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Scouting Combine Research Series: Tight Ends (Part 2)

Who went from a "sometimer" to the top tight end in the nation? Which prospects had scouts driving of the beaten path? Those answers and more as we get to know the top tight ends.

Here are the 20 tight ends who have been invited to the Scouting Combine. Players are listed in alphabetical order. Heights and weights come from CBSSports.com/NFLDraftScout.com. All players are seniors unless noted. For Part 1, CLICK HERE.

George Kittle, Iowa (6-4, 250): Kittle caught 48 passes for 737 yards (15.4 average) and 10 touchdowns during his four seasons, with 42 of those catches and all of the touchdowns coming as a junior and senior. In 2016, Kittle caught 22 passes for 314 yards (14.3 average) and four touchdowns.

Kittle was born in Madison, Wis. His parents, Bruce and Jan, had to weave through Badgers gameday traffic to get to the hospital. They were pulled over by the police and needed an escort to get to the hospital. As they got to their room, Bruce could see Camp Randall Stadium. “There’s no way we’re not having a boy,” he said. He was right — and he tipped the scales at 10 pounds, 10 ounces.

Kittle’s father played on the Hawkeyes’ offensive line and was a captain of Iowa’s 1982 Rose Bowl team. Kittle played alongside cousin Henry Krieger Coble, now a tight end with the Broncos. They are as tight as brothers. “My grandparents had a three-wheeled golf cart that we’ve flipped multiple times,” Kittle said. “That was always fun. I was never the driver, but I was always the one either thrown the farthest or landing underneath it. One time me and Henry and one of our cousins got in trouble because we threw rocks at my grandfather’s truck and broke all the lights out of it and got grounded for that. Which is interesting because I was never really a bad kid until I hung out with them sometimes.”

Other relatives include Jess Settles, a former Iowa basketball star, and Brad Carlson, Iowa’s career home-run leader. “Growing up, it was kind of like you got to hang out with your favorite athletes,” Kittle said.

Jordan Leggett, Clemson (6-5, 258): Leggett was one of three finalists for the John Mackey Award, which goes to the nation’s top tight end, for his final two seasons. After catching a combined 26 passes as a freshman and sophomore, Leggett caught 40 passes for 525 yards (13.1 average) and eight touchdowns as a junior and 46 catches for 736 yards (16.0) and seven touchdowns as a senior. In the process, he went from “Lazy Leggett” to early-round draft pick. “He’s one of those guys his first couple years that was kind of half-in, he was a sometimer,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “Sometimes he was committed, sometimes he wasn’t. Sometimes he practiced hard, sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes he wanted to be great, sometimes he didn’t.”

Leggett plays for Ian Lockwood. Lockwood was a senior at Navarre (Fla.) High School when Leggett was a sophomore. He died of brain cancer on Jan. 28, 2011. Given a vial of Lockwood’s ashes, Leggett spread them on one of the 10-yard lines at Clemson’s Memorial Stadium. “We both loved football," Leggett said, "and with it being taken away from him, I just try to keep his legacy on my shoulders."

David Njoku, Miami, Fla. (6-4, 240): Redshirt sophomore. In two seasons, Njoku caught 64 passes for 1,060 yards and nine touchdowns. He had a tremendous 2016 with 43 catches, 698 yards (16.2) and eight touchdowns, including scores of 76 and 58 yards vs. Duke. That he was only an honorable mention on the all-ACC team speaks to the depth of this tight end class. Njoku is the sixth child of five girls and four boys born to Nigerian parents.

How good of an athlete is Njoku? He won the national championship in the boys high jump at the 2014 New Balance Nationals Outdoor, clearing 6 feet, 11 inches. He got some polish on his game by working with former Miami tight end Kellen Winslow Jr.

Scott Orndoff, Pittsburgh (6-5, 254): After catching 23 passes in his first three seasons, Orndoff tallied 35 catches for 579 yards (16.5 average) and five touchdowns as a senior. In Pitt’s upset of eventual national champion Clemson, Orndoff caught nine passes for 128 yards and two touchdowns. He also had a 74-yard touchdown in a come-from-behind victory over Georgia Tech. Orndoff finished his career with 58 catches for 897 yards (15.5 average) and 13 touchdowns. The three-time member of the ACC academic team did a little bit of everything as a senior.

His father, R. Scott Orndoff, played for the USFL’s Philadelphia Stars and Washington Federals. The elder Orndoff enrolled his son in a high school located about 45 minutes from home. As a freshman, that meant getting up at 4:30 a.m. For the next three years, he and his dad moved, meaning they didn’t see the rest of the family all week.  “It became a part of our life,” Orndoff said. “It became normal for us after a certain point. It was worth it. When my dad wasn’t there, I did a lot of stuff on my own. It made transitioning to college much easier.”

