NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas
His University of Nevada Wolf Pack teammates called him “Flint,” because all it took was one catch for him to fire up the offense. Now, his New England Patriots teammates call him “Sunshine,” because his long locks draw resemblance to Ronnie Bass from Remember the Titans.
But regardless of the nicknames he has been given, tight end Zach Sudfeld is trying to make his own name in the NFL. And that begins with him making New England’s 53-man roster as an undrafted rookie.
Not so long ago, just being in NFL training camp seemed like an unfathomable opportunity for the Modesto, Calif., native.
After redshirting during his walk-on freshman season in 2007, shoulder, wrist and knee problems kept Sudfeld off the field for all of 2008. By the 2009 season, No. 44 had recovered and fought his way onto the field via special teams. Then in 2010, Sudfeld was able to record four starts as well as his first collegiate catch.
His redshirt senior campaign of 2011 was materializing into a promising one. Sudfeld had earned the starting nod in the season opener against Oregon. He registered a reception early on, too.
Ultimately, Sudfeld’s three-yard grab would end up being his first and final statistic of the 2011 season. Plays later, his leg encountered the wrong end of a block.
It snapped completely.
The 6’7”, 260-pounder left that game versus the Ducks on a stretcher. With four surgeries already on his college resume, there was a strong possibility that the then-fifth-year senior would never play football again.
Although for Sudfeld, that possibility was something he refused to let become a reality.
Following a fifth and sixth surgery, Sudfeld was back rehabbing, determined to make a go of whatever chance he had left. The NCAA granted him a chance in the form of a medical hardship, which meant that Sudfeld found himself with a sixth year of college eligibility.
He made it count.
As a veteran member of Nevada’s Pistol offense, Sudfeld hauled in 45 passes for 598 yards and eight touchdowns in 2012. In the process, the can’t-miss target garnered recognition as a Mackey Award semifinalist — an award bestowed upon the best tight end in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision.
He caught passes. He blocked for ball-carriers. He did whatever head coach Chris Ault needed him to do during his time in Reno. Nevertheless, with an injury history as long as a grocery list, even a 4.71 40-yard dash, a 7.00 three-cone time and a 9’5” broad jump at his pro day couldn’t get Sudfeld drafted come April.
The Patriots took an interest in the hours after, and Sudfeld has been a storyline worth monitoring ever since. Yet in order to understand what kind of player Sudfeld could potentially become for the Patriots, it’s important to understand what kind of player Sudfeld was for the Wolf Pack.
He was — and is — a player of three dimensions.
First Dimension: After the Catch
Jason Phillips — a former NFL wideout and current Southern Methodist offensive coordinator — once said, “I’m looking for playmakers. I’m not looking for possession receivers. I can find tight ends to do that.”
What Phillips meant is that being an effective pass-catcher is about more than catching the pass. It’s about staying on your feet, turning upfield and making a play.
The question is: What if wide receivers aren’t the only ones who can serve as playmakers?
Against Air Force on Oct. 26, 2012, Sudfeld provided some food for thought.
On a 2nd-and-7, Sudfeld set up off-line as part of Nevada’s “12” personnel with one running back and two tight ends. Countering that, the Falcons operated out of a 3-3 front with the safeties cheating up.
The defense’s bunched look permitted Sudfeld to quietly slip out to the flats as quarterback Cody Fajardo took the snap from shotgun and delivered the ball his way.
Sudfeld twisted his head around just as the pass sailed in. He reached his arms back and secured the ball palms-up. It was swift catch that needed to be, seeing how two Air Force defenders were closing in.
Even with the ball thrown behind him, Sudfeld’s feet stayed active through reception. He didn’t slow down. In turn, he gave himself enough time pick up the first down and redirect as a defensive back approached. But with Sudfeld headed outside the numbers and the defensive back headed towards the sideline, the tight end was able to maneuver past the tackle with a stiff arm.
Sudfeld’s subtle turn and push-off propelled him up for another 13 yards. His vision through the defense netted a 20-yard gain before he was finally brought down at the 50.
Making plays after the catch is critical to an offense’s success. So when a tight end is able to do so just as well as a wide receiver, it adds another element to the passing attack.
