might be a little bit faster, but I’m catching up,” Howard said. “He’s pretty skilled. He’s a good kid to look up to.”

GILLETTE CLINIC — The Minutemen will have a free clinic for kids in first through eighth grade at 10:15 a.m. Saturday at the Dana-Farber Field House at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough prior to the team’s 11:30 a.m. open practice.

There will be an autograph session for kids of any age.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Follow UMass coverage on Twitter at @GazetteUMass. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.

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