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Following Gronkowski's lead, tight ends have become big-time recruits

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He went to high school on the West Coast, and plans to attend college in the Midwest. It only makes sense, then, that Westview's (Calif.) Taylor McNamara's favorite athlete plays in New England.

Actually, it makes sense considering McNamara's status as one of the top tight end prospects in the nation -- part of a new breed at the position that block like linemen and catch like receivers. It's a style epitomized by the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski.

"I think he's redefining the position," McNamara said. "I love watching what he's doing."

A four-star recruit who committed to Oklahoma in December, McNamara made his comments at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio. Or more fittingly: after Gronkowski broke NFL regular season records for receiving yards (1,327) and touchdown receptions (17) by a tight end.

After Saturday's NFL playoff games -- the greatest single-day in tight end history -- the position has soared into the national spotlight.

Gronkowski tied an NFL postseason record for touchdown catches at any position with three in the Patriots' 45-10 victory over the Broncos. His tight end teammate, Aaron Hernandez, added another touchdown catch and a 43-yard run. Meanwhile, in the NFC, 49ers tight end Vernon Davis hauled in seven catches for 180 yards and two scores, including the dramatic game-winner in the final seconds of San Francisco's 36-32 triumph over the Saints. And even with that effort, he barely topped his New Orleans counterpart: Second-year sensation Jimmy Graham made five catches for 103 yards and two touchdowns.

The four are demonstrating that tight ends can be more than just weapons, but first options for professional offenses. And with the NFL's reputation as a copycat league, teams will start searching for tight ends that can do more than simply block. national analyst Mike Farrell says that college programs already are.

"Colleges aren't recruiting more tight ends, but they are focusing on recruiting more athletic and versatile tight ends," Farrell said. "The days of the 'sixth offensive lineman' that was the old tight end are fading fast. With more emphasis on spread offenses and more focus on creating mismatches, recruiting a tight end who can flex out and still get linebacker or safety coverage is essential."

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The 6-foot-5, 235-pound McNamara certainly fits that bill as Rivals' second-ranked tight end in the class of 2012. So does Kent Taylor, a 6-foot-5, 220-pounder from Land O'Lakes (Fla.), the top-ranked recruit headed to Florida next fall.

Taylor and McNamara are both members of the Rivals100. Four others join them in the Rivals250.

The position is certainly on the rise. Five years ago, when Gronkowski was a senior at Woodland Hills (Pa.), only three members of the Class of 2007 made the Rivals250. Gronkowski wasn't among them.

Farrell feels the importance of the position is changing with the game.

"Today's tight ends are too big and athletic to be covered by most safeties and too fast and agile to be handled by linebackers," he said. "Getting a versatile, athletic tight end who can stretch the field has become much more important than getting one that can block. But if you can find a tight end who can do both, like Gronkowski, then you've hit a home run."

College offenses are slowly getting into the act. Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert, a 2009 three-star recruit out of Bishop Dwenger (Ind.), led the way with 63 catches for 803 yards and five touchdowns this season. Seven others collected more than 50 grabs.

If McNamara has his way, the number of catches -- and the number of tight ends making them -- will only increase. That starts with his performance.

When it came to his college decision, McNamara chose Oklahoma over Arizona and Colorado, among others, because of its history at the position.

"Oklahoma has always used the position so I think it will be a great place for me to show what I can do," he said. "They say they can use me the same way."

After witnessing what Gronkowski, Davis and Graham are capable of, it's safe to say more schools will look for tight ends with similar high-powered potential.