Small-school tight end who never caught a pass before 2016 is now an NFL draft prospect

Yahoo Sports

MOBILE, Ala. — For the Senior Bowl media day on Tuesday, there were a handful of podiums set up for the bigger-named prospects, most of them typically from the blue-blood schools, to handle the extra media attention.

But when a podium is set up for a tight end … from Dayton, no less … it’s quickly evident that there’s something different at work.

Tight ends aren’t typically stars coming from college. And Dayton is the coldest of football hotbeds, as least as far as the league is concerned — after all, this is a school that hasn’t produced an NFL draft pick since 1977.

So when Dayton’s Adam Trautman drew one of the bigger crowds during the Tuesday media scrum, it represented shock. Later in the day, when Trautman showed he belonged at the all-star event with his size, athleticism and receiving ability, the hype appeared warranted.

When Trautman’s media session ended, he flashed a wide grin as he scanned the packed room at the Mobile Convention Center to soak it all in.

“This is crazy,” he told Yahoo Sports. “It’s all so weird. I’m not quite used to this.”

The biggest crowds Trautman saw this season were double- and triple-teams from FCS opponents determined to top him, and even with that he averaged 83.3 receiving yards per game and scored 14 TDs in 11 games. 

What makes the story even wilder: Trautman never caught a pass in a game — any game — until 2016. Now in early 2020, he’s a legitimate NFL prospect who will hear his name well before other tight ends from much bigger programs. The 6-foot-5, 251-pound tight end set school career receiving records and was named to the FCS All-America team, and there appears to be more in store for him than just the mantle of small-school prodigy.

Of course, Trautman wants to dismiss the notion that a small-school prospect can’t hang at an event such as this, much less thrive in the NFL one day.

“I want to take that asterisk away,” he said. “I feel like there’s an asterisk when they talk about the smaller programs and those players. There’s a few of us [at the Senior Bowl], and I think we all come here believing we belong.”

Dayton TE Adam Trautman (left) accepts his Senior Bowl invitation from Flyers head coach Rick Chamberlin. (Dayton Athletics)
Dayton TE Adam Trautman (left) accepts his Senior Bowl invitation from Flyers head coach Rick Chamberlin. (Dayton Athletics)

Trautman might be the highest-rated senior tight end in the 2020 draft on some teams’ boards. It’s at least trending in that direction, which could lead to Trautman being a second- or third-round draft choice in April, according to feedback we’ve received from NFL scouts leading up to this week.

Dayton has a rich football history that includes alums Chuck Noll and Jon Gruden. But it’s a basketball school now, first and foremost. And for a football program that hasn’t produced an NFL player logging a single regular-season game played in nearly 45 years, this is something else entirely.

“At our level, the guys we get, they’re good football players,” Dayton head coach Rick Chamberlin told Yahoo Sports, “but physically, they just don’t typically have that NFL size or speed. Certainly not both.

“That’s why Adam is our unicorn.”

And with the basketball program having its own draft prospect of note — Obi Toppen, who could end up a top-five selection in the NBA draft this summer — Dayton athletics are reaching a peak few could have imagined.

“The students just can’t get enough of this story,” Chamberlin said. “The whole thing is a fairy tale.”

From skinny QB to NFL tight end prospect

Trautman was a tall, skinny quarterback at Elk Rapids High School in Williamsburg, Michigan —  just across Lake Michigan from Green Bay, Wisconsin — a school with an enrollment just under 400 students. He weighed 176 pounds as a junior there.

The varsity team that year featured 18 players, all the way up to 21 the next year. That meant double (and often triple) duty for every player. Trautman also played cornerback. 

“The coaches told me, ‘You go play corner and you don’t touch anyone unless they’re about to score. Unless they’re about to get into the end zone, we can’t afford to lose you,’ ” he said.

Trautman was recruited as a quarterback by Cornell, Harvard and Dayton. He chose Dayton mostly to pursue an engineering degree, and it was a little closer to home at about a six-hour drive.

