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Call him K-Train? Bucs rookie Ko Kieft restores fullback dimension to offense

The blocking tight end lined up in the backfield more than once during Saturday’s preseason opener.
Bucs rookie tight end Ko Kieft (41) lined up as a pure fullback more than once, including Ke'Shawn Vaughn's 1-yard touchdown run, during Tampa Bay's preseason loss to the Dolphins on Saturday night.
Bucs rookie tight end Ko Kieft (41) lined up as a pure fullback more than once, including Ke'Shawn Vaughn's 1-yard touchdown run, during Tampa Bay's preseason loss to the Dolphins on Saturday night. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Aug. 16|Updated Aug. 16

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

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

We saw it 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 lodged in between. It was Kieft — lifelong wrestler and roughneck — helping provide the push on Ke’Shawn Vaughn’s 1-yard scoring surge in the second quarter.

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

“He’s a good blocker, we understand that. That’s why we got him. So it’s not necessarily just the fullback position, but he allows us to get in different formations and do different things.”

A generation after the A-Train (aka Mike Alstott) pulled into the figurative depot for the last time, the Bucs may have encountered a lead-blocking locomotive of a different sort. Emphasis on different.

Ko is his legal name, a shortened derivative of the name of a great-grandfather (Jakobus) who immigrated from The Netherlands and would’ve turned 100 the day Ko Jason Kieft was born (Jan. 20, 1998). In a locker room mostly rife with hip-hop, he zones out to old-school thrash metal (i.e. Metallica, Slayer) before games.

And in an era when tight ends practically have evolved into super-sized 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’ll get down and dirty with the worst of them. That’s my role.”

Consciously or not, he has spent nearly a lifetime preparing for that role.

A quarterback and linebacker in high school, Kieft estimates he has been wrestling since age 4. Not just any wrestling, but Iowa wrestling. He was raised in Sioux Center — which features fewer than 10,000 residents and is noted for a strong Dutch heritage — in the state’s northwest nook.

On some nights, an audience of roughly one-fifth of the town population would shoehorn itself into the Sioux Center High gym for dual matches. An elbow injury derailed Kieft’s sophomore year, but he was a state placer his final two seasons, brandishing all the requisite attributes (strength, hand quickness, hip flexibility) of a high-level competitor.

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Perhaps equally significant, he was able to blend ferocity with focus, longtime Warriors coach Aaron Schmidt said.

“I can probably use the word ‘nasty,’” Schmidt said. “Not in a negative connotation, but I would say he was assertively aggressive, which is how he strategically attacks things on the football field as well.

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

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

He just wasn’t certain he’d evolve into an NFL draft pick.

Kieft wasn’t invited to the NFL scouting combine and wowed exactly no one with his 40-yard dash time (reportedly 4.98 seconds) at Minnesota’s pro day but dazzled scouts with his physicality and agility. He reportedly did the three-cone drill in a tick above 7 seconds, which would’ve ranked among the best efforts of all tight ends at the combine.

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

Still, he wasn’t necessarily getting his hopes up while following the draft coverage with family members, former coaches and buddies in the garage of his family’s Sioux Center home.

“We kind of fell in love with the tape and the competitiveness,” Bucs vice president of player personnel John Spytek said the day Kieft was drafted. “He is a guy that can do some stuff out of the backfield if we so chose to go that route.”

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

“I’ll follow him,” Vaughn said following Saturday’s 26-24 loss to the Dolphins. “Just watching him at practice go head-up with guys, you know you can trust being behind him as a lead 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-one-one battles occurring simultaneously, so it goes back to wrestling,” Kieft said. “It’s like you and another guy across from you. It’s, like, generally the person with more technique and more effort is going to win. So that’s kind of what it comes down to.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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