Chip Scoggins
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Ko Kieft loves to smash defensive players. Not just smash them, but drive them to the turf until they're on their back, gazing at the sky.

"It's the best feeling for me," he said. "Physically dominating another human being."

Who wouldn't want this guy blocking for them?

Kieft is a throwback tight end. Now in his sixth season with the Gophers, he has caught a grand total of six passes in his career.

He says he doesn't know his receptions total, nor does he care. That's not his job. He blocks. And he's exceptional in that department.

Gophers coaches credit Kieft with 23 knockdowns ("pancake" blocks) in three games. He registered nine against Ohio State, though he believes the actual number was 11. He averages a knockdown every six plays.

"One out of every six?" he said. "I've got to up that a little bit."

Kieft's position has been revolutionized in modern football. The shift to pass-heavy offense has put more value on tight ends as receivers than blockers. Using tight ends in a hybrid role as "big" receivers creates matchup problems for defenses, but it also has de-emphasized the old-school mantra that tight ends essentially serve as an extra lineman.

Kieft has no identity problem.

"It's what's asked of me," he said, "so that's what I'm going to do at a high level."

He even looks like a tight end should look: 6-5 and 265 pounds with a beard, long, flowing mullet and fresh gash on his nose.

The only professional sport Kieft watches is mixed martial arts. He aspires to be a strength coach someday and his daily attire during fall camp was a plaid button-down shirt with cutoff sleeves.

"That guy's one of a kind," linebacker Jack Gibbens said. "He definitely sets the tone for our team as far as physicality goes."

Ko Kieft overpowered a Fresno State defensive back in 2018.
Ko Kieft overpowered a Fresno State defensive back in 2018.

Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

That's high praise for someone who played quarterback in high school and had only one FBS scholarship offer.

Quarterback Tanner Morgan gave one word when asked to describe Kieft's blocking — "Violent," he said.

Gophers coach P.J. Fleck calls Kieft "the ultimate football player."

"He does the dirty work for everyone else to be able to have the light shine on them," Fleck said on his weekly radio show.

Matt Spaeth knows all about that sacrifice. The former Gophers tight end won the 2006 John Mackey Award as the nation's best tight end largely because of his blocking. He is a big fan of Kieft.

"He's a mauler," Spaeth said.

Spaeth listed three traits that make Kieft a human bulldozer: Technique, attitude and the ability to finish. It's a selfless role, Spaeth said, that requires a healthy dose of nastiness to excel at it.

"I've always thought I was a nice guy, but I wanted to destroy guys on the field," said Spaeth, who played nine NFL seasons, mostly with the Pittsburgh Steelers. "I wanted to put them on their back every single play. That was the mentality I had and watching him, we have the same mentality."

If broken down into a pie chart, Kieft says his blocking is 99% technique and 1% attitude.

"You can have the most violent, aggressive intentions and get tossed around like a rag doll without technique," he said.

Yeah, but that other 1%, whew. Kieft is a hard-nosed, ornery competitor who relishes one-on-one battles. If he gets bloodied in the process, even better.

"I was such a nice kid growing up," he said. "I still like to think that I'm a nice guy. But there comes a time when you've got to flip a switch and be that person."

Both Spaeth and Fleck believe "that person" can play in the NFL, even if Kieft doesn't fit the hot trend as a supremely athletic pass catcher. They still see value in having a tight end who brings almost a singular focus and expertise in blocking the snot out of defenders.

"There's teams looking for people that can do what he does," Fleck said. "And that's literally putting people on their back, over and over and over."

Nothing brings Kieft more enjoyment on a football field.