Miami has a dozen coaches, but this tall, athletic fortysomething man speaking in urgent tones to a group of Hurricanes players during a midweek practice was not one of them.
The interloper had made his way over to the tight ends, one of whom bore a strong resemblance to him. While watching the Sept. 7 Miami-Florida game on television, Kellen Winslow Sr. had been displeased with the way Kellen Winslow Jr., the starting tight end for the defending national champion Hurricanes, was lining up. Here was Senior, having flown from San Diego the previous day, down in a three-point stance, coaching Junior.
"You're in the middle of the field in a goal line stance," said Dad. "It's hard to move when your weight's that far forward. If your first step isn't forward, you're a step behind in your route. You think that's not a big deal? It's a major deal. That quarterback will go someplace else."
Having passed his genes to Kellen Jr., Kellen Sr. is now in the process of passing to him the secrets and nuances of the position he redefined during a nine-year NFL career. It annoys—indeed offends—Winslow when coaches turn his old position into a dumping ground for leftover tackles. "Sometimes I just shake my head," he says. "I want to ask some of these coaches, 'Can't you find a guy that can run 10 yards, turn outside and catch the ball? He's on the roster somewhere!' But it's not in their philosophy."
A few years back, when Kellen Jr. was starring at Scripps Ranch High in San Diego, Junior and Senior shopped for schools together. If a program failed to feature a tight end to Senior's satisfaction, that was all she wrote. "There's no hope for you there," he would tell his son. "They don't respect the position."
They are starting to. At long last, the position is getting its props. The increasingly exotic defenses in today's college game have forced offensive coordinators to put a better athlete at tight end—someone who can either pick up a blitz or beat it by getting off the line fast and catching a pass. Six tight ends have been taken in the first round of the last three NFL drafts, the same number as in the first round of the previous seven drafts.
"You're talking about a lineman and a wide receiver in the same body," says Ernie Zampese, an offensive consultant to the St. Louis Rams. "That's hard to find. Anytime someone has a chance to be that guy, teams jump on him."
Suddenly the position has some sizzle. "Everything filters down from the NFL," says Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Sanford. " Shannon Sharpe and Tony Gonzalez are big-time players who make big-time money." Gonzalez signed a seven-year, $31.5 million contract with the Kansas City Chiefs in September. The deal will allow him to try to play in the NBA—a goal that, while far-fetched in his case, underscores a point made by many coaches, including Tennessee headman Phil Fulmer: For a long time it was tough to find a good, athletic tight end because that kid was playing basketball.
Waste no pity on the Vols. In Jason Wit-ten, Tennessee has one of the best tight ends in the country. Witten is a 6'5", 265-pound junior who will make jaws drop at some future NFL combine. He runs a 4.56 40, benches 475 pounds and has a vertical jump of 33 inches. That was him torching Michigan for six catches for 125 yards in last January's Florida Citrus Bowl. And this is Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis, coveting what he cannot have: "Obviously, I'd like to have Jason defending."
Witten, you see, arrived in Knoxville as a defensive end, another reminder of why the tight end spot was long a repository for stiffs. "Everybody would like to have a guy who's 6'5", 260 and runs a 4.65," says Curt Cignetti, who coaches tight ends for North Carolina State. "But most of them are going to play defense before they play tight end. They're going to be rushing the passer"—rather than haranguing him between plays to throw them the ball.