Bloody and bruising, Gophers tight end Ko Kieft is the poster boy for 'the attitude of this team'

·4 min read

Sep. 22—Soon after Ko Kieft had eight knockdown blocks of Colorado defenders in the Gophers' dominating 30-0 victory Saturday, the U tight end tweeted out a startling selfie. It showed blood dripping from his nose, running down his face and into his thick beard.

The photo was presumed to have been taken after a shower in the visiting locker room at Folsom Field in Boulder, Colo., but it actually originated from a training camp practice in Minnesota in August. "It's a picture, I think, all the guys kind of have and float around to each other, which is even better," quarterback Tanner Morgan said.

For U players, that photo has become part inside joke, part homage to the way the sixth-year, primarily-blocking tight end goes about his business. "It's just a mindset or a mentality kind of joke," Morgan added. "This is the reality of who Ko is. The way that he plays the game of football, and over time you see it, it kind of makes you laugh. It's who Ko is, but even in the practice when his nose was bleeding. He was still doing his thing, or in the game, when he gets a bloody nose or whatever it is. It's no excuses. He is always going, playing ... at 100 percent. Full tilt. It's a pretty elite picture, I think."

Kieft has tallied 23 knockdown blocks through three games this season, according to the U. He had a season-high nine pancakes against Ohio State in the season opener, including one that got the attention of former NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz.

"Good googly moogly Minnesota's TE with an amazing pancake!!!!!!," tweeted Schwartz, who played six years in the NFL, including 2012 with the Vikings. Schwartz included two wide-eyed emojis with a clip of Kieft driving a Buckeye backwards and sideways before throttling him into the turf.

Kieft, who is listed at 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds, has begun to turn heads in the NFL draft community. Ryan Roberts of RiseNDraft.com tweeted: "Ko Kieft ... might be the best blocking tight end in the 2022 NFL Draft class. Dude can overwhelm at the (point of attack)."

Kieft has a degree in kinesiology and is working on a masters in sports and exercise science, with a goal to be a strength coach someday. The last part might have to wait.

"I think he's going to play in the NFL," Fleck said on his KFAN radio show Tuesday. "People forget — you don't have to go out there and catch 50 balls to do that. There is NFL teams looking for people that can do what he does. That's literally put people on their backs over and over and over."

Kieft has only six career receptions for 69 yards and one touchdown. His only catch this season came against the Buffaloes, a nifty 4-yard reception that went for a first down.

Kieft's nosebleeds aren't necessarily from contact on the field; he has a history of them due to his deviated septum. But they sure do look tough and fit in alongside his roommate, former U linebacker turned mixed martial arts fighter Bailey Schoenfelder, who is 2-0 in his nascent cage-fighting career.

Kieft feels rule and style changes have taken out some of the physical elements of the game, but he wants to keep that tough edge around. "(I) really try to bring that into my game, especially in run blocking," he said. "It's something that I enjoy, and it helps our offense a lot."

The Gophers are 24th in the nation in rushing offense, averaging 218 yards per game. They have kept plugging along after losing Big Ten running back of the year Mo Ibrahim to injury during the season opener. Minnesota will use seven or eight offensive linemen on a play and have had a O-lineman line up at fullback for an even bigger jumbo rushing package.

"He is really the attitude of this team," Fleck said. "That is what you want to be able to have, put the ball down and let's go. Ko Kieft is somebody who directly reflects it."

Kieft's catch against the Buffaloes came on second and 4 in the third quarter, he caught a pass after three yards and cut it upfield for the first down. It's part of Kieft's goal to be more of a "complete tight end" this season.

"Way more difficult than it looks," Morgan shared. And the grab gave Kieft confidence, with Fleck sharing Kieft's response: "He said, 'Keep throwing me the ball.' " That could happen more this season, but Kieft's real value is his dominating run blocking.

Morgan described Kieft succinctly after the Ohio State game: "Violent. I mean, he's violent. He's a guy that loves to play football."

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