TAMPA ― Even the most selfless teammates feel a tad deprived every now and again. Mitch Wilcox wouldn’t be human if he didn’t desire a few more targets in USF’s passing game.
“I’m all for getting W’s, I’m all for helping this team out,” said the Bulls’ all-conference tight end, averaging exactly two receptions a game so far. “But at the same time, there’s no better feeling than getting the ball in your hands and making plays.”
So, yeah, the dude would prefer a few more post routes these days, especially for a struggling offense. But if Wilcox truly were an uptight end, he’d be doing a lot more brooding than blocking.
And these days, he’s blocking better than ever, perhaps increasing his NFL draft stock as a result.
Case in point: Connecticut. On a day in which Wilcox was absent from the offensive stat sheet, he may have seemed as conspicuous as ever to scouts who were watching.
“You look at him on Saturday (at UConn), he didn’t have (any) catches, and I think he graded out at like 90 percent, had three or four knockdowns just blocking,” Bulls coach Charlie Strong said two days after USF’s 48-22 romp in East Hartford.
“You’re talking about one of your best players and he had no catches, but he did go out and block and play very hard. And that’s hard for some guys because they want the ball in their hands, and (he) never did say anything about it.”
Few would blame him if he had.
A 2018 first-team All-American Athletic conference pick who entered 2019 as a bona fide preseason candidate for the Mackey Award (awarded to the nation’s top tight end), Wilcox has 10 catches for 178 yards and three touchdowns.
It’s well off his 2018 pace, when the Tarpon Springs High alumnus set program single-season records for catches (43) and receiving yards (540) by a tight end. In a system devoid of scripted plays, there’s no assurance Wilcox’s targets will increase significantly.
“This offense, you’ve got to be unselfish, because no one’s gonna be highlighted," first-year coordinator Kerwin Bell said. "We game plan by what we see the coverages are gonna give us the opportunity to attack.”
Fortunately for Wilcox, the rush of crashing down on a tackle in max protection nearly equals the sensation of snagging a spiral in man coverage. Which is to say, he embraces his increased role as an interior blocker.
Moreover, he has improved at it.
“I think in the past, it was a lot of second-level blocking out on the edge, and one thing that I’ve needed to improve on as the years have progressed is my end-line blocking,” said Wilcox, playing at his normal in-season weight of 242 pounds.
“And that’s one thing that I think I’ve done well this year, playing in there with the big guys and being effective and trying to be dominant when I can.”
Whereas his eight-catch, 109-yard effort at Illinois last year arguably represented his command performance as a receiver, the UConn game might have been Wilcox’s tour de force as a run-blocker.
The Huskies blitzed heavily in the red zone, forcing the Bulls to consistently employ max protections (also known as: blocking tight ends). They scored touchdowns on all five red-zone trips, and ran for a season-best 333 yards.
“He always has that want-to, and there’s no desire missing from that,” Bell said.
“He’s bigger, stronger, he feels better about himself, and he’s really controlling his blocks, and we’re running behind him. That run game last week was a lot behind him and he did a great job on those linebackers.”
In the professional-world lexicon, he was diversifying his portfolio. Wilcox still is regularly mentioned among the top tight end prospects in the ’20 draft, and even was ranked the fourth-best prospect earlier this year by NFL.com senior analyst (and former Cowboys executive) Gil Brandt.
Those scouts already have seen what Wilcox can do with his hands.
Now, they’re beginning to see what he can do with his hands in the dirt.
“(Blocking) is always a critical point in being a good tight end. And hopefully one day I’ll be talked about more as a guy who can do both,” he said.
“There’s a lot of work left to do in the run game, and I’ve got to continue to play with a good base and low pads and stuff like that. Those are things I’m actively trying to work on, but I think I’m headed in the right direction.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.