Super Bowl lore features an expansive wing reserved for the game’s unlikely stars. Max McGee and Malcom Butler are enshrined there. So are David Tyree and Dexter Jackson. A fraternal order of folk heroes.
This weekend, Bengals tight end Mitch Wilcox stands in its foyer, staring at the possibility — however slim — of transitioning from inconspicuous to immortal in one evening.
Starting tight end C.J. Uzomah (sprained MCL) has insisted he’ll play but may grimace his way through the game. If the knee betrays him, Wilcox and fellow backup Drew Sample could be thrust into more prominent roles. Considering Cincinnati employs multiple tight ends roughly 20 percent of the time, the opportunity for a clutch moment may beckon.
The Bengals believe Wilcox — the former Tarpon Springs High and USF star — is primed for it.
“I’ll tell you this, Mitch is athletic as crap,” said Uzomah, who watched Wilcox log 18 offensive snaps in the AFC title game following his first-quarter exit.
“When I went down two weeks ago, I was excited to see him play and see him step up and the moment not be too big. He’s just like, ‘I’ve got it. I’ve been preparing for this, I’ve been studying, I know the job that needs to be done.’ He’s really come a long way from his rookie year.”
One of three Pinellas County representatives in Super Bowl 56, Wilcox, might be the only one who will play. Rams receiver Jacob Harris (Palm Harbor University) is on injured reserve, and Rams tight end Tyler Higbee (East Lake) was placed on injured reserve Friday with a sprained MCL and will not play.
By contrast, Wilcox, 25, likely will log extensive duty on special teams and offense, taking the SoFi Stadium field as a strapping testament to resilience and the NFL draft’s inexactitude.
Less than two years after a freak accident at the NFL combine that burst a blood vessel in his left eye, and less than 22 months after going undrafted, the owner of nearly every USF tight end record has scrapped his way to a full-time special teams role and offensive spot duty for the AFC champs.
“He’s certainly somebody who, from where he started to where he is now, has progressed a ton,” Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons said. “There’s a lot of room to still grow, but the athleticism that he brings, the speed that he brings, the work ethic that he brings, is going to make him an effective player for the time to come in this league.”
A practice squad regular in 2020, Wilcox has appeared in 18 of Cincinnati’s 20 games, playing 57 percent of the Bengals’ special teams snaps and 9 percent of the offensive snaps in the regular season. All three of his NFL catches (for 16 yards) came in a 21-16 loss at Cleveland in the regular-season finale.
But he logged 18 offensive snaps in Kansas City two weeks ago when Uzomah went down, delivering a block on the left side that helped spring tailback Joe Mixon for a critical 13-yard gain in overtime. Three plays later, former Gator Evan McPherson booted a 31-yard field goal to clinch a 27-24 triumph.
“Really, I’m most proud of last week,” Bengals tight ends coach James Casey said. “He hasn’t played a bunch on offense because C.J. and Drew have done a really good job and he’s trying to earn his offensive opportunities.
“But with C.J.’s injury he came in and ... kind of seamlessly got in there and didn’t kill the team. Because when the young guys get out there you’re a little nervous, make sure you know exactly what they’re doing. But there were no nerves with him.”
Now the stakes, spotlight and stomach jitters all intensify. Wilcox, the 14th USF player to appear on a Super Bowl roster, will be scrutinized with every snap, the potential subject of prop bets or even public scorn.
But one critical hit, helmet catch or scoop-and-score completes a swift, surreal journey — from practice squad to pantheon of Super Bowl immortals.
“He’s really come a long way from his rookie year,” Uzomah said. “That’s not to say that he was a project or things like that, but he’s just made huge strides at the tight end position as a whole.”
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls
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