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Tucker Kraft
NFL Draft

Tucker Kraft Won’t Settle For Being Anything But The Best TE

  • Justin Melo
  • October 14, 2022
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Rostering difference-making tight ends has become a necessity in today’s pass-happy NFL. South Dakota State tight end Tucker Kraft is one of the most intriguing offensive prospects in the nation. Kraft totaled an impressive 65 receptions and 780 receiving yards last season. Kraft is an excellent athlete for the position. He possesses the speed necessary to defeat coverage with regularity. Kraft breaks tackles in the open field and creates for himself. Kraft is squarely on the radar of all 32 NFL franchises.

The No. 48 overall player in our latest TDN100 update, Kraft recently spoke exclusively with The Draft Network. Kraft discussed his impending return from a minor ankle injury while thoroughly breaking down his journey to recovery. Kraft also discussed what he offers as a pass-catcher, his well-developed skill set as a run blocker, which tight ends he enjoys studying, overcoming family tragedy and adversity, and so much more.

JM: You suffered a right ankle injury in the regular season opener against Iowa and haven’t played since. Where are you in your recovery process?

Tucker Kraft: I am four weeks and one day removed post-op as of today [Oct. 12]. Today was my first day running. I was sprinting at about 70%. My ankle feels great. I’m not dealing with any pain. I was hammering my PT the entire time I was sidelined. I wanted to know what I could do with my quad, glute, and hamstring to keep myself active and to avoid setbacks. Even my anterior deltoid and calf feel as good as can be.

I was non-weight bearing with a splint for two weeks. Today was my first day running on land. I’ve been in the tub doing sprints on the underwater treadmill with no ankle support the last few days. 

I’m ready to roll. I’m hoping to play this weekend against North Dakota State or next weekend against North Dakota. I was nearly doing full sprints today. We did some cutting as well. I’ve begun getting my route tree back under me. I’ve been hitting the one-man sled. I’ve been working my down blocks. It’s been great. I’m excited to get back out there with the guys.

It was similar to what Trey Lance experienced, but I didn’t break my tibia thankfully. They went in and put two kevlar wires in between my tibia and fibula. The ligament that holds them together was partially torn. 

I was non-weight bearing for two weeks with all the rehab a guy can get on his quad, hamstring, calf, and everything in between. I’m so excited to get back out there with the boys. It’s been a long journey. I need to remind the nation about what I’m capable of as a prospect. I’m excited for that exposure. I’m ready to roll.

JM: We’re excited to witness your return to play. What was the biggest lesson you learned during your stint on the sideline?

Tucker Kraft: I’m a very persistent person. I’m no stranger to adversity. I’ve been handling adversity my entire life. I grew up in a single-parent household. My dad passed away when I was 12 years old.

I really had to rely on my brothers and my mom to play the dad role for me. I’m no stranger to adversity. I just took this process one day at a time. I did what I could to my highest potential. I’m reaping the benefits as we speak.

JM: What did you miss the most about the game during the rehab process?

Tucker Kraft: I definitely miss partying in the end zone (laughs). I miss the camaraderie. When you’re hurt, you feel like you’re on an island. You don’t really feel like anybody knows you still exist. You feel isolated. That’s the toughest part. You’re waking up at 5:00 a.m. every morning to meet the trainers. It takes a lot of determination.

I miss celebrating with my teammates. I miss chasing touchdowns and helping our offense achieve our goals. I’m definitely excited to enjoy that first celebration after a big play (laughs). 

I want to remind everybody that “I’M HIM.” I miss the connection with my guys on the field. You can only do so much from the sidelines. I really had to put my coaching hat on and take this opportunity to pay more attention to learning defensive fronts and the types of coverages I’m seeing when running routes down the field.

JM: What aspects of your game did you work on the most heading into this season?

Tucker Kraft: My ability in pass protection. I knew that was an issue for NFL teams and scouts that had eyes on me. I learned how to get my feet underneath me. I know that everything can’t be perfect on a snap-by-snap basis. I’m trying to focus on things one play at a time. I’ll be better off if I do that as opposed to worrying about a previous mistake.

I also refined my route-running capabilities heading into this season. I spent some time at Lipscomb University with the guys from Tight End University. It gave me an opportunity to train alongside high-level guys that are playing in the pros. That was an amazing experience. I learned a lot about how to get from Point A to Point B with fewer steps. We worked on on-ball and off-ball releases. We worked on one, two, and three-step releases. It was really helpful.

JM: The guys over at Tight End University are so helpful. When we turn the tape on, we see a tight end with terrific athleticism. You make a huge impact as a pass-catcher. How did you develop that aspect of your game?

Tucker Kraft: It honestly came from the style of football I played all throughout high school. It was 9-man, some running back, wildcat, and quarterback. I touched the football on almost every play. My instincts would kick back in. It really improved my football IQ. I see running lanes. I see the potential to put my shoulder down, block a guy and climb to the second level. That was really helpful for me. 

I was a three-sport athlete in high school. Playing multiple sports helps kids develop their skill. I think it’s a lot more beneficial than just focusing on one sport for example. It’s good to dabble and really diversify yourself. It eventually helps you maintain love for a singular sport. It’s about figuring things out.

I don’t like not being “THE GUY.” I’ve always had that mentality. I wasn’t No. 1 on the depth chart when I arrived at South Dakota State. I knew I wanted to be a starter. I wanted to be the best tight end in our position room. What was next? I wanted to be the best player on our offense. Now I want to be the best player on my team, period. Now I want to be the best player in the Missouri Valley Conference while establishing myself as the best tight end in the nation. It’s gradual growth. I’m always thinking of what comes next. That’s where it starts. 

You gotta have that dog mentality. I hate being second best. I hate complacency. That’s really how I’ve developed as a player. That’s how I carry myself. I’m really fortunate to have had support and backing from the people around me since I was a child. 

I was raised the right way. My entire family has that mentality. We keep pushing forward no matter what. Just move. Get up and keep going.

JM: It shows in your attitude. You’re a great route-runner as well. You’re extremely savvy to uncover in all three areas of the field. How do you approach route running? What are some of the ways you create separation?

Tucker Kraft: Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to showcase any of this yet, but I worked really hard throughout the summer. I learned so much. I took a lot of stuff home with me from Tight End University and I’ve tried to help the guys in my room like Zach Heins and Michael Morgan.

I was fortunate to learn down there and unfortunate to the point where I haven’t been able to use it yet. I was excited to put some things on film. I’m excited to showcase my ability to create separation because I got a lot better as a straight-line runner. I’m attacking leverage with more success. I’m pushing toward defenders and snapping vertically more efficiently. I’m creating space with my wingspan. That’s a big one for me. I have a 6-foot-9 wingspan. I’ve never really used it because I was always too afraid to draw offensive pass interference calls.

 I’ve become more football savvy. I have a better understanding of the rules in general. Your off-ball release is so important. You win or lose routes with your off-ball release. 

JM: Sticking with this topic, do you have a favorite route to run?

Tucker Kraft: Not really. I love any downfield, out-breaking, or in-breaking route. I’d point to any route that makes me use my athleticism to my advantage. I love being placed in a position to showcase my capability to bend. 

Say I’m running a corner route and he has outside leverage on me. I love threatening the defender outside before breaking back in across his face, restacking my hips on him and breaking back out. If the quarterback doesn’t go away from the read because it looks like I don’t have leverage, I love that route because it forces me to use my athleticism. I like the challenge.

JM: You played some basketball in high school, averaging 14.2 points and 8.0 rebounds per game. Did that experience make you a better tight end? If so, how?

Tucker Kraft: Yeah, I think it did. I hope I’m in the league someday and SportsCenter shows a highlight of me playing some basketball after I make an extraordinary catch on Sunday (laughs). Maybe a clip of me dunking gets thrown into the montage. 

I think basketball teaches elite change of direction skills. There’s obviously a lot of jumping involved. I definitely think my background in basketball played a role in my development as a tight end.

I have to give credit to my brothers as well. They used to chase me around the court after I fouled them too hard (laughs). I had to get savvy with my two brothers because they’re tanks (laughs). 

JM: That’s hilarious. You do terrific work in the running game. You align in-line or attached at the hip of the tackle. You’re powerful at the point of attack. What do you enjoy about contributing as a run blocker?

Tucker Kraft: What really got me dedicated to my abilities as a blocker is that I knew if I wanted to get on the field in our downhill running offense, I had to start by learning our run game and blocking really well.

If you can play the “Y” position in our offense, you’re basically in the game on every snap. If you’re a “Y”, you’re on the field. If you can block, you’re also going to be running routes. I knew that. We’re not going to swap guys on and off the field because that becomes a telltale sign. If he’s in the game, it’s a pass. If he’s in the game in a heavy package, it’s run. We don’t want to tip our hand.

Run blocking was a way for me to establish myself and launch my career. I wanted to absolutely dominate guys. You know that face they make when they’re falling backward and you plant them on their backs? It’s a different kind of feeling.

JM: We love that (laughs). Do you prefer to play in-line or detached?

Tucker Kraft: I don’t think it really matters to me. In our offense, and the way we moved things around before I got injured, I would start as the No. 1 on the field to the boundary before getting motioned in and cracking down on a defensive end. I would line up and we’d run gap-scheme power. I may sit outside on the perimeter and pick someone off so we can get the play started with a bubble screen. 

It doesn’t matter where I line up. Our coaches believe I have the athleticism necessary to make the play regardless of where I line up. I can create positive plays for myself.

JM: Your passion for blocking pops on tape. South Dakota State is sometimes referred to as a “small school” being that it’s an FCS program. That may lead to some labeling you as a “small-school” prospect throughout the NFL draft process. I remember Dallas Goedert experiencing that when he came out. How do you typically respond to that?

Tucker Kraft: I don’t know about that. I keep getting told by our offensive coordinator Zach Lujan that Goedert specifically would have been a first-round draft pick had he managed to run the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. Goedert didn’t get that chance. Our offensive coordinator [Lujan] actually played quarterback at South Dakota State when Goedert was with us. He’s probably one of the smartest, youngest offensive coordinators in the nation.

I really don’t think it matters. I’ve held discussions with prominent NFL agents that absolutely refuse to believe that I’ll be regarded as a small-school prospect. My frame and skill set separates me from other FCS prospects. It changes the conversation.  

I’ve held discussions with my family and teammates. I’ve heard that question before. I’m 100% prepared for people to say that to my face. I want people to tell me that I played FCS football. People might say that the defensive linemen were hardly over 260 pounds. I’ve been asked that question a lot. I let my play speak for itself.

JM: That’s the best way to handle that question. What’s the best game you’ve ever played in a South Dakota State jersey up until this point in your opinion?

Tucker Kraft: The best game I’ve played that we won was probably the two-and-a-half quarters I played against Indiana State. We shut them out in that game. Colorado State was probably my first big game. I’ve played well in some games that we lost as well. I think back to Southern Illinois and Northern Iowa. We lost to them in back-to-back weeks. I probably had 20 catches and 250 receiving yards combined across those two games. 

JM: Which tight ends do you enjoy watching, studying, and learning from? You’ve talked about your experience at Tight End University.

Tucker Kraft: There are so many great tight ends in the league. You have guys like Mark Andrews, Travis Kelce, George Kittle, Robert Tonyan, Marcedes Lewis, Darren Waller, and Mike Gesicki. The list goes on and on. I love watching individual players. I don’t root for a team.

I definitely enjoy watching Kittle. He’s a traditional run game guy too. He blocks really well. He doesn’t get enough credit for that. If you have a guy on your roster like Deebo Samuel who’s versatile enough to give you explosive plays from the backfield because you can set the edge and collapse the line of scrimmage on one side, that’s more rewarding than anything.

Screw the fantasy points. That’s not what we play the game for. Kittle embodies that. He [Kittle] comes down and plays as an extra tackle. That’s just as much fun as catching a five-yard route. It’s all the same at the end of the day. If you’re dominant in the run game and you get out there and catch a ball, that gives you a balanced offense. You can make defenses pay, especially when you’re running the ball with consistency. That wears a defense down more than anything, even more than throwing a deep ball every third play. 

JM: That’s an excellent point and Kittle is the perfect example. You’ve referenced adversity and tragedy throughout this conversation. You grew up in a single-parent household. Your mother overcame some difficult moments. What did that teach you about hard work and perseverance?

Tucker Kraft: I think of the path I took to college. I knew I wanted to play college football after my junior year, but I wasn’t sure what my position would be moving forward. I thought I might be a linebacker, wide receiver, or defensive linemen. My first camp at South Dakota State, I was in the conditioning room. I was 6-foot-4 and I weighed 230-235 pounds. I reached the positions table and they asked me what position I felt I was. I said wide receiver. They looked at me and said nope, tight end (laughs). That works for me. My dad played both wide receiver and tight end. My brother played tight end in college.

It was an easy decision for me, minus the fact I had maybe played three total snaps at tight end throughout high school (laughs). I never put my hand in the dirt until I arrived at South Dakota State. That was tough for me initially. I almost wanted to give up. Our defensive line coach was rooting for me to get moved over to go play 3-technique for him.

I had to push through that. I learned to play in an 11-man offense. I was a kid that literally heard the words, “OK Tucker, run right” in high school (laughs). Our offense was really that simple. It’s amazing to think about now.

I still remember the day my father passed away and we got that phone call. It was very sudden. It was really hard on my mom. She almost didn’t get out of bed for the first year and a half. And now she’s a terrific mother and grandmother. She pushed through. She overcame it. My brothers and the men in my community really came together to help raise me. They looked after me. I’ll forever be thankful for that. I’m in this position right now because of that and because of them.

One of my favorite verses from the Bible is Romans 8:28. It talks about how everything really does happen for a reason. We grew up on a ranch. Maybe I wouldn’t have made it in football if I didn’t have adversity. Maybe I’d be lining two miles of fence right now. Maybe I’d be helping my dad on the ranch. I wouldn’t make it to my 3:00 p.m. lift in the summertime. 

Things like that shaped me. It made me different. It set me on the correct path.

JM: It certainly did. That’s a terrific answer and we’re going to end this beautiful conversation on that note. I’ve appreciated your time today. In closing, what are your goals for the remainder of the season as you prepare to make your triumphant return?

Tucker Kraft: I want to put quality reps on film. I want to make the most of the games I have left on our schedule. I want to showcase that I’m still a formidable foe on the line of scrimmage. I’m going to prove that I can still run past defensive backs on the second level. I can string together moves in the open field and create yards after catch for myself. 

I’m not favoring my ankle or anything like that. I’m still battling for my guys every single rep. I really just want people to see that I’m still a warrior.

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Justin Melo