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Gentry flourishing in role as blocking tight end
Former college quarterback has grown into valuable piece of Steelers offense
By Dale Lolley  Dec 14, 2022

If Zach Gentry had his way, he would have remained a quarterback in college.

And perhaps that might have worked out well for Gentry. After all, he was a top-10 recruit at the position coming out of Eldorado High School in Albuquerque, N.M., in 2014.

But as it is, Gentry made it to the NFL at a completely different position. And he's done so by taking a path few have wandered before him.

Not only did Gentry make the transition in college from quarterback to tight end, he's now made the transition in the NFL from a tight end whose primary job is that of a pass catcher, to one whose biggest task now each game is to block opposing linebackers and defensive ends.

There have been plenty of players recruited to play college football who moved from quarterback to tight end – former Steelers star Heath Miller among them.

But the number of quarterbacks-turned-tight end whose primary job in the NFL as a blocking end instead of just a pass catcher is much more of a rarity.

That's something that sets Gentry apart.

"Zach has really had to have the attitude and appetite to mix it up the likes of those guys inside, blocking T.J. (Watt) in practice," said Steelers tight ends coach Alfredo Roberts. "(Former Steelers tight ends coach) James Daniels had that job, making the transition of being a tight end that thinks 'I want to be more in the passing game,' to being a blocker. So, some of the transitional part, I give that to James Daniels.

"When I was able to get in and he wants to be coached, let's talk the technical things, because he hadn't done it all his life. He was a quarterback. He sees things really well, so that makes it easy for him. He conceptualizes, so he can imagine how to do it. Now, it's just getting his body to do it."

About that body. Gentry was between 230 and 240 pounds when he entered Michigan as a freshman in 2015. He left the school having bulked his 6-foot-8 frame up to 265 pounds.

Now, four years into his career with the Steelers, who selected him in the fifth round of the 2019 draft, Gentry weighs in at a rock-solid 280 pounds.

Gentry was a downfield threat at Michigan, catching 32 passes for 514 yards and two touchdowns. But he's not been asked to do that since joining the Steelers.

His job is much more dirty and gritty. And because of that, Gentry has put the effort into bettering his body in the offseason.

"He comes in here (in the offseason), his first year or two, he'd come into the weight room for an hour and a half," said longtime Eldorado football coach Charlie Dotson. "Now, he comes in and works out three or four hours per day. He understands the business. He's going to be one of those guys that takes care of his body. He's not a guy that likes to go out and do all the things like most of the guys his age. He's a smart kid as far as he understands the Tom Brady, the Kobe Bryants of the world that take care of their bodies. He's doing that and doing things right."

Not that Dotson is surprised by that. The Gentry family is a well-known football family in New Mexico.

Bill Gentry, Zach's grandfather, was known as the Dean of Prep Coaches in New Mexico and is a member of the National High School Hall of Fame, as well as those for the state and local halls of fame. He won a state-record 305 games and three state championships. He was the National High School Football Coach of the Year in 1994.

"Football is really everything to my family," Gentry said. "My grandpa was extremely important to me growing up. He was my hero. Since I was a little guy, football has always been front and center."

Bill Gentry died in 2020 at the age of 93, and it was during that time that Zach, then entering his second season with the Steelers really began to add weight, packing an additional 15 pounds onto his frame to better be able to do battle with the defensive ends he would face in the NFL as a blocker.

Gentry has always been dedicated to football, so much so that he decided to not play high school basketball his senior season, despite averaging nearly 20 points and more than 10 rebounds per game as a junior.

"Zach was a very good high school basketball player," Dotson said. "He had the footwork. He can do it all as far as, not many people change positions in college and make it in the NFL. Zach's athleticism speaks to that. He was a very good basketball player up to his junior year.

"He could have been a Division I basketball player. He was that good."

But he had other plans.

"My freshman year in high school, I hurt my knee playing basketball. So, that was a little bit of a concern for me," Gentry said. "I wanted to focus on football and make sure I was healthy and, being a quarterback, I wanted to make sure I could compete going into the summer. I was a little worried about that."

He might have wanted to compete at quarterback, but then-new Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh had other plans, as well.

Though Gentry was one of the stars of Harbaugh's initial recruiting classes at Michigan, Gentry was approached after taking a redshirt year as a freshman and asked to transition to tight end. Actually, asked wouldn't be the right term. Told to move to tight end would be more appropriate.

"I wasn't happy about it all at first," Gentry said. "The only position I had really played growing up was quarterback. It was one of those things where it was kind of hard for me to understand why I was switched.

"But I always make sure I give Coach Harbaugh credit. He told me very early on in the transition that he envisioned me as an NFL tight end. It was going to happen. Of course, I didn't want to hear that at that time. But he was right."

Gentry looked into transferring.

"I've told him that if he had transferred, we might never have met," Roberts said.

He had initially committed to Texas as a junior, but backed out of that when it appeared then-head coach Charlie Strong was making a change in his offense.

Gentry had clicked with Texas assistant head coach for offense/quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson when he attended a Louisville passing camp

And when Strong and Watson moved on to Texas, they wanted the big pocket passer who had completed 316-of-582 career passes for 3,734 yards and 27 touchdowns in high school, also rushing 242 times for 1,013 yards and 26 scores.

