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Double Duty
Joe Jon Finley blocking, catching his way into spotlight

Joe Jon Finley hauled in a 36-yard reception, the longest of his college football career. His Oklahoma Sooners won the game by 17 points.
And yet, the emerging tight end was disappointed in his performance that day.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what one would call raising the bar of expectation.

“I didn’t do a good job of it last week,” Finley said a few days after OU’s 37-20 win over Washington. “But I’m looking to get back for this Oregon game and have that physical presence again.”

Several factors point to this fall as perhaps becoming the breakthrough season for Finley. The junior from Arlington, Texas, has moved up to full-time starter this year. At 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds, Finley is a big presence, but he’s also a versatile athlete who was a state meet-qualifying high hurdler in high school.

Finley also was a legitimate run-pass threat of a quarterback at Arlington High, passing for more than 1,600 yards and running for nearly 900 in his senior year.

His size and athleticism caught the eyes of major programs like Wisconsin and Nebraska, where older brother Matt played defensive back — and OU.

“What was intriguing was he was a high hurdler,” said Kevin Sumlin, the Sooners’ receivers coach this year after switching over from tight ends. “You’ve got a 6-5, 6-6 high hurdler, a quarterback, a son of a coach, all in one person.”

Sumlin helped Finley learn to play tight end, a position he hadn’t played before. He developed into a good receiver, one who became a difficult speed matchup for some linebackers and a size problem for most defensive backs.

Coming off the bench in his first two years, Finley made 20 catches for 244 yards and three touchdowns. He averaged a little more than 12 yards per reception.

But this season, Finley has the experience, circumstances and opportunity to make a bigger impact. This is his fourth year in the program counting his redshirt year in 2003, and the junior is the senior member of a talented tight end rotation that includes Jermaine Gresham and Brody Eldridge.

But he also has new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson providing more opportunities for catching and blocking. The coach said his sets always will use at least one tight end and sometimes two or even three.

It’s the 21-year-old Finley, though, who OU coaches will count on most.

“Joe Jon is stronger and more complete of the three,” Wilson said. “Sometimes they’ll play together and play a lot. They will be involved, but in what ways I can’t tell you. Sometimes it’ll be receiving, sometimes they will stay back and protect.”

Blocking, in fact, is where Finley has made the most progress in recent years. Part of it comes from hitting the weights and bulking up. Finley weighed about 215 pounds when he arrived in 2003, now he’s a buff 260.

Learning technique and toughness from Sumlin and Wilson have been just as important. Before his promotion last winter, Wilson taught blocking as the offensive line coach.

“Coach Sumlin is more of a receiver-type guy and he helped me a lot with running routes, and now I’ve got coach Wilson who’s really like an offensive line guy, so I’ve got the best of both worlds there,” Finley said.

Wilson said Finley still “isn’t the greatest blocker, but he is very good.”

Senior left tackle Chris Messner has noted Finley’s progress over the years from a fellow lineman’s perspective.

“He’s got a lot bigger and stronger and he actually looks forward to helping block on the line,” Messner said. “He likes playing physical, which is what we’re all about, and he’s always been able to catch the ball.”

Blocking at the line with consistency will be the key to his future improvement, which is why Finley said he was disappointed in the Washington game.

Sure, Finley made the 36-yard grab, but he would be the first to say he didn’t block and protect as consistently as he wanted.

Finley looked forward to rebounding in the Oregon game. After showing flashes of potential, Finley proved in the season opener that he could put it all together.

He caught four passes for 79 yards and a touchdown against Alabama-Birmingham, along with having perhaps his best game blocking.

“The best feeling I had was after that first game,” Finley said “I really came out and played my best game as an individual, and that’s what I am trying to do every week.”

Finley envisioned himself being that player since early on, when he was at Arlington High. Schools recruited him to play quarterback; SuperPrep had him 24th among quarterback prospects in the nation.

But Finley did the unusual by preferring to not to play the star position — or at least not to star at that position.

“I felt like with my body and my speed that I had the potential to be a good tight end,” Finley said. “Trent Smith was here, I saw him and thought I can kind of do what he does.

“You see all the tight ends in the (NFL) right now like Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates,” he continued. “They’re more athletic receiving-type of tight ends. I felt I had a chance to do something like that.”

Sumlin visualized that potential right away, but reality at that time was far different. The coach said Finley had to bulk up his knowledge along with his body, having to learn the very basics like lining up in a three-point stance.

Finley soaked in knowledge and encouragement from the coaching staff and veteran tight ends Lance Donley and Bubba Moses who took him under their wings.

“We had a bunch to work on because he never played the position, but it’s starting to pay off,” Sumlin said. “… He has worked himself into not just being a receiver, but into becoming an every-play player. He can get out and block, or get out in space and make plays.”

Wilson said Finley is becoming a player to count on because “he understands why things happen.”

“Being around sports all his life, his football intelligence is at a very high level,” Wilson elaborated. “Joe Jon can handle more adjustments and move around in spots. It’s not that the other (tight ends) can’t, it’s just you don’t want to overload the young guys.”

Finley’s intelligence shows up in the classroom as well. Last year, the sociology major was named to the All-Big 12 Academic second team.
Away from class and the football field, Finley is an avid outdoorsman and golfer. He’s also a big country music fan whose favorite singer is George Strait.

Messner describes Finley as “easygoing and kind of a joker.”

“He’s one of those guys who never really has a bad day,” the senior tackle said. “He always goes in with a positive attitude.”

Growing up in small west Texas towns before moving to Arlington in the eighth grade, hunting became a favorite activity, along with four-wheeling and bass fishing.

Finley had a tougher time reeling in low golf scores until getting driving lessons from a golf pro back in Texas.

“I got to straighten my drive out a bit,” he said. “I’m shooting in the 80s consistently and try to get in the 70s now and then. … If I’m not here (on campus) working out in the summer, I’m usually out at the Jimmie Austin (OU) Golf Course.”

As for the informal double given name, it’s just one more part of Finley that’s tied to his Texas upbringing.

“My parents, when they named me, wanted a double name and they heard of this guy named Joe Jon somewhere down in Texas,” he explained. “They really liked it and they just stuck that with me, and I’ve got a cousin named Joe Don.”

Double name, double trouble.

Catching and blocking — it’s what Joe Jon Finley does best.

Editor's Note: This article appears in the Week Two edition of Sooner Spectator. Subscribe Now and get great weekly coverage of the Sooners all season!