By Tom Luicci
PISCATAWAY, N.J. (Aug. 3, 2014) – The easy part for Rutgers tight end Tyler Kroft was last season, when he burst onto the scene unannounced, emerging as the team’s leading receiver after having been little more than a bit player the previous year.
Now comes the tough part – living up to the expectations. And there are plenty: A spot on the Mackey Award Watch List already, recognition as one of the top players at his position in the Big Ten, a figurative bull’s eye on his jersey because of his production a year ago.
No big deal, says the 6-6, 240-pound fourth-year junior from Downingtown, Pa.
“I’m not worried about everyone else’s expectations,” Kroft said. “Like I’ve said before, I have high expectations for myself and I’m going to try to reach them this year.”
What else would you expect from a player who learned he’d made first-team all-AAC last season – the first Rutgers player to earn that distinction at the position since Clark Harris in 2006 – via text from a friend?
“I was kind of sitting in my room with (running back) Paul James and one of my friends texted me (saying ) `awesome man, you made first team (all-AAC),’ ” said Kroft. “P.J (who also made first team) and I room together and we looked at each other and said `Oh, wow.’
“We didn’t realize it. Neither of us knew.”
Though he arrived at Rutgers with enormous promise, Kroft didn’t deliver on it until last season, when he led the Scarlet Knights in receiving yards (573) and receptions (43) while catching four touchdown passes. He was the only player to catch a pass every game.
All of that production happened after a redshirt freshman season in 2012 in which he appeared in 11 games but caught just three passes for 59 yards.
Now, suddenly, he’s a rising star, regarded as one of the top players nationally at his position and viewed as one of the biggest threats in Rutgers’ passing game. Yet he insists he has not been swept up in any of it.
“I’ve always kind of had that high standard set for myself. But I guess it is a little dizzying having other people recognize it,” he said. “But I’ve always seen it in myself and I guess that is coming to fruition. I guess it is a little dizzying coming from everyone else but, overall, it’s not too bad.
“People come up to me and talk to me about watch lists and stuff but I’m kind of like `yeah, it’s all good and everything but I’ve got to produce this year and keep doing what I’m doing.’ ”
If Kroft continues his career ascent, he knows that will get him a shot at his goal of playing in the NFL. It’s why he doesn’t measure himself against fellow college tight ends but does so against those now in the pros.
“I compare myself more to the NFL tight ends because that’s kind of my aspiration,” he said. “I had an interview last year and we were talking about Jason Witten for a little while. I focus on players who have sustained a career in the NFL and try to emulate that.”
But there is one college goal he researched that he hopes to make a run at: Former all-America tight end Marco Battaglia’s school record of 10 touchdown catches in a season (tied in 2012 by Brandon Coleman).
“I think Marco had nine or 10 TDs,” he said. “That’s what I looked for. I was like `all right I’m going to try to get that this year.’ But I’m also going to try to play my game.
“Obviously, I wasn’t expecting anything huge last year and something came of it so I’m going to do the same thing this year and keep working hard and try to do my best.”