Second Dimension: Blocking
The value of the tight end position is ever-changing along with the rise of pass-first offenses from high school to the pros. Nonetheless, at the position’s very core is the prerequisite of blocking.
In a November interview with Wolf Pack Athletics, Sudfeld reaffirmed that sentiment and explained its merit in the Nevada football program:
“A Nevada tight end isn’t just someone who catches the ball. You better be able to block,” Sudfeld said. “That’s something you learn when you first get here. If you can’t block, you don’t get to see the field.”
With seasoning, Sudfeld proved he could block. He showcased his ability to do so versus Boise State on Dec. 1 of 2012.
Aligned as an H-back on a 3rd-and-5, Sudfeld was orchestrated to pull to the right C-gap after Nevada’s slot receiver went in motion through the backfield. The plan was to deceive the Broncos’ 3-3 “Under” defense enough so that the zone blocking scheme could create an opening on the right side of the field for a QB keeper.
It worked. Fajardo took the snap and faked the handoff to Stefphan Jefferson, all while Sudfeld swung in front.
Sudfeld quickly manned his territory, sunk his hips and zeroed in on the weakside linebacker. Fajardo followed his lead.
Sudfeld engaged his block, managing to stay as low as his long frame would allow him to. It wasn’t clear-cut leverage victory for Sudfeld, it was simply enough for Fajardo to evade through the second level behind him.
Sudfeld fell to the turf as his knee bend carried his momentum off-kilter. Still, his efforts came to fruition with a fresh set of downs, and then some.
Thanks to Sudfeld’s lane-clearing, Fajardo scrambled through the defense for a gain of eight and a first.
Sudfeld may not be the most powerful blocker. He may not be ideal for in-line pass protection, either. That being said, he is very difficult to fend off when he is running downhill. And in Nevada’s fast-paced offense, he was running downhill a lot.
The gameplan was tailored to his skill set. His efficiency confirmed that.
According to Ben Volin of The Boston Globe, Sudfeld graded out as a 94.6 percent blocker last fall. He led all FBS tight ends with 24 blocks resulting in scores; 19 of which came during run plays, five of which came during pass plays.
Not bad for a guy who could only muster 11 bench reps of 225 pounds at his pro day.
Third Dimension: End Zone
With his high school basketball background and his height equivalent to an NBA small forward, Sudfeld wears a bull’s eye on the football field. That bull’s eye is magnified near the end zone. Sudfeld averaged one touchdown every 5.6 receptions in 2012 and had a five-game TD streak from Sept. 15 to Oct. 13.
He hit a dry spell over his next five contests, but Sudfeld found pay dirt once again versus the Arizona Wildcats in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl on Dec. 15 of 2012.
On a 1st-and-10 at the Wildcats’ 28-yard line, Sudfeld stood in a three-point stance opposite Arizona’s outside linebacker. The “Y” tight end was prepared to run a wheel route off the edge.
As Fajardo handled the snap, Sudfeld burst out of his stance and brushed his arms around the inside shoulder of his man. That rapid release and physical push-off left the backer on all fours while Sudfeld remained on his two feet.
Out of his initial three steps, the route-runner kept his pad level low to gain acceleration towards the open field.
By running to the outskirts, Sudfeld generated a size mismatch that could be exploited. Fajardo exploited it, taking a shot deep down the right sideline.
Strides ahead of the defensive back shading him, Sudfeld rotated his head back towards to football. The key was for him to maintain straight-line speed while tracking the ball.
The smaller defensive back was unable to do the same.
Sudfeld increased separation while setting his eyes forward. Looking overhead, he watched the ball spiral into his open hands and harnessed the catch through to the end zone. It was good for a 28-yard score.
With the Patriots’ tight end depth in a state of uncertainty, Sudfeld’s unexpected arrival could give way to unexpected emergence.
He is oft-injured and he is lean in terms of upper-body strength. But what the 24-year-old brings to the table is multifaceted upside. He’s mobile with the ball in hands, he’s an aggressive blocker, he’s a red-zone threat.
While expectations must be tempered, there’s reason to believe Sudfeld will do more than make New England’s final roster in September.
There’s reason to believe he will make an impact.