Tight Family Miami tight end Kellen Winslow Jr., with help from Dad, is redefining the game's new glamour position

Dec. 02, 2002
Dec. 02, 2002

Table of Contents
Dec. 2, 2002

College Football
Pro Football

Tight Family Miami tight end Kellen Winslow Jr., with help from Dad, is redefining the game's new glamour position

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.

This is an article from the Dec. 2, 2002 issue

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

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

"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 Witten, 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.

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

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

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."

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: AL TIELEMANS (2) IMPOSING Winslow has the size (6'5", 230) and speed (a 4.6 40) to make him a defender's nightmare.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (WINSLOWS) FATHER KNOWS BEST As a high schooler Kellen Jr. learned the tricks of the tight end trade from his Hall of Fame dad.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN CORDES/ICON SMI Mike Seidman

The Sons Also Rise

Winslow, whose dad was an NFL star, is not the only college
player whose father was an excellent pro. Here are five others in
that category.

Player, Team Position Class Father

Dan Klecko, Temple DE Sr. Joe
Eli Manning, Mississippi QB Jr. Archie
Michael Munoz, Tennessee OT So. Anthony
Jarrett Payton, Miami RB Jr. Walter
Chris Simms, Texas QB Sr. Phil

High-End Talent
Besides Winslow, here are five other tight ends who have caught
the eyes of pro scouts.

Player, Team Class Height Weight

Dallas Clark, Iowa Jr. 6'4" 244 pounds
Former high school hurdler had a 95-yard TD catch against Purdue
on Oct. 5

Bennie Joppru, Michigan Sr. 6'5" 249 pounds
Of his 47 receptions this season, 25 have been for first downs

Mike Seidman, UCLA Sr. 6'5" 254 pounds
Has 37 catches for 563 yards and four touchdowns this season

Trent Smith, Oklahoma Sr. 6'5" 230 pounds
Caught 61 passes in 2001 but has been used more as a blocker
this season

Jason Witten, Tennessee Jr. 6'5" 265 pounds
His 61 receptions for last two seasons are 44 more than Vols
tight ends had from '97 through '00

Statistics through Sunday