'He Wasn't Going to Pass the Eye Test'

Before George Kittle emerged as one of the most explosive tight ends in the NFL, he struggled to find a position, and a scholarship, thanks to a playing style that was as awkward as it was athletic.
Ryan JonesContributor IAugust 6, 2020

LeVar Woods has been involved in plenty of recruiting battles in his football life, first as a coveted, All-State Iowa high school star himself in the mid-'90s, and more recently during his 13 seasons as an assistant coach for the Iowa Hawkeyes.

Woods was an administrative assistant at his alma mater focused on recruiting when Iowa inked a solid, albeit seemingly unspectacular, 2012 recruiting class. A top-40 class nationally that ranked in the middle of the Big Ten, the Hawkeyes' 2012 haul included a handful of 4-star prospects among its 26 members. Among the less heralded players in the group was a skinny wide receiver from Norman, Oklahoma, whose name didn't appear on anyone's state or national rankings.

"I think the first time any of us were really aware of George," Woods says, "was when his letter of intent came across on the fax machine."

Woods is exaggerating, but just a little. He and the rest of the staff knew George Kittle's name, knew his dad had played at Iowa back when Kirk Ferentz was a young Hawkeyes assistant, knew George had spent much of his childhood in the state before moving to Oklahoma. What they didn't know was whether he was worthy of one of the school's precious few scholarships.

If anything, Woods says, "We were thinking maybe he'd potentially be a walk-on."

The football world now knows Kittle as arguably the best tight end in the National Football League (and depending on how his contract talks go, possibly the highest-paid one too), a fun-loving playmaker destroying defenses with his route running and run blocking alike. That he's risen to such heights in just three NFL seasons, and that he's excelled in the pros despite a good but not great college career (48 catches for 737 yards and 10 TDs) is part of his growing lore: Kittle competes with the joy of a guy who's just happy to be playing a game he loves—and only happens to be playing it better than just about anyone.

But go back a few years, and you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who imagined George Kittle was first-team NFL All-Pro material, and that includes the staff that only offered him a scholarship on signing day—the school's last—after two other prospects had turned them down.

Needless to say, neither of those guys were on an NFL roster this year, let alone playing in the Pro Bowl.

Looking back on it now, Kittle can laugh. "I constantly told myself wherever I go, I just have to make the most of it," he says. "I was just grateful for the opportunity to play."

So it was that one of the least likely recruiting processes in recent football history was barely a process at all.

Greg Nation wants to make one thing clear: Just because George Kittle wasn't an obvious Division I college pick, don't think he wasn't a damn good high school football player. "He turned our program around as soon as he got here," Nation says.

Nation was a couple of years into his tenure as head football coach at Norman High School when Bruce Kittle moved his family to Norman from Cedar Falls, Iowa, to take a job on Bob Stoops' staff at Oklahoma. (The fact that Stoops, an Iowa grad, didn't recruit a kid playing high school football five minutes from campus, and who happened to be the son of one of his assistants, and who thus ended up playing at Stoops' alma mater, remains a fun side note to this whole thing.) And while George Kittle might not have looked like much when he got to Norman, he made an immediate impressioneven before he came out for the football team.

George Kittle has averaged 86.5 catches, 1,215 receiving yards and five touchdowns in each of his last two seasons as the 49ers' starting tight end.
George Kittle has averaged 86.5 catches, 1,215 receiving yards and five touchdowns in each of his last two seasons as the 49ers' starting tight end.Alex Gallardo/Associated Press/Associated Press

"It was a large high school, and pretty much overnight he came in, like, 'I'm here, let's get this thing going,'" Nation says. "He was a happy-go-lucky guy, and the kids loved him."

That personable, carefree personality has always been there, as has the athleticism, which he inherited from his parents. While Bruce earned his share of athletic glory as a co-captain and starting offensive lineman on the 1981 Hawkeyes team that earned a share of the Big Ten title and played in the Rose Bowl, Kittle's mother, Jan Krieger, was even more accomplished. An Iowa high school Hall of Famer in basketball and softball, she played both sports at Drake, where she helped the Bulldogs basketball team to the 1982 Elite Eight and remains top-10 in school history in career points, rebounds and assists.

George wasn't the only one in the family to inherit his parents' athletic prowess. As he told NBC Sports, his older sister, Emma, who played volleyball at Iowa and Oklahoma, used to push him around the basketball court when they were kids.

Still, it was always clear George had talent, from the days Bruce coached him in pee-wee leagues and middle school up through his first two years of high school ball in Iowa. "I've always been athletic," Kittle says. "I was always fast for my size and skill set." When the new kid came out for football at Norman, the coaches didn't need much convincing: Kittle's versatile athleticism was readily apparent.

"He was a wideout for me, but we moved him around quite a bit—sometimes into what we called an R-back, like an H-back, and he played strong safety and outside linebacker as well," Nation says. "Really, he was just a good, athletic high school kid, but his skill set was definitely as an offensive player."

His mindset was too. Kittle would often grab a couple of fellow wideouts and a stack of cones and lead route-running drills. "Not even somebody throwing a ball to them," Nation says. "Just running routes."

