Tight ends following Pitts’ example

Michael Jordan took the basketball world by storm in the 1980s and ’90s, and millions of kids have tried to emulate his once-in-a-generation type of career ever since. Gatorade famously produced a commercial with the catchy song “Be Like Mike.”

Former Gator and first round pick to be Kyle Pitts had a similar impact on UF’s tight ends. He’s a role model and somebody they can try to imitate.

“Kyle Pitts was an amazing teammate,” tight ends coach Tim Brewster said. “He tried to help others get better, shared his knowledge. It wasn’t about him. It was about the team. Kemore Gamble, Keon Zipperer, [Jonathan] Odom, [Nick] Elksnis now, who’s here, everybody took so much excitement in watching the way that Pitts played. Now everybody wants to be like Pitts. It’s not be like Mike; it’s be like Kyle. We had an amazing year together, and he not only rubbed off on the room, but he rubbed off on the team. And I think everybody celebrated his accomplishments. It was a really special year with him.”

Of course, when Brewster talks about being “like Kyle,” he’s referring to Pitts’ work ethic and team-first mentality. It’s unfair to expect anybody to dominate games the ways Pitts did. Pitts is 6-foot-6 and 246 pounds and runs like a wide receiver. He greatly improved as a blocker in his third year. Head coach Dan Mullen referred to Pitts as a unicorn on several occasions because of his rare combination of athleticism and physicality. Unless you have a unicorn of your own playing defense, you can’t cover him.

He left Florida as the school’s all-time leader in receiving yards by a tight end and second in receptions. He set another school record with 12 touchdown catches in 2020 and became the first tight end to finish in the top-10 in Heisman voting in 43 years.

Brewster wants his current players to take those intangible things that they learned from Pitts and apply them to their own games.

“It’s not fair for anybody to try to be Kyle Pitts,” he said. “He’s generational. He’s just absolutely different in his skillsets and the things that he can do. I do exactly what you just said: I take Kemore Gamble and I say, ‘Let’s extenuate the things that you do. Let’s not try to be Kyle. Let’s not do the things Kyle did, but let’s be the best version of you that you possibly can be, and let’s look at the areas that you need to improve and let’s work on them.’”

While there might not be a generational talent at the position in 2021, Brewster is excited about the group he has to work with.

Redshirt senior Kemore Gamble is the veteran leader of the group. He’s caught 17 passes in his career, including a big touchdown against Georgia last year after Pitts left the game with a concussion and a nose injury. He’s working on improving his blocking this offseason to make himself a three-down player.

“I think he’s gotten stronger,” Brewster said. “He’s being more competitive. He needed to improve in the run game, but he’s really showing that he can be a complete player as well. I think that’s the biggest thing that I tried to do with Kyle Pitts, was make him a more complete player. I think his development as a run blocker from his second year to his third year, I think was very noticeable. I think right now Kemore’s doing the same thing. Had a great day [Wednesday], really great practice.”

Junior Keon Zipperer is a bit short at 6-foot-3, but he was considered one of the top tight ends in his class. He’s a great athlete who has the potential to be basically a taller wide receiver like Pitts was. He can be a mismatch problem for opposing defenses. He caught three passes for 47 yards and a pair of touchdowns against Arkansas last season with Pitts out.

“Keon Zipperer’s really stepping up and showing more athleticism,” Brewster said. “I challenged him to be more athletic on the field and make plays in the running game. He’s extremely strong in the run game, but I want him to be more athletic. In this offense, we want the tight end to really be dynamic, truly be dynamic, and he’s stepping up.”

Odom played in four games as a freshman last season. He’s a big guy at 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, so much so that there’s been some speculation that he might move to offensive tackle down the road with the numbers at tight end piling up. His blocking is ahead of his receiving at this point in his career.

And then there’s Elksnis, an early enrollee freshman who possesses a nice combination of size and athleticism. Fellow 2021 signee Gage Wilcox will enroll over the summer.

“We’ve got, I think, a really talented room,” Brewster said. “Everybody’s worried about us losing Kyle Pitts, and we’re certainly going to miss Kyle and everything he brought to it, but I think these other guys are really going to do some great things next season.”

Of course, the biggest reason for optimism hasn’t made it on campus yet. LSU transfer Arik Gilbert, the highest-ranked tight end in the history of recruiting rankings, has given Florida his verbal pledge and is expected to enroll this summer.

Because he’s yet to enroll or sign anything official, Brewster isn’t permitted to publicly discuss Gilbert. He did, however, say that the future of the tight end position looks bright in Gainesville.

“It’s awesome, man,” he said. “It really is. For me as the tight end coach, I’m in the dream spot. I mean, there’s tight ends all over America that are calling and wanting to be part of this offense at the University of Florida. They’ve seen what Pitts did. I kind of kid Dan, I wish I could take three tight ends this year because, right now, the excitement level with players in the country, tight ends in the country, they want to be Gators. And I bring great passion and energy to selling what makes this place great and the position.”

On that front, Pitts made Brewster’s job a heck of a lot easier. After all, who doesn’t want to be like Kyle?

Ethan was born in Gainesville and has lived in the Starke, Florida, area his entire life. He played basketball for five years and knew he wanted to be a sportswriter when he was in middle school. He’s attended countless Gators athletic events since his early childhood, with baseball being his favorite sport to attend. He’s a proud 2019 graduate of the University of Florida and a 2017 graduate of Santa Fe College. He interned with the University Athletic Association’s communications department for 1 ½ years as a student and has spent the last two football seasons writing for InsideTheGators.com. He is a long-suffering fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tampa Bay Rays. You can follow him on Twitter @ehughes97.