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Devoted to the daily goings on with Rutgers football, both at High Point Solutions Stadium and behind the scenes.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Rundown: The play that made Tyler Kroft, Rutgers players in NFL, more

(AP photo)
By Tyler Barto
Twitter: @Tyler_Barto

PISCATAWAY — The play that made everyone a believer in Tyler Kroft came less than a minute after the one most wanted to forget.

Tied, 41-41, with Penncrest in a Pennslyvania district quarterfinal in 2009, Kroft’s Downingtown East team was deep in its own territory with less than a minute left.

Head coach Mike Matta called a rollout to the left, only to target Kroft, now Rutgers’ junior tight end, on a cross-field screen.

The pass was intercepted, and a Penncrest defender ran through Kroft’s grip to the end zone.

On final next possession, Downingtown East needed to draw up a play with 6.3 seconds left.

It turned to its long, wiry junior, then more wide receiver than tight end.

“We ran what we called ‘Allentown’ at the time,” Kroft told me recently. “I start in-line and run a wheel route down the sideline, and our quarterback rolled out and just threw it up for me.”

“Two guys are grabbing him and he jumped up and snatched the ball out of the air like he’s done a thousand times,” Matta said. “We ended up going for two and winning.”

It has become one of Matta’s seminal moments in coaching. Few have forgotten the play.

“It was probably one of the better wins of my high school football career,” said Rutgers’ Taj Alexander, one of Kroft’s high school teammates. “We just knew Tyler was going to be special from then.”

Nearly five years later, Kroft ranks among the nation’s elite tight end prospects.

He led Rutgers with 43 receptions last year for 573 yards and four touchdowns, all tops among Rutgers tight ends in recent memory.

He is becoming more recognizable nationally. The Mackey Award candidate was a preseason All-Big Ten Second Team honoree by several publications and earned Honorable Mention status last year from Sports Illustrated.

Name (Year)
Tyler Kroft
D.C. Jefferson
D.C. Jefferson
D.C. Jefferson
Shamar Graves
Kevin Brock

“I’m the farthest from an expert on who’s going to be a good NFL player, but I do know that he’s a fast learner, and like I told everyone that recruited him from high school to college, he blocks well,” said Matta, who coached pro quarterback Pat Devlin. “Everyone thinks just because he catches the ball (that) he doesn’t block. Tyler’s a tough kid.”

The rail-thin Kroft didn’t look like much of a blocker at Downingtown East, when recruiting services noted he mostly lined up in the slot.

But Matta said that was only the case during Kroft’s junior season. He lined up traditionally for most of three years.

“We definitely knew he was going to be something because of the plays he would make, and I remember he would have some diving catches in the back of the end zone,” Alexander said.  “How he would run over secondary players. It’s like, ‘OK, I know he’s small and needs to get in the weight room … but if he increases his skills he’s going to become a great player.’”

Kroft, now up to 245 pounds, was targeted only once in Rutgers’ season opener Thursday against Washington State. Head coach Kyle Flood considered it the product of increased attention.

Outside of receiver Leonte Carroo, Kroft will be the subject of Big Ten defensive coordinators’ pass-game scouting reports.

In a league with a strong tight end pedigree, Kroft near tops the list.

“That’s ultimately what I’m trying to get for myself: playing my best week after week and being able to produce like I know I can,” Kroft said. “At the end of the year, in theory I should be reaching my goal.”

More Knights in the NFL

NFL teams could start making their practice squad signings official at noon Sunday, and two more former Rutgers players ended up catching on.

Brandon Coleman, the 6-foot-6 receiver who is tied for first in school history in touchdown receptions, remains in New Orleans, where he signed as an undrafted free agent.

The same goes for Quron Pratt, who put up less gaudy numbers at Rutgers but agreed to terms with the Eagles.

Quron Pratt's path to the NFL, Part 1 —Part 2 — Part 3

Pratt never caught more than 32 passes in a season and has only one touchdown catch — to Coleman's 20. But it just goes to show that if you do one thing (or several) well on special teams, you'll find a home in the NFL.

Uniform watch

Ever see a player change his facemask during the middle of training camp? What about to one typically reserved for a completely different position group?

That's what happened with defensive tackle Darius Hamilton, who opted for a facemask usually seen on defensive backs or running backs, one popularized by Deion Sanders.

And notice Steve Longa's wardrobe change midway through Thursday night's game? He returned with a rare neck roll attached to his shoulder pads, seldom seen in today's game.

Speaking of whom, there's no way I couldn't include this photo:
(AP photo)
Crazy stat of the week

From the strange-but-true department: Rutgers goes from playing the power conferences' second-leading passing team (Washington State, 532 yards/game) to the FCS's 11th-worst (Howard, 68 yards/game).

Missing links

Some of the more memorable stories I read this week: 

How Rutgers targets the state's Group-I football talent

A Daily Targum production manager turned drummer writes for Rolling Stone's behind-the-scenes look with Wisconsin's offensive line

Big Ten teams were heavily represented in last weekend's neutral-site games

This book excerpt on Alabama's Nick Saban sheds light on college football's top coach

The college football reunion Michigan and its fans most want to forget

ESPN's Don Van Natta spent the summer trailing Cowboys owner Jerry Jones

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