Jace Sternberger excelled at getting open for Texas A&M last season, as the big tight end routinely opened things up by steaming down the seam or running quick routes to propel the Aggie offense.
While Sternberger opened a lot of eyes around the Southeastern Conference, he didn’t feel he opened a lot around the NFL, which is why he couldn’t wait to get the Combine in February.
It was another chance to show off his physical skills and outgoing personality and persuade clubs that he belonged in the conversation of the top tight ends in this year’s NFL Draft pool.
Sternberger had a solid showing in the drills and must have been a hit in his meetings because he went from a player who thought he flew under a lot of teams’ radar to a man in demand.
In a strong field of tight ends, Sternberger has asserted himself into the top five at the position and has a solid chance of being a Day 2 pick in next week’s draft.
The Patriots have a glaring need at the position, and the 6-foot-4-inch, 251-pounder met with team representatives at the Combine and came to Foxborough for a visit April 8.
Although comparing Sternberger to Rob Gronkowski would be foolish, he does have some similar traits. Sternberger can line up in a variety of spots, runs very crisp routes, has strong hands, and flashes good speed after the catch.
His blocking needs work, but if there’s a will, there’s a way to teach that.
Sternberger started his collegiate career at Kansas, but the program’s instability and his lack of production led him to transfer to Northeastern Oklahoma A&M.
“I was on my third offensive coordinator [at Kansas, and the offense] really wasn’t utilizing the tight end at all,’’ said Sternberger. “I still love KU . . . but it was one of those things where, as a kid who wanted to pursue the NFL, looking ahead realistically, I didn’t feel like that was going to be the best spot for me, especially not being very utilized. So, I just bet on myself and went the JUCO route.’’
He did enough (21 catches, 336 yards, 6 touchdowns) to catch Texas A&M’s attention and became one of the first players to commit to Jimbo Fisher’s first class in College Station.
It turned out to be a perfect fit, as Sternberger enjoyed a breakout season, collecting 48 catches for 832 yards and 10 TDs.
“I feel like I will forever owe Coach Fisher, because when I got the call that he wanted me to play tight end for him, it was one of those things where I grew up watching [Florida State standouts] Nick O’Leary and Ryan Izzo,’’ he said. “I’m like a football guy. I know all about them.
“[I] thought [I] should be playing and then you get an opportunity, you’re going to be in the SEC West, potential starter and it’s like . . . there’s no more what-ifs. You go out and prove yourself to everybody. It was definitely a scheme thing for me.’’
Izzo was drafted by the Patriots in the seventh round last season, but spent the season on injured reserve.
Sternberger said the emerging importance of the tight end in so many pro offenses was a big part of his reason to leave after just one season with the Aggies. He could benefit from being in a rotation early in his pro career as he continues to refine his skills.
“I feel like the game is transitioning with tight ends,” he said. “There’s not just one good tight end [per team] anymore. You see a lot of effective teams, they’re starting to get two tight ends, and if you have two big bodies who are versatile, I feel like it’s really hard to stop.
“Philly, for example, with Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert. That was kind of the first little taste of it, and they are very productive. I feel like it’s only going to get more and more like that as the years go on.’’
The top tight ends in the draft
Best of the rest: *Alize Mack, Notre Dame (6-4, 249, 4.7); *Caleb Wilson, UCLA (6-4, 240, 4.56); Tommy Sweeney, Boston College (6-4, 251, 4.83); Josh Oliver, San Jose State (6-4, 249, 4.63); Kahale Warring, San Diego State (6-5, 262, 4.67).
Jim McBride can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride.