Tight end Bauer Sharp’s unconventional path to an intriguing fit at OU

Tight end Bauer Sharp’s unconventional path to an intriguing fit at OU

It’s been an unorthodox college football journey for the transfer from Southeastern Louisiana. Could Bauer Sharp bring a new dimension to the Sooner?

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Jan 28, 2024, 6:00am CST

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Jan 28, 2024, 6:00am CST

NORMAN — Smitty Grider’s phone started ringing in early 2023.

By that point, Bauer Sharp had played all of 11 games as a college tight end. His career snap count at the position stood at 185. A 6-foot-5, 245-pound converted quarterback, Sharp had closed his redshirt freshman season at Southeastern Louisiana with 11 career receptions.

None of that stopped coaches across the country from getting in touch with Grider, a 42-year veteran of Alabama’s prep football scene who coached Sharp for two seasons at Dothan (Alabama) High School. A full year before Sharp enrolled at Oklahoma earlier this month, major college programs were already checking in to gauge the promising tight end and his appetite for a step up through the transfer portal.

“They could see how big he is, how athletic he is and what Bauer could do,” Grider said.

Those programs had taken notice of the size and speed Sharp first flashed at Dothan. They likely saw the versatility that would later fuel his 29-catch, eight-touchdown breakout season in 2023, the latest step in Sharp’s unconventional path to life as a Power 5 tight end.

Most of all, they all seemed to understand the potential of the player poised to fill a hole at OU and perhaps even bring a new dimension to the position in the Sooners’ offense in 2024.

“He reminds you of Brock Bowers at Georgia,” Grider said of Sharp. “He’s really athletic. He can run. You combine that with how physical he is — you can see what it can translate into. And the competitive nature that he has is what will carry him into being a really good player in the SEC.”

The winding road to Norman

Wide receiver. Special teams. Quarterback. Sharp did it all before he found a home at tight end. 

In Dothan, a city of 71,000 that sits 200 miles south of Birmingham, some like Grider believe Sharp’s is the story of a potential Power 5 passer whose development stumbled on circumstance.

“He had all the tools,” Grider said. “He has a heck of an arm and he’s a big kid who can run.”

Sharp put those tools to work at class 3A Northside Methodist Academy, where he spent two seasons as a quarterback before landing with the football program at 7A Dothan in 2019. 

The move represented a steep jump in competition, and Sharp spent his junior year backing up an established senior quarterback and rotating at wide receiver and on kickoff coverage, fitting in where he could with an eye on taking over under center in his senior season.

That opportunity arrived in 2020. But so did an offensive coordinator change at Dothan and a pandemic that wiped out spring practices and the summer 7-on-7 schedule. 

COVID-19 kept Sharp from critical developmental periods and recruiting exposure. Turnover on the coaching staff marked only the beginning of a lost season that saw an initially promising Dothan squad finish 2-7. As Sharp battled through a senior year that hardly ever left the ground, Grider caught a glimpse of what would become a defining trait.

We didn’t have the year we were expecting,” Grider said. “But “You could see the grit and determination in him,” Grider said. “He never quit. He never let up. His intensity never changed.”

Sharp closed his time at Dothan with a build for major college football but little from his high school career to show for it. He eventually landed at Southeastern, the FCS program five and a half hours from home, settling into the Lions’ quarterback room in the summer of 2021 

A year later, after taking a redshirt in his freshman season, Sharp saw his path to playing time was no clearer. Staring down another season buried on the depth chart, Sharp left quarterbacking behind for good.

“I told myself after I was redshirted that I was not going to do that again … I had to play, no matter what,” he told the Dothan Eagle in December. “I would move to defense if that was the cost. I had a chip on my shoulder.”

Sharp might have made an effective defensive end. Instead, Southeastern tight ends coach Ross Jenkins watched him run during a summer conditioning session and saw an intriguing H-back/tight end option. 

Soon, Sharp was taking reps with the tight ends prior to the 2022 season and Southeastern was beginning to harness the ability  of one of its newest and most versatile offensive weapons.

Sharp appeared on 20.8% of Southeastern’s offensive snaps in 2022 and caught 11 passes on 15 targets, finishing 78 yards and a touchdown on 185 plays. Sharp’s speed earned him opportunities in the run game, too, where he carried 10 times for 83 yards in 2022.

That modest debut season managed to turn heads across the country and got Grider’s phone buzzing. 

That was only the prelude to a 2023 explosion, the flood of Power 5 offers that followed and a portal recruitment that ended with Sharp in Norman.

He found his way,” said Grider. “He found his niche, found what he could be good at. He wanted to get a shot on the field no matter what the position was. That has a lot to do with the kind of person he is.”

A fit in Norman

Per Pro Football Focus, only seven of the tight ends between FBS and FCS football who logged 21 or more targets in 2023 produced more yards per route run than Sharp with his mark of 2.15.

It’s one in the series of stats that jumps off the page in evaluating Sharp’s fit with the Sooners in 2024. In his second season as a college tight end, Sharp’s bit part in Southeastern’s offense turned into something more resembling a star role that yielded portal interest from the likes of Alabama, Tennessee, Utah and Mississippi State.

Sharp totaled 29 catches on 38 targets for 288 yards and three touchdowns through the air in 2023. On the ground, Sharp became an even steadier threat, gaining 5.3 yards per attempt with five rushing scores. Only one tight end nationally — Navy’s Eli Heidenreich — finished with more carries than Sharp’s 25 last fall. 

On the surface alone, Sharp appears capable of providing OU with more range than Austin Stogner gave the Sooners in 2023. If anything, Sharp’s skillset more closely resembles the tight end Stogner returned to Norman to replace. 

Anchored by Stogner and his 17 catches for 196 yards, tight production was a lost dimension in OU’s fourth-ranked scoring offense this past fall. But it was only two seasons ago that Brayden Willis set career highs with 39 receptions for 514 yards and seven touchdowns in Brent Venables and Jeff Lebby’s debut season. 

Like Willis, Sharp has experience as a true H-back and can operate as a threat in the passing game and on the ground in short-yardage situations. Last fall, Sharp finished 7.5 yards after the catch per reception, better than the 7.2 Willis turned in during his best college season two years ago. Sharp’s 12 first downs as a rusher in 2023 ranked fourth nationally among FBS and FCS tight ends. 

Where Sharp’s past differentiates from OU’s previous primary tight ends is in alignment.  

Willis spent nearly 50% of his snaps in 2022 in the slot. Stogner did most of his work last fall starting inline with Lebby’s offense. While Sharp, like Stogner, took most of his snaps inline (60.6%) in 2023, another 18.1% of his snaps came lined up out wide, more than triple the rate of Willis or Stogner and more often than all but nine tight ends across the country.

Bottom line: Sharp arrives as a potential Swiss Army knife in Seth Littrell’s first offense in Norman at a position the Sooners struggled mightily in a year ago.

Lebby made good use of his tight ends and helped turn Willis into an NFL Draft in 2022. Part of Sharp’s story will come down to how Littrell chooses to use tight ends within his system at OU.

Another element is Sharp and his ability to settle in with a new program at the highest level of college football. Of that, Grider is confident as Sharp lands in Norman for the latest chapter in his unorthodox tight end journey. 

“His attitude has always been about getting on the field — tell me what I have to do to get on the field,” Grider said. “It’s what has always worked for him.”

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Eli Lederman reports on the University of Oklahoma for Sellout Crowd. He began his professional career covering the University of Missouri with the Columbia Missourian and later worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette before two years writing on the Sooners and Cowboys at the Tulsa World. Born and raised in Mamaroneck, New York, Lederman grew up a rabid consumer of the New York sports pages and an avid fan of the New York Mets. He entered sportswriting at 14 years old and later graduated from the University of Missouri. Away from the keyboard, he can usually be found exploring the Oklahoma City food scene or watching/playing fútbol (read: soccer). He can be reached at [email protected].

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