Statestify! Travis Kelce is Quietly Having an Outstanding Season

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Most of the preseason storylines surrounding the Bearcats focused on Cincinnati replacing Zach Collaros at quarterback, Isaiah Pead at runningback, and Derek Wolfe and John Hughes at defensive tackle. Losing such talented playmakers at key positions was surely going to be affect this year’s team. But in spite of those changes there was a lot to like heading into the 2012 season. Most proponents of UC football pointed to the loads of experience in Cincinnati’s secondary and the extremely talented wide receiver unit as reasons why the Bearcats wouldn’t see much dropoff in 2012.

As the season has progressed some units lived up to the hype, such as the defensive backs who have been as disruptive as ever. And some stars emerged such as George Winn who’s seemed to fill the void in the spotlight left by Isaiah Pead admirably. In addition the offensive line has been absolutely phenomenal this year, blowing up defensive fronts and in general protecting Cincinnati’s quarterback very well. Overall there have been a lot of bright spots on this team.

But you know who’s playing outside of his mind this year yet somehow flown under the radar? Travis Kelce.

For whatever reason the Cincinnati tight end been somewhat lost in the mix with other Bearcats getting so much praise. Kelce is putting up some very good numbers thus far; 23 catches for 422 yards and 4 touchdowns. He leads Cincinnati in receiving yards, receiving touchdowns, and is among the most targeted Bearcats each game. Among other tight ends in the country Kelce is 14th in yards, within the top-20 in touchdowns, and his 18.3 yards per reception place him in the top-5 in that category. Clearly the coaching staff has tried their darnedest to get their dangerous tight end involved in the passing game as much as possible.

At UC the mark of a great tight end was set by Brent Celek who is probably best known for this historic catch and run in Cincinnati’s upset of the 7th ranked Rutgers Scarlet Knights. The current Philadelphia Eagle is the Bearcats’ single season touchdown reception leader among tight ends with the 8 he caught in 2004. Probably his best overall season was in 2006 as a senior when he caught 35 passes for 481 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Travis Kelce has the potential to shatter those numbers. With Cincinnati now bowl eligible and guaranteed a 13th game, the UC tight end is on pace to catch 33 passes for over 600 yards receiving and almost 6 touchdowns.

Conversely Adrien Robinson didn’t put up the best stats while a Cincinnati Bearcat. I’ve always chalked this up to the inability of quarterback Zach Collaros to find him over the middle of the field. Collaros’ height made it difficult for him to see over offensive linemen and locate the tight end between the haskmarks. As a result Robinson’s numbers suffered. But the UC tight end had the measurables to attractive the attention of the pros. Plus his 4.56-forty time had NFL teams drooling. Robinson was ultimately drafted by the New York Giants because of his extraordinary showing in front of the scouts.

Getting back to Travis Kelce I’ve always figured he had a strong shot at being drafted next April. My belief has only been bolstered with the type of season he is having. When comparing him to Cincinnati’s two previously drafted tight ends, I’d say Travis Kelce most resembles Brent Celek than Adrien Robinson. Both had solid size and speed but Celek was more fleet of foot than Robinson and had a much better resume at Cincinnati. Kelce and Celek appear to be more pass-catching tight ends who can block if needed whereas Robinson is a blocking tight end who can catch the ball. Regardless of their similarities and differences, Travis Kelce should find himself on a pro roster next year as a member of a league that’s increasingly understood the value of the tight end.

Since Bill Belichick took over the head coaching duties in New England, the Patriots have been trend setters in the NFL. Recently they’ve set the norm by emphasizing the tight end in their offense. It sure helps that they have physical anomalies such as Rob Gronkowski running around but Belichick has written the formula for successfully working tight ends into the spread.

As teams at both the collegiate and professional levels started to adopt more spread looks, the tight end, mainly used to block on running plays, was starting to go the way of the fullback who was also primarily used in ground-and-pound offenses. Coaches simply didn’t know what to do with their tight ends who were thought of as glorified offensive tackles who could sort of catch the football but most of the time weren’t agile enough to run complex routes. Recently as coaches like Belichick have gotten more and more creative with their formations they’ve found tight ends to be especially valuable when passing the football.

That value lies in their versatility. A tight end can line up on the outside like a wide receiver exploiting smaller defensive backs (a la Jimmy Graham in New Orleans) and still line up next to the offensive line exploiting slower linebackers. That’s the beauty of the tight end. In modern offenses they can be placed all over the field in an attempt to take advantage of mismatches whenever possible.

If you’ve noticed, that’s the kind of thing Travis Kelce has been doing all season at Cincinnati. One play he’ll position himself just on the inside of Kenbrell Thompkins and the next he’ll have his hand in the ground to the left of Eric Lefeld. This creates confusion the defense and is why Kelce has been one of the most dangerous receiving threats Butch Jones has had in his arsenal.

I’m not sure if Cincinnati’s tight end will keep up this torrid pace and continue to lead the Bearcats in receiving yards and touchdowns. He’s sure going to continue to be targeted at least 5 times per game which is as many if not more than Kenbrell Thompkins and Anthony McClung. But what he’s done so far has put him right up there with some of the best tight ends in UC history and will surely cause his named to be called by Roger Goodell in late April of next year.