Call it K-Train? Bucs rookie Ko Kieft brings back dimension to attack

TAMPA — While creamsicle jerseys and Bucco Bruce helmets won’t be recycled for a regular-season game until at least 2023, the Bucs could still go retro this fall.

After years of inactivity, the fullback could — just might — resurface in the Tampa Bay offense.

We saw him on Saturday night against the Dolphins, on more than one play. Quarterback directly under center, tailback deep in the backfield and 6-foot-5, 265-pound rookie tight end Ko Kieft settled between the two. It was Kieft – lifelong wrestler and thug – who helped provide the impetus for Ke’Shawn Vaughn’s 1-yard push in the second quarter.

“Ko can play with the ball and he can play with the ball,” coach Todd Bowles said.

“He’s a good blocker, we understand that. That’s why we got it. So it’s not necessarily just the full-back position, but it allows us to get into different formations and do different things.

A generation after the A-Train (aka Mike Alstott) last entered the figurative repository, the Bucs may have encountered a lead-blocking locomotive of a different type. Focus on different.

Ko is his legal name, an abbreviated derivative of the name of a great-grandfather (Jakobus) who immigrated from the Netherlands and would have been 100 years old on the day Ko Jason Kieft was born (January 20, 1998). In a locker room mostly filled with hip-hop, he focuses on old-school thrash metal (i.e. Metallica, Slayer) before games.

And in a time when tight ends have all but evolved into full-size slot receivers, Kieft – who totaled 12 catches in six seasons at Minnesota — was brought in to block, plain and simple.

“Any kind of run blocking, pass (protection), I’m your man,” Kieft said the day the Bucs drafted him with the 218th overall pick late in the sixth round. “I’m going to mess with the worst of them. It’s my role.

Consciously or not, he spent most of his life preparing for this role.

A quarterback and linebacker in high school, Kieft reckons he’s been wrestling since he was 4 years old. Not just any struggle, but Iowa struggle. He grew up in Sioux Center — which has fewer than 10,000 residents and is renowned for its strong Dutch heritage — in the northwest corner of the state.

On some nights, an audience of about one-fifth of the city’s population would flock to the gymnasium at Sioux Center High for duos matches. An elbow injury derailed Kieft’s sophomore year, but he was a state setter his final two seasons, wielding all the required attributes (strength, hand quickness, hip flexibility) of a top contender. level.

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Perhaps just as important, he was able to combine ferocity with focus, said longtime Warriors coach Aaron Schmidt.

“I can probably use the word ‘wicked,'” Schmidt said. “Not in a negative connotation, but I would say he was decidedly aggressive, that’s how he strategically attacks things on the football pitch as well.

“You have guys who are wrestlers who just go crazy and they lose focus, and it goes haywire. (Kieft) would be super-physical, super-aggressive and get more focused as things like that happen.

Kieft’s (6-foot-3, 225-pound) burgeoning agility and frame prompted Minnesota to offer him late in the recruiting process. Over time, he’s become a critical and notable blocking component (flowing mane of red hair) for a Gophers offense that ranked 27th nationally in rushing (198.1 yards per game) in 2021.

He just wasn’t certain he would become an NFL draft pick.

Kieft wasn’t invited to the NFL combine and didn’t impress anyone with his 40-yard rush time (reportedly 4.98 seconds) on Minnesota’s pro day, but dazzled the scouts with his physique and his agility. He would have done the three-cone drill in a tick over 7 seconds, which would have been ranked among the best efforts of any tight end at the combine.

Minnesota sixth-year tight end Ko Kieft drills during Gophers pro day in mid-March.
Minnesota sixth-year tight end Ko Kieft drills during Gophers pro day in mid-March. [ BRUCE KLUCKHOHN | AP ]

Still, he wasn’t necessarily raising hopes as he watched draft coverage with family members, former coaches and pals in the garage of the Sioux Center family home.

“We kind of fell in love with the strip and the competitiveness,” Bucs vice president of player personnel John Spytek said the day Kieft was drafted. “He’s a guy who can do things out of the backfield if we choose to go that route.”

If a preseason game is any sign, the Bucs are exploring that avenue.

“I’m going to follow him,” Vaughn said after Saturday’s 26-24 loss to the Dolphins. “Just watching him in practice go headlong with the guys, you know you can be sure you’re behind him as a primary blocker.”

In the generational wake of No. 40 (Alstott) comes No. 41 (Kieft).

“At the end of the day, football is just a bunch of 11 one-on-one battles going on simultaneously, so it comes down to wrestling,” Kieft said. “It’s like you and another guy in front of you. It’s, like, usually the person with more technique and more effort is going to win. So that’s kind of what it boils down to.

Contact Joey Knight at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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