Gentry also had a documented throw of 74 yards in the air at that camp – as a rising junior. Alabama, Baylor, Oklahoma State and Penn State were among the many other schools that had offered him. He most certainly could have transferred elsewhere and still been a quarterback.

"I had pretty good arm talent. But it's probably a little rusty now," Gentry said. "I was about an inch or two shorter and obviously a lot lighter. I was definitely a little more nimble. I've always been a pretty easy, smooth mover. This is the biggest I've been in my life. I used to be able to around easier."

But Watson was let go after a 6-7 season, and word got around they were looking to change their offensive scheme to incorporate more of a running quarterback. Kyler Murray, then one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country, was brought in for a visit. Soon thereafter, Gentry re-opened his recruiting.

Harbaugh, hired a week earlier, immediately jumped into the fray, visiting Gentry at his home and making a pitch for him to go to Michigan.

"We had all this contact with all of these other coaches. I never really spoke with the man," Dotson recalled. "He came right when he got the job. Zach was one of his first recruits that signed with him. He went to his house and recruited him and Zach was sold and went there.

"Zach wanted to be in a pro-style offense. That's how Harbaugh got them to commit to Michigan."

Little did he know, that would mean he'd be a pro-style tight end.

"Being 6-8 and having the length that he does, when you have a good tight end, running the type of offense Michigan does, they need to get a tight end that can block and do those things," Dotson said.

That's what the Steelers saw in Gentry, as well.

It was a similar path they once saw in another former Big Ten tight end, Matt Spaeth when they drafted him in 2007, head coach Mike Tomlin's first season with the team. Like Gentry, Spaeth was a tall (6-foot-7) lanky receiving tight end, who they viewed as having the potential to grow into being a big-time blocker.

Spaeth, who played seven of his nine NFL seasons with the Steelers, was the perfect blocking compliment to Miller, allowing him to block when needed, but to be the team's primary receiving tight end.

With Gentry and Pat Freiermuth, the Steelers have a similar combination.

"A lot of people compare us to Heath and Spaeth, so I'd like to keep that going," Freiermuth said. "It would keep the pressure off me blocking d-ends all the time. I definitely hope we're together for a long time."

The two are close in age – and in temperament. They've bonded on and off the field.

Much like their on-field work, their off-field friendship works the same way.

"We just kind of play off each other. We have similar personalities," Freiermuth said. "He's a little more outgoing. I'm more quiet. When we're together, we do a good job of playing off each other. His strengths are kind of my weaknesses and my strengths are his weaknesses, so we're a good combo."

Perhaps someday the two can combine in a different way.

When starting quarterback Kenny Pickett was injured in the first quarter of the Steelers' 16-14 loss to the Ravens, Mitch Trubisky replaced him. But with NFL rules dictating that only two quarterbacks be on the game-day roster, it begged the question – who would have finished the game at quarterback had something happened to Trubisky?

The Steelers have thought ahead about such an issue.

Ironically, the guy who didn't get the opportunity to play quarterback in college because he became too valuable at tight end might get the chance to play the position at the game's highest level.

"I'd like to think it could be me," Gentry said. "I take some snaps every now and then just in case something like that happens. Coach (quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan) Sully has me do it to get some mesh points every now and then to stay sharp. Hopefully, it never comes to that. I'd like to think I'd be the guy."

Obviously, it wouldn't occur under ideal conditions. But nobody doubts that Gentry could make it work.

"You always have to have someone in the room because you only dress two," Roberts said. "At least the guy has been under center. Early on, I said just go out and take snaps. We can kind of build a thing. It hasn't caught a lot of tread yet because we haven't had any of those situations. But for me, it would be easy for him to catch a snap or get under center and hand the ball off. Yes, I think he could do it."

So does third-string quarterback Mason Rudolph, who has been with Gentry the past four years.

"It would most likely be run-heavy stuff," Rudolph said. "But he understands our concepts. He knows the quick-game play-action. You could probably put him in the shotgun and let him throw the ball some when we had to on possession downs. He's always in the protection meetings, so he has a great understanding of the protections and the identifications from the center to the quarterback. He's a bright guy, I think he would get us out of a jam."

Even if he probably can't quite throw the ball 74 yards in the air any more.

Then again, the Steelers probably wouldn't be asking him to heave the ball quite that far. Gentry, an outgoing personality, has always made it known to his teammates that he was a big-time quarterback recruit.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

"He always says he was the No. 1 pro-style quarterback. He always talks about that," Freiermuth said.

If it doesn't happen, so be it. But Gentry is available in case of emergency.

In the meantime, he'll keep playing what is now his regular position – tight end.

He's become a big part of the Steelers offense, one the team utilizes quite often, even if he's not necessarily getting the ball thrown his way a lot.

"I think he still would like to see the ball more — which everybody does," Roberts said. "I told him, I had the pleasure of coaching a young man by the name of (longtime NFL tight end) Kyle Brady, he was a 270-pound tight end. I'd say, 'Kyle, we're running power with you.' He had success catching the football, but he was a blocking tight end.

"Even when he doesn't want to accept it because he wants to be cool like Pat, I tell him 'You are cool like Pat. You just do a different job than Pat.' I enjoy him. I think he's still growing in that position. He can play a long time in this league doing the things he does."

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