SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — John Stiegelmeier was the head football coach for South Dakota State University from 1997 to 2022. In that time, six of his players have been drafted into the NFL, with a seventh expected to be selected in a few short days.
Tucker Kraft, a junior at SDSU is set to leave early for a career in the NFL. Among the top tight end prospects in the draft, many analysts have Kraft as the TE5 or TE6, going in the 2-3 round of the draft.
“We’ve been blessed to have some really special student athletes,” Stiegelmeier remarked in a conversation with KELOLAND News on Tuesday, April 4.
The highest drafted player from SDSU under Stiegelmeier’s regime (and second highest ever from the university — guard Lynn Boden was drafted 13th overall in 1975) has been Dallas Goedert, another tight end, drafted in the 2nd round by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2018 with the 49th overall pick of the draft.
Stiegelmeier says it’s a special feeling to see a player he’s coached get their shot in the NFL.
“Ideally you’re living your dream, and that essentially is what happens when you get your shot at the NFL — there’s no higher level of football,” Stiegelmeier said. “We should all pursue our dream and it’s hard to get to, so when a young man gets his chance in the NFL, I feel really special to have been part of it.”
Looking back at the soon-to-be seven players drafted during Stiegelmeier’s time as head coach, the first was drafted in 1997.
“Steve [Heiden] was a small town, Rushford, MN — they all have to work hard, and there was one point that I think he saw a chance and he kept working hard and had a great NFL career, and is coaching in the NFL right now,” Steigelmeier recalled.
Heiden, a tight end, was drafted #69 in the 3rd round of the ’97 draft by the then San Diego Chargers. He was with them for three seasons before joining the Cleveland Browns, where he spent the rest of his career. He is currently the Tight Ends Coach for the Detroit Lions.
With Heiden, Goedert and Kraft all at the tight end position, that makes 3 of Stiegelmeier’s soon-to-be seven players drafted tight ends. We asked the coach if there was anything unique in the way he used tight ends as a coach that lent itself to the development of NFL players.
“If unique is ‘we use them and we highlight them,’ then yes we use them in a unique way,” Stiegelmeier mused. “I would say that with all those guys — and Goedert would be the guy we did the most with — we tried every way we could [to use him].”
Steigelmeier described the unique qualities required of a good tight end, especially at the NFL level.
“A complete tight end is a rare person,” Stiegelmeier said. “You’ve got to be able to line up and block a guy that’s probably as athletic or more athletic because he’s on defense, and probably as big, if not bigger, and so you’ve gotta win in the trench and then you’ve gotta go run routes against a guy that’s surely more athletic than you in the secondary.”
A true tight end needs to have a lot of skill, and develop it. Stiegelmeier said that’s a skill he’s always sought to utilize. “We’ve always wanted to run the football, and to run the football, I think you need to have at least two tight ends on the field,” he said.
Stiegelmeier said that football players at the tight end position coming to SDSU know they’re going to be utilized, giving them the chance to develop, and possibly a shot at the NFL one way or another.
Two other SDSU tight ends mentioned by Stiegelmeier, Colin Cochart and Chris Wagner, were not drafted, but were granted tryouts with teams after the draft as free agents. Cochart was signed by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2011, and by the Dallas Cowboys in 2012. He caught 5 passes for 44 yards and a touchdown in his NFL career.
“If we’re going to have a tight end in our program, we’re going to develop them,” Stiegelmeier said. “We’re not going to recruit the guy that can only do one thing.”
Stiegelmeier says that Kraft is this type of player. “I see a young man who — before I even met him — oozed with work ethic,” he said. “He was very dedicated; very serious about becoming as good as he could be.”
Though strong, large and athletic, Kraft didn’t come to SDSU as quite the exceptional prospect he is today. “His ball skills hadn’t been developed,” said Stiegelmeier. “He played mostly tail-back I think at Timber Lake, and so he wasn’t catching balls on the perimeter and things like that.”
Stiegelmeier said Kraft worked exceptionally hard at developing his ball skills while at SDSU. “And then he never shied away from anything physical,” he added. “Tucker’s a very confident but humble individual — you give him something and he’d say ‘I’m gonna try to do it,’ — I think Tucker Kraft made himself a better NFL prospect because of his work ethic and his focus.”
There are a handful of tight ends commonly ranked ahead of Kraft in draft rankings, including Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer, Utah’s Dalton Kincaid, Oregon State’s Luke Musgrave, Georgia’s Darnell Washington, and occasionally, Iowa’s Sam LaPorta.
Stiegelmeier thinks Kraft stands comfortably among these other prospects, noting that now is the period in which these athletes are traveling around for interviews with coaches and staff from interested teams.
“I believe there are things that you don’t see on tape, that you don’t see in testing, that will allow a guy to have great success in the NFL,” Stiegelmeier said. “I call it go beyond the measurables — yeah we know how fast he goes, we know how high he jumps; we can see the film, but what’s he made of? What’s his foundation? What’s his core? What fabric has put this guy together? I think that’s where a #5 or #6 or the #7 can become the #3 guy, because a program could put stock into that.”
One such program that could be in the market for a tight end in the upcoming draft is the Detroit Lions, having traded away T.J. Hockenson last season. We brought up the prospect of Stiegelmeier’s former player Heiden potentially interviewing Kraft. This thought brought a smile to Stiegelmeier’s face.
“That would be a marriage made in heaven,” Stiegelmeier said. “I know Steve and I know the type of guy he is, and I obviously know Tucker — I think that would be a really cool match up.”
The Lions currently hold eight picks in the 2023 NFL draft, five of which (#6, #18, #48, #55 and #81) come in the first three rounds.
It’s unknown which team will eventually select Kraft as the draft, set to begin on April 27, progresses, but one thing is for sure. Stiegelmeier will be watching.