When the Pittsburgh Steelers used their fifth-round draft pick on a tight end, not many were surprised at that point. They knew that it had to be addressed with the loss of Jesse James in free agency. That it was Zach Gentry, a player who had marginal experience at the position at the college level, had a lot of people confused, and others upset.
That would be a fair way to describe the first conversation that Gentry had with Michigan Head Coach Jim Harbaugh when he was approached during his freshman season about making a position switch from quarterback to tight end.
It’s a story that he recalled while speaking to Will Graves of the Associated Press recently during training camp. He recalls juking a defender too well during one practice, prompting Harbaugh’s attention, who approached him about working on the scout team at wide receiver.
When he was ultimately told that the team wanted him to change positions on a full-time basis, he said, “I was really upset. I tried to transfer”. A lot of players take it hard when they are asked to change positions, and that can be particularly sensitive at the quarterback position. See Tim Tebow, Terrell Pryor, and Lamar Jackson for some examples. But cooler heads ultimately prevailed.
“Coach Harbaugh kind of sat me down a handful of times and explained that if I stick it out, do his regiment and do what I’m supposed to do, I’d go to the NFL as a tight end”, Gentry said. “I didn’t want to believe him because I wanted to play quarterback. But I believe in him and his record with tight ends. I just stuck it out and luckily everything happened the way it did”.
During his junior and senior seasons at Michigan over the past two years, the rookie tight end caught 49 passes for 817 yards and four touchdowns. He caught 32 passes in 2018 for 514 yards, maintaining a 16.1-yard-per-catch average.
While he still has a lot of work to do in every facet of his game, particularly in the blocking department, one thing he has shown has been a consistent willingness to put in the effort toward improvement. And he has flashed his potential playmaking ability as a receiver as well, making good use of his 6’8” frame.
While he should probably be regarded as the frontrunner to earn the number three tight end spot behind Vance McDonald and Xavier Grimble right now, he does have competition, particularly from Christian Scotland-Williamson and Kevin Rader.
And if none of them perform up to a certain level in which the Steelers front office and coaching staff feels comfortable, it’s equally possible that the team will acquire another tight end from outside the organization, either via trade or from cuts. There are even a couple of veteran names out there, though that would be more of a last resort.