IOWA CITY, Iowa — One by one, the first wave of tight ends strolled into the interview room at Indianapolis Convention Center.
Some were quiet, focused or even agitated. Then there’s George Kittle, who instantly greets a pair of reporters who covered him at Iowa.
One asks, “Are you having a good time?”
“Ah, excellent,” Kittle said. “This is fun.”
To those who know him, nobody is more interesting or vibrant than Kittle. He’s positive, energetic and confident. To NFL analysts, Kittle walked into the 2017 NFL Combine as an afterthought, just another late-round prospect. He left Indianapolis as one of the nation’s highest-rising tight ends and sent analysts scurrying through video to make sure his play matched his eye-popping combine numbers.
No tight end saw his value increase last weekend like Kittle. He shocked observers by running the 40-yard dash in 4.52 seconds, ranking third among tight ends at the combine and tied for 13th-best all time at the position. He finished third in the broad jump at 11 feet. He was sixth in the vertical jump at 35 inches and 11th in the bench press with 18 repetitions of 225 pounds.
Matt Miller, the lead NFL draft analyst for Bleacher Report, tweeted, “George Kittle was 2nd best blocking TE I saw this year. Need to watch more tape. He could be moving up.”
Jeff Risdon, a writer for RealGM.com, tweeted, “George Kittle running a faster 40 than (highly touted Miami tight end) David Njoku is as shocking to me as would be Mariah Carey recording a death metal album.”
George Kittle blocking pic.twitter.com/bZK8IlEGKf
— Ty Wurth (@WurthDraft) March 8, 2017
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) March 9, 2017
Kittle (6-foot-4, 247 pounds) was touted by Pro Football Focus as the best all-around tight end entering the 2016 college football season. But midway through his senior season, Kittle suffered a midfoot sprain in his right foot. He hobbled through two games before he was shut down for games against Michigan and Illinois. Kittle suited up for the home finale against Nebraska and played in the Outback Bowl. But he wasn’t 100 percent.
Kittle’s statistics at Iowa were solid but not flashy. Partly because of his injury and partly because he was Iowa’s only receiving threat, Kittle caught 22 passes for 314 yards and 4 scores as a senior. In four seasons, he hauled in 48 passes for 737 yards and 10 touchdowns. In every season, Kittle had a catch of at least 25 yards. He made a one-handed catch against Maryland in 2015 and produced other highlight-reel plays.
— #AkrumForHeisman (@Akrum4Heisman) December 23, 2015
The only prescription for Kittle’s ailing foot was rest. He was able to get it while training in Frisco, Texas. He trimmed some body fat and slimmed down by 5 pounds to prepare for the combine. Then he vaulted his status from also-ran to must-see.
Under Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, the Hawkeyes have sent 10 tight ends to the NFL combine. Of the nine who participated in drills (Ray Hamilton did not in 2015), Kittle’s all-around statistics were near the best. He easily eclipsed Dallas Clark’s 40-yard dash time by 0.13 second and broad jump by 9 inches. Kittle’s bench-press repetitions ranked third among former Hawkeyes, as did his vertical jump.
Iowa tight ends at the NFL combine under Kirk Ferentz
|Tight end||Combine Year||Draft round||40 time||Bench reps of 225||Vertical jump (inches)||Broad jump (inches)|
But at Iowa, tight ends are full service, and that means blocking. Few players at the position were better than Kittle. He’s a self-made blocker after arriving on campus at wide receiver size. He reached 252 pounds during his senior season before slimming down for the combine.
Kittle is proud of the blocker label, but he’s quick to point out he’s much more than that.
“I know I’m a versatile tight end, but if someone wants to label me as a blocking tight end, I’ll take that because I came in at 200 pounds and I was not a blocking tight end,” Kittle said. “Over the past five years, I’ve put on 50 pounds, and that’s something I’ve really put my mindset to and I’m proud of.
“If you want to call me a blocking tight end that’s fine, I can do other things as well.”
After Kittle’s combine performance, draft analysts began tweeting Kittle’s vicious blocks like they discovered them in a time vault.
One consistency throughout Iowa TE George Kittle's tape? Physicality. Watch as he completely erases #42 here.https://t.co/Ppi4JaJZnG
— Rob Donaldson (@RobDFB) August 9, 2016
Under Ferentz, NFL teams have drafted seven Iowa tight ends. Kittle likely makes eight. Several others such as Reisner, Flemister and Henry Krieger-Coble (Kittle’s first cousin) have played as undrafted free agents. Iowa’s pro-style running attack has helped its tight ends transition to the NFL better than most schools. Kittle took full advantage of that at the combine.
“I’ve had to talk about outside and inside zone with some coaches, and I can draw those in my sleep,” Kittle said. “That’s really fun for me. Iowa football, it’s a pro-style system, we’ve got pro coaches. It has really prepared me, and I’ve really enjoyed my time there. It really has prepared me for the conversations that I’ve had. Just being able to learn all the stuff I did from those coaches, I think, has given me a step ahead of some guys.”
It’s likely Kittle will spend the next six weeks flying around the country to visit NFL teams and their facilities. Where will he end up? That’s yet to be determined. But as his stock soars, he’s enjoying the process.
“I’m enjoying every second that I’m here because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Kittle said. “I’ve been dreaming about this since I was a kid. I have a pep in my step everywhere I go. I’m having a great time.”