Hayden Plinke, UTEP (6-4, 258): Pinkle’s nomadic career took him from Boise State in 2011 and 2012, to Portland State in 2013 and, for the last three years, to UTEP. Finally, he felt at home. During his two seasons for the Miners, he caught 37 passes for 405 yards (10.9 average) and no touchdowns as a junior and 38 passes for 456 yards (12.0) and eight touchdowns as a senior. He was first-team all-Conference USA as a senior, when he set a school record for touchdown receptions. During his one year at Portland, he played fullback and averaged 7.1 yards on his 27 carries.

Michael Roberts, Toledo (6-4, 261): Roberts went from no catches as a freshman to four as a sophomore to 21 as a junior to 45 as a senior. In a huge final season, Roberts turned those catches into 533 yards (11.8 average) and 16 touchdowns. Roberts is a big man with huge hands. At the Senior Bowl, they measured 11 5/8 inches — one-eighth inch off the Scouting Combine record. “You still have to have a lot of concentration. But, once it's in my hands, it's usually not going anywhere.”

Roberts is a great story. With his father in jail, it was up to his mom to raise him. He was suspended from elementary school multiple times before he was diagnosed with a speech impediment and attention-deficit issues. If that’s not enough of a challenge, a grandmother died from cancer and a younger brother was accidentally shot and killed. “It was a lost family.”

Eric Saubert, Drake (6-5, 247): Saubert was a four-year all-conference selection. As a senior, he caught 56 passes for 776 yards (13.9 average) and 10 touchdowns to earn FCS All-American honors. In four seasons, he caught 190 passes for 2,253 yards (11.9 average) and 21 touchdowns. He played in the East-West Shrine Game and Senior Bowl. Scouts flocked to Drake after he caught 48 passes as a junior. “It’s pretty surreal,” Saubert said in September. “I’m just excited and blessed.”

Adam Shaheen, Ashland (6-5, 277): Junior. Who in the heck is Adam Shaheen and why is he leaving a Division II program with one year of eligibility remaining? As a junior, he caught 57 passes for 867 yards and a school-record 16 touchdowns — the most scoring catches by a Division II tight end ever. He was a Division II and Academic All-American. In 2015, Shaheen caught 70 passes, which led all NCAA tight ends at all levels, for 803 yards and 10 touchdowns. “I came in as a scrawny 205-pound guy, and I was just trying to get on the field any way I could.” Scouts flocked to the campus all season.

Shaeen played one year of Division II basketball at Pittsburgh-Johnstown before transferring to Ashland for football. “I'm 22 already, so it's not like I'm only in my third year of college. I've been in college for four years, and I've had two good seasons. I have an opportunity right now. My biggest thing was the door is open, to try to get my foot in and let's go. You can think of a scenario where I stay another year and everything goes perfectly and my draft stock goes up. I have an opportunity right now, and I want to take it. I just kind of sat back and listened to every different opinion and idea and thoughts.”

Jonnu Smith, Florida International (6-3, 245): With 42 catches for 506 yards (12.0 average) and four touchdowns as a senior, Smith finished his career wtih 178 grabs, 2,001 yards (11.2 average) and 18 touchdowns. Smith caught at least one pass in all 43 career games. In 2014, he led all college tight ends with 61 receptions. In 2015, he was limited to eight games by a torn ACL. In 2016, he had a big game against Indiana (eight catches, 83 yards) and scored the winning touchdown against Charlotte. He would have had a bigger season had his pregnant girlfriend not dumped boiling water on him in November.

“I’ve been through a lot of adversity,” Smith said at the Senior Bowl. “So a lot of things that people go through at the next level that they can’t handle, I’ll be able to handle because I’ve been through so much.” That includes his father being killed in a work accident when he was 4. Smith has a big heart, dating to his days delivering Meals on Wheels with his mom in their hometown of Philadelphia.

Jeremy Sprinkle, Arkansas (6-5, 256): Sprinkle’s career ended in embarrassing fashion when he was suspended from the Belk Bowl for attempting to shoplift from a Belk store. And that’s after Belk gave every player from Arkansas and Virginia Tech $450 to spend.

The incident ruined a solid career and his chance to be remembered alongside the school’s other standout tight ends, a list that includes Hunter Henry and D.J. Williams. "When he got there, he was 6-6 and 205 pounds," Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema said. "If he turned sideways, you couldn't see him. He was skinny as skinny gets. Now he's a 6-6, 250-pound man that's ready to make his mark in the SEC and in this country. He can be a Mackey Award winner. He's got that much talent, and we've had a lot of really good tight ends.”

Sprinkle caught 33 passes for 380 yards (11.5 average) and four touchdowns on the senior, running his career total to 71 catches for 921 yards (13.0 average) and 11 touchdowns — the most receiving touchdowns ever for an Arkansas tight end. He led all SEC tight ends with six touchdowns as a junior, with all six coming in the final seven games. His brother, Aaron, was an offensive lineman at Ouachita Baptist.

Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.


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