Remembering Rob Gronkowski's first day at Arizona Wildcats camp

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics
Anthony Gimino

This is a story I wrote for the Tucson Citizen in August 2007 when tight end Rob Gronkowski first stepped on the Arizona Wildcats practice field:

There he was. No. 48 in white. The man-child, the myth. Rob Gronkowski.

I went to Arizona's first practice of fall camp Thursday night with the express intention of seeing what the fuss was all about, having been intrigued by Gronkowski's status as the gem of the new recruiting class and a couple of recent quotes.

"Gronkowski is a beast," UA quarterback Willie Tuitama said last month.

"That tight end is a monster," UA coach Mike Stoops said last week.

Beast or monster, I half expected Gronkowski to enter the practice facility to the blare of trumpets, emerging from behind a veil of smoke. Either that or maybe he would descend from storm clouds, throwing thunderbolts to the turf with his right arm and crushing a football with his left.

"We had a swimming race the other day, and it's the first time I had seen him without his shirt on," said Dana Dimel, the associate head coach in charge of the tight end position.

"I mean, the guy could be a male model and make millions of dollars. He doesn't need to playing football. What a body on an 18-year-old guy. It's crazy.

"Everybody in the country dies to have a guy who looks like that. Nobody has tight ends who looks like that kid does. And that's why he was recruited by everybody in the country."

So how did Gronkowski look in a helmet, shoulder pads and shorts on Day 1 of Year 4 of the Stoops era?

Big. Yeah, he looked big. Other than that, I thought he looked like a freshman football player at his first day of practice, getting his feet wet at a competitive position.

"Today, I'm sure he had no idea what was going on," said offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes. "But he'll improve every day."

OK, so maybe I had been expecting too much Thursday night, but there was still plenty to get the hearts of UA fans beating a bit quicker.

The last thing an 18-year-old football player probably needs is to be fawned over before he has even earned a spot on the depth chart, but these are Dimel's words after practice, not mine:

"You know those guys who go on to play in the NFL and you put them on your resume? Robbie will be on my resume."

Makes you want to see this guy in game action sooner rather than later.

"And you should see his dad," Dimel said, referring to Gordon Gronkowski, the owner of national fitness retail outlets.

"His dad is 50 years old and he's chiseled out of stone. He's probably 255 pounds and he wears his shirt sleeves all rolled up with his guns hanging out."

Rob Gronkowski, whose family is from Williamsville, N.Y., is listed at 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds, but coaches put his weight at around 265.

Gronkowski, who is said to be able to do a set of 10 reps on the bench press at 315 pounds, came in so physically able, that strength coach Corey Edmond was immediately able to concentrate this summer on other things.

Edmond is working on making him a more efficient runner, with better balance, more adept at cutting in and out of routes.

"Coming in physically ready, he can concentrate on learning," Edmond said.

"And that's the greatest thing for a freshman. If you come in physically ready, now all you have to do is learn. You're a step ahead of the curve."

With Gronkowski, redshirt freshman A.J. Simmons -- "he's really, really going to be an outstanding player," Dimel said -- 2006 starter Brandyn McCall and veteran Travis Bell, the tight end position will be key in UA's new spread offense.

The deep talent pool at that position, along with guys like Earl Mitchell, another physical specimen at fullback, is why this offense likely will more resemble BYU's version of the spread, rather than Texas Tech's.

The Red Raiders don't use the tight end position much, usually going with four wideouts in their spread. BYU tight end Jonny Harline, meanwhile, caught 58 passes, including 12 touchdowns.

When Hal Mumme ran this spread offense at Kentucky, James Whalen caught 90 passes in a season, a major-college record for a tight end.

Dimel, with a smile, envisions Gronkowski lining up at an inside position and on the outside, matched up with much smaller defensive backs.

"As time goes on, he definitely will be able to flex out because he runs so well," Dimel said.

"What you want to do with a guy like that is get him the ball in space, because you want DBs to try to tackle a guy like that. They're not going to want to. After a while, they're going to find a reason not to tackle him."

But, first, you know, he has to earn some playing time. The next week or two will be critical because the coaches want to identify the best players and start giving them the bulk of practice reps.

"There is no doubt Robbie is going to be a spectacular player," Dimel said. "It's just going to be a matter of how long it takes."

We'll soon find out if the future is now.