Recruiters scour the country seeking the Wittens of the world, that postmodern synthesis of speed and strength, but they usually find one without the other. Tight ends tend to come in one of two basic body types: your bulked-up wideout or your tackle on sabbatical. As NFL offenses get ever gaudier, says the Rams' Zampese, the trend is toward the former. "Teams are looking for pass catchers," he says of the slighter, swifter tight ends who do their best work up the field. That's good news for Oklahoma's Trent Smith, a serviceable blocker who shines on passing downs.
"I might be in the box for two plays blocking a 270-pound defensive end," says the 6'5", 230-pound senior. "But all of a sudden I'll run a fade route against the other team's best defensive back. It's fun when you're split out and these little DBs have something to say to you. Then you shut them up."
While Witten and Smith are among the best in the country at dispensing humility to defenders, the guy with the scariest upside is Winslow of the top-ranked Hurricanes. When you're trying to get the hang of a position, it doesn't hurt to be in near-daily contact with the NFL Hall of Famer who in his long career with the San Diego Chargers played it better than anyone else ever has. Kellen Sr. did not play football until his senior year at East St. Louis High, which is why he kept Kellen Jr. out of Pop Warner: He didn't want the boy burning out on football before he reached his potential.
At Scripps Ranch High, Kellen Jr. was a two-way player who did most of his damage on defense. "I played some defensive end, some strong safety," he says. "I basically did what I wanted to. If it was first down, I'd usually blitz. Or I'd go out at corner and jam the hell out of the receiver."
He and Kellen Sr. knew, however, that his future was at tight end. Of all the schools that wooed him, including Washington, Texas, Southern Cal and Ohio State, none had more respect for the position than Miami. Three former Hurricanes tight ends—Jeremy Shockey ( New York Giants), Bubba Franks ( Green Bay Packers) and Mondriel Fulcher ( Oakland Raiders)—are pulling down paychecks in the NFL.
"A lot of guys are just good receivers, and a lot of guys are just good blockers," says Rob Chudzinski, the Hurricanes' tight ends coach and—an indication of the importance of the position in the Miami scheme—offensive coordinator. "But finding and developing a combination of the two has been the key to our offense."
Why not solve the problem by substituting a big galoot when you need three yards, a speed-burner on third-and-long? With someone as versatile as Winslow, says Miami coach Larry Coker, "we don't have to tip our hand: We can spread the field; we can flex Kellen out without having to change personnel."
Coker was fine, by the way, with Kellen Sr.'s cameo on the practice field. (In fact it got him thinking. "Wonder if anyone would notice if we had two Winslows suited up?" he mused afterward.) That's a good thing. Kellen Jr. is a true sophomore who played wide receiver for the first half of last season because the coaches wanted to get him on the field. (Shockey was the starting tight end.) While he may have been watching tight ends all his life, he's been playing the position at a high level for only a year, which means his father is going to continue to see things on television that will make him want to get on a plane.
It's not that Junior isn't having a strong season. He is: With two games remaining for the 10-0 Hurricanes, Winslow has 41 catches for 515 yards and six touchdowns. It's that, as Chudzinski says, he is "a work in progress." At the age of 19 years and four months, he stands 6'5", 230 pounds, runs a 4.6 40 and has better hands than his Hall of Fame father (according to his Hall of Fame father). Beware Junior in a year or two.
"When I was playing," says Kellen Sr., "every year there was another Kellen Winslow. Every year people would say, 'This guy's the next Kellen Winslow.' Well, maybe we found him."