Position, years at Arizona: Tight end, 2008-09
Honors, accomplishments at UA: All-Pac-10 as a sophomore in 2008. … Holds the single-season record for receptions by a tight end (47) and career receptions for a tight end (75) despite appearing in only 22 games.
Why he made our list: Gronkowski was coach Mike Stoops’ biggest recruiting coup, pulling in the talented tight end from Williamsville, N.Y., with an assist from former UA linebacker Donnie Salum, who knew Gronkowski’s father from the fitness business.
In terms of freakish physical skills, Gronkowski ranks at or near the top of the list of players to wear the cardinal and navy. Even before Gronkowski stepped onto the practice field for the first time, Stoops said, “That tight end is a monster.” Tight-ends coach Dana Dimel told the Tucson Citizen: “Everybody in the country dies to have a guy who looks like that. Nobody has tight ends who look like that kid does. And that’s why he was recruited by everybody in the country.”
Arizona was running a Texas Tech-style spread passing offense, usually featuring four wideouts, but tweaked the scheme to accommodate Gronkowski. Still, it’s something of a wonder that the Wildcats didn’t feed him the ball even more. With incomparable size, strength, hands and speed, Gronkowski caught 16 touchdown passes in his 22 games, including 10 as a sophomore, when three of those scores covered at least 35 yards.
He caught 12 passes for 143 yards against Oregon in 2008, and UA fans are left to speculate if the outcome vs. the Ducks would have been different in 2009 had he played. Gronkowski sat out the season because of back surgery, but the Wildcats were playing for first place in the Pac-10 on Nov. 21 when they lost a double-overtime heartbreaker to Oregon.
If Gronkowski had been healthy that season, perhaps the Wildcats could have landed that elusive Rose Bowl berth. Overall, Gronk was one of the hardest players to slot in our Top 50 list; another season of health could have launched him into the Top 20.
Life after college: Gronkowski turned pro after sitting out his junior season, and the New England Patriots selected him with the 42nd pick of the 2010 draft. He quickly became a star, with the college man-child turning into an NFL party boy and arguably the league’s best tight end. In 2011, he set NFL records for receiving yards for a tight end (1,327) and touchdowns for a tight end (17), earning All-Pro honors. Last July, he signed a six-year contract extension worth $54 million — the richest deal ever given to a tight end.
In partnership with the Arizona Republic, we are counting down the top 50 football players in Arizona Wildcats history. Leave your top 10 at AG’s Wildcat Report on Facebook, and check out azcentral.com for the countdown of ASU’s Top 50 football players.
No. 50 — LaMonte Hunley
No. 49 — Hubie Oliver
Listen to what ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. had to say about Gronk during the 2010 NFL Draft:
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