While Kittle's drive to improve was apparent to coaches and teammates, they also saw a player who didn't assume he was headed toward an NFL career, a person who carried himself as "just one of the guys." Kittle put up two solid seasons at Norman; he was good enough to make the team better on both sides of the ball but not so good as to draw much attention in a talent-laden, football-focused state. "Even the big teams around here—Jenks, Owasso—he had great games against those guys," Nation says. Still, big-game performances and outstanding bloodlines aside, he was only about 6'3", 185 pounds going into his senior year. With measurements like that, it was hard to see big-time football in Kittle's future.

As the son of a former Hawkeye, born in Madison, Wisconsin ("Ron Dayne is still my favorite player of all time," Kittle says) and a high school standout in Norman, Kittle logically had three dream schools: Iowa, Wisconsin and Oklahoma. But getting him into any Division I program would take some work, so Nation knew he had to focus on a different set of numbers when he called college coaches he knew.

"We used to do a combine in practice—we did a 40, a pro shuttle, an L drill," Nation says. "And the thing that got me about George, going into his senior year, his L drill would've been the third-best in the NFL combine that year for his position."

Armed with that data and plenty of game film, Nation did his best to get the word out on his underrated star. There were few takers. "Those coaches looked at him as a wideout, and they didn't see the intangibles. They saw a kid weighing 190 pounds, and they wanted 6'3", 220," he says. "I said, 'Come watch him play basketball'; he had soft hands, he had the ability to make plays in the paint. I begged those guys—'I don't think you see what I see'—but he wasn't going to pass the eye test."

There were small D-I nibbles—North Texas and Tulsa were interested—and plenty of takers at the FCS level. As his fringe recruiting process wore on, Kittle strongly considered an offer from Weber State. "That was my only visit," he says now. "I wore a sweatshirt with a coat on top so I looked 220 when I was really about 195. But I had a blast."

There was also interest from a couple of service academies—as his four years of Academic All-Big Ten selections would make clear, Kittle had the grades to go anywhere—but he was holding out for a bigger stage. By signing day that February, though, there was no sign of the one offer he really wanted.

Then the phone rang.

"I'm a little excited to say the least," Kittle told Iowa recruiting site Hawkeye Report that night about the signing-day phone call from Kirk Ferentz. That he was the third choice for the final scholarship offer didn't seem to bother him. "George wanted to be a Hawkeye," Nation says. "He'd been to camps up there, and they'd been talking to him—they knew he wanted to be a Hawkeye. I think he was destined to be."

LeVar Woods confirms that even if Kittle was unknown as a prospect, he wasn't unknown to the Iowa coaching staff—at least not to the guy in charge. "The relationship that Coach Ferentz had with Bruce…I think Coach saw a lit bit of Bruce in him," Woods says. "He knew his mom and dad were both very good athletes. I think the rationale was getting him into our strength and conditioning program and banking on that development."

More difficult to project for the Iowa staff was where Kittle fit on the team. "I think when everyone looked at his high school tape, the question was what position he was going to be," Woods says. "I was getting ready to transition to coaching linebackers at the time, and one thought was, 'Hey, he may be an outside linebacker for us. Or he may be a receiver or ultimately grow into a tight end.' In the end, it was, 'Get him here; we'll see what happens.'"

After struggling to figure out where George Kittle could best fit, the Iowa staff moved him to tight end, where he caught 48 passes for 737 yards and 10 touchdowns in four seasons for the Hawkeyes.
After struggling to figure out where George Kittle could best fit, the Iowa staff moved him to tight end, where he caught 48 passes for 737 yards and 10 touchdowns in four seasons for the Hawkeyes.Darron Cummings/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

LeShun Daniels saw nearly all of it. A running back and captain in 2016 when both he and Kittle were seniors, Daniels says his first impression of Kittle as a redshirt freshman was "a goofy, lengthy guy that always had energy—sometimes too much energy for my taste." Laughing at the memory, Daniels adds, "He was crazy athletic, but it looked as if he was too athletic for his own body at the time. Everything he did looked awkward."

Four-year starting long snapper Tyler Kluver similarly remembers young Kittle as "just some skinny kid, just one of the guys," but he thinks he understands the long-term potential the coaching staff saw: an "athletic kid with a good frame" that gave Iowa's strength and conditioning staff a lot to work with.

Kittle says he had trouble adding weight until he was a redshirt junior, but even when he was still that skinny kid who wasn't producing much on the field, he maintained a quiet confidence. "My goal was just to have a role," he says. "I definitely thought I could do something at this level. I just wasn't sure what it was."

Eventually, he found his spot. Today, among other things—like one of the very best football players on the planet (after again surpassing expectations as a fifth-round draft pick)—Kittle has become a coveted guest on the Washed Up Walkons podcast that Kluver hosts with a few other fellow former Hawkeyes. Kluver enjoys reminding his superstar ex-teammate of how far he's come.

"When we recorded the last one, I said to him, 'You're the best tight end in football. Do you realize that? It's insane,'" Kluver says. "People are like, 'Where did this guy come from?' And he just laughed, like, 'Yeah, man, I'm just having a good time, living life.'"


Ryan Jones is a writer living in Pennsylvania. He's the former editor-in-chief of Slam magazine and has written about sports and culture for XXLSpinVibe and Esquire. Reach him on Twitter, @thefarmerjones.