If Florida coach Dan Mullen knew Kyle Pitts was destined for stardom when he signed him as part of his first recruiting class, he didn’t say so. Mullen never mentioned the four-star tight end by name in his 2017 early signing day news conference.
Mullen did, however, outline the philosophy that turned the raw Pennsylvania native into one of the best players in the country heading into Saturday’s game against South Carolina.
“The biggest thing to me … is the position flexibility,” Mullen said. “What I want to do, and what we want both offensively and defensively, is to create mismatches out there on the field.”
And Pitts looks like one of the biggest mismatches Mullen has had since Percy Harvin was a do-it-all superstar on the Gators' 2006 and 2008 national title teams.
Pitts isn’t as speedy as Harvin, but the 6-foot-6, 246-pound junior is too big and strong to be covered by defensive backs and too quick to be guarded by anyone else. In his 170-yard, four-touchdown game last weekend at Ole Miss, Pitts fooled an edge rusher, ran past linebackers, overpowered a cornerback, shook off a nickelback and outleapt a safety — all while blocking effectively on some of the Gators' best runs.
“He’s kind of a unicorn, right?” Mullen said.
The Gators knew by Pitts' first spring that he had unicorn potential. He just wasn’t ready as a blocker yet, which is why he spent most of the 2018 season flexed out as a receiver.
The experience there refined his fundamentals and allowed him to pick the brain of Van Jefferson, an ultra-polished receiver who’s now with the Rams. During practice before the Peach Bowl, Pitts — then a freshman with three career catches — ran a route so well that he almost made one of his teammates fall.
“I was like, ‘Man, he’s going to be really good in the future,’” Jefferson said then.
Pitts was really good last season. On a team that sent four receivers to the NFL, none caught more balls than Pitts (54).
But his performance in No. 3 UF’s opener was on another level.
“It was just a matter of him kind of growing into the position,” offensive coordinator Brian Johnson said.
Once Pitts improved his blocking and picked up the system’s nuances, he could become the embodiment of the position flexibility Mullen craves.
Lined up as a traditional tight end near the tackle, Pitts can block; he sealed the outside to open up a running lane for Emory Jones' 22-yard rush in the second half last week. Or he can start to block before slipping into the flat, as he did for a fourth-catch that picked up a first down.
Pitts' reps at receiver allow him to continue flexing out wide, by himself or with someone else. That’s a mismatch, too.
When the Rebels tried to defend him with a nickelback, Pitts shed him for a diving touchdown catch. When they tried to double him with a pair of safeties, Pitts leapt over them in the end zone for another score. When they tried to jam him with a cornerback, he used his strength to fight through that, too.
Pitts' favorite, though?
“I always dream of me one-on-one against a linebacker,” he said.
That’s what happened on the most impressive play of the day, when he sped past one of them to get open and stiff-armed him on his way for a 71-yard touchdown. It’s the kind of highlight NFL teams will be raving about as they evaluate him as a potential top-10 pick in next spring’s draft.
For now, though, Pitts remains the kind of player Mullen dreamed about on signing day — a unicorn with the position flexibility to create mismatches all over the field.
No. 3 Florida (1-0) vs. South Carolina (0-1)
Noon Saturday, Ben Hill Griffin Stadium