The news that New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski retired took North Texas coach Seth Littrell down memory lane this week.
Littrell has coached plenty of great players during his career. Gronkowski was among the best. The two crossed paths when Littrell was the tight ends coach and offensive coordinator at Arizona.
“Gronk’s a stud,” Littrell said. “He loved ball. There are not many guys like him, because of the things he was able to do at the position.”
UNT is in search of the closest facsimile it can find this spring, when the Mean Green are trying to make the tight end a bigger part of their offense as part of an offseason shakeup.
The Mean Green lost offensive coordinator Graham Harrell to USC and wide receivers coach Joel Filani to Texas Tech. Those moves offered Littrell an opening to return to his roots offensively, including making the tight end a bigger part of the Mean Green scheme.
UNT brought in Bodie Reeder as offensive coordinator and added Adrian Mayes as tight ends coach. Mayes is the first full-time tight ends coach UNT has employed during a Littrell tenure entering its fourth season.
“Bringing in a tight ends coach is an indication we want to do more there,” Littrell said. “We have underutilized that position. I want to get back to some of what I have done in the past.”
That includes playing with one, and sometimes two, tight ends on the field. Littrell sees those formations as an opportunity to put more pressure on defenses by keeping the same players on the field and pushing the pace offensively.
Those possibilities are exciting for Kelvin Smith, a player who stands to benefit more than any other on UNT’s roster from an increased emphasis on the position.
Smith, who weighs 243 pounds, has played both as an attached tight end and in the slot. He finished with 29 catches for 269 yards last season and could see his role expand.
“I have seen it a lot in practice,” Smith said. “We have been running a lot of different personnel and flexing out. It’s a lot of what I have done in the last two years — it’s just a bigger part of the offense. I am excited about it. It will help the offense because we won’t have to sub as much and can keep up the pace.”
Mayes has been impressed with Smith and the overall talent he has to work with heading into his first season with the Mean Green. He was one of the last assistant coaches to join Littrell’s staff and has spent the last few weeks getting to know his players.
Former wide receiver Jason Pirtle, redshirt freshman Cole McCrary and Kyleb Howell round out the tight ends Mayes is working with this spring.
Mayes helped Keenen Brown earn first-team All-Sun Belt Conference honors at Texas State last season, when Brown was named a Pro Football Focus first-team All-American.
“We have a lot of talent,” Mayes said. “Kelvin is a talented guy — maybe more talented than the guy I coached last season who should be drafted this April. He is a tough kid. I am excited to work with him and help him develop into a top-notch guy in Conference USA.”
Smith and Mayes already have begun to build the rapport that Littrell says is vital when it comes to his staff getting the best out of players. Smith said he was excited to hear that Littrell had hired a tight ends coach because it indicates his role could expand.
“He has a good sense of humor and is flexible,” Smith said of Mayes. “He’s learning about us and how we play.
“He’ll be able to develop us.”
The prospect of involving tight ends more is one that quarterback Mason Fine is excited about because of the versatility it will offer UNT’s offense.
“We have more formations this year and will be able to call more plays with the tight end involved,” Fine said.
That’s just what Littrell did at Arizona, where he had one of the best tight ends to play the game in Gronkowski.
Smith isn’t the equal of the five-time Pro Bowl selection. Thanks to the changes UNT is making this offseason, he’ll get an opportunity to offer up his best impression in the fall.