There are few players in the NFL better at catching passes than Travis Kelce.
Since his first full season in the league in 2014, no one has more receptions than his 814, and only Julio Jones (10,892), DeAndre Hopkins (10,496) and Mike Evans (10,425) have more than Kelce’s 10,344 receiving yards. The Chiefs star has the fifth-most catches by a tight end in NFL history and the fourth-most receiving touchdowns in his Hall of Fame career.
But it wasn’t too long ago that Kelce was a standout for throwing passes, rather than catching them. As late as his redshirt freshman season in college, he was taking occasional snaps under center. And in high school, quarterback was his primary position.
How did he go from dual-threat QB to one of the best tight ends of all time? Here’s Kelce’s quarterback history.
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Travis Kelce’s quarterback career
Kelce might be one of the NFL’s best tight ends now, but when he was getting his first chances to play at the high school level, it was under center.
It wasn’t until 2006, when Kelce was a junior in high school, that he got his first start. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, he completed 3 of 12 passes for 60 yards to go with 65 yards and a pair of touchdowns rushing in Cleveland Heights’ 24-22 win over Warrensville Heights.
“We’re pleased with what Travis did,” Tigers coach Mike Jones told the Plain Dealer. “We want to pass the ball more, and we will. It’s just that we got out to a [24-7] lead and we tried using the clock.”
That first year had its ups and downs. Kelce showed off his ability to hurt defenses with his dual-threat abilities, but the team finished the year 3-7 overall and 1-4 in the Lake Division, last among the five teams.
His senior year, 2007, started with a bit of uncertainty at quarterback. The Plain Dealer reported that under first-year head coach Jeff Rotsky, there was a “quarterback race” between Kelce and junior Aric Jones, though Kelce had the edge with offers from major schools.
“Travis has scholarship offers from Kansas and all the Mid-American Conference schools,” Rotsky told The Plain Dealer. “Some of the colleges are looking at him as a quarterback, some as a tight end.”
His senior year didn’t see improved results from the team as the Tigers again finished 3-7 and 1-4, but Kelce had a promising season. He finished with 1,523 passing yards, 15 touchdowns and eight interceptions, while also rushing for 1,016 yards and 10 touchdowns. A standout on the basketball court as well as on the gridiron, Kelce was also nominated for the McDonald’s High School All-America team.
In November, Kelce made his college commitment: he would follow his brother, Jason Kelce, to