After about 10 days at quarterback during his redshirt season in 2015, Trautman was pulled to the side by Chamberlin and offensive coordinator Austin King. The coaches felt the then-215-pounder might be best served by bulking up and moving to tight end. They gave it a trial run in practice one day, and all it took was one route.

“They had me run an over route against air in practice, I caught it and they were like, ‘All right, man, get out of the green jersey [given to quarterbacks so as to not be hit] and go grab a white one,’ and it was all over from there,” he said.

Trautman learned how to run more routes, catch the football and add weight during that redshirt season. He also was taught rudimentary blocking technique from his coaches, especially King, who spent three years in the NFL as a center with the Atlanta Falcons in the mid-2000s.

It was the start of a wild transformation.

Trautman went from catching 24 passes for 238 yards and three TDs as a redshirt freshman in 2016 — his first time catching passes in an organized game — to 43 receptions for 537 yards and five scores in 2017. 

After a 2018 campaign in which Trautman sprouted to the 240-pound range, he caught nine TDs and averaged nearly 15 yards a grab. He was no longer just a fun success story. He was on the NFL’s radar.

“Two scouts came in last spring — scouts from the Ravens and the Colts,” Chamberlin said. “They wanted to test him, talk to him, all that. Then they came up to my office to talk to me about what kind of young man he was. 

“They got done and said, ‘Coach, you’re going to have a lot of people come through here.’ That’s when I knew it was going to be different.”

And it was. Chamberlin said that there were scouts — usually plural — coming through the facility from summer training camp through the end of the season. All of them there to see Trautman.

He didn’t disappoint, either, catching four TDs against Jacksonville State and making a one-handed TD grab against Valparaiso that landed him on ESPN’s “Top Plays.”

“Everything just changed,” he said. “But the best part about it was that my teammates supported me and it wasn’t just about me. We had a team environment that I was so fortunate to be a part of. That’s what has made this whole journey so special to me.”

It was that way for Chamberlin, too.

“He’s special, special young man,” Chamberlin said. “He’s been such a terrific representative for our program. I just can’t say enough about him. He’s a special talent, no doubt. But I just admire the young man for who he is and how he’s handled every step of the way. He’s never forgotten where he’s come from.”

Adam Trautman’s game: beyond catching the ball

Another label Trautman wants to shed: that he’s just a receiving threat.

“I always wanted to be the guy who, ‘Hey [it’s] third-and-2? Let’s go, run it behind me,’ ” he said.

At Dayton, Trautman most often lined up in-line as a traditional tight end on both sides of the line. But he also split out wide or in the slot and even moonlighted in the backfield as a lead blocker for a handful of snaps.

All of Trautman’s plusses were on display in the North Team practice, coached by the Cincinnati Bengals, on Day 1. He showed aggressive ball skills, caught the ball smoothly and fluidly in stride and looked the part, passing the eye test working alongside Purdue TE Brycen Hopkins (the son of former NFL OT Brad Hopkins) and Michigan’s Sean McKeon.

For Chamberlin, what he hopes the Bengals will see this week — and what he’s telling any NFL team that will listen — is that Trautman’s value goes beyond being a pass-catching tight end.

Prior the season opener on the road against ranked FCS team Indiana State, which had just pulled off a shocking upset of Kansas State the week prior, Trautman was asked by the coach to address the team.

“This young man had passion in every word he said,” Chamberlin said. “You knew how much it meant to him. He had the whole team completely worked up, just a group of guys ready to run out on the field the second he was done. 

“It was a huge challenge that day, and we knew that. But we knew Adam could help lead us out there. It was just such an inspiring speech. You ask me for my favorite Adam Trautman moment, and that was it. We all just had chills listening to him.”

Trautman caught 11 passes for 132 yards, and Dayton pulled off what is believed to be one of the biggest upsets in school history in the 42-35 victory.

Now the upset is brewing that Trautman is perhaps ready to join the short list of FCS-level tight ends to go in the top 100, joining players such as Visanthe Shiancoe and Adam Shaheen. It appears in the early pre-draft process that Trautman belongs in the NFL in some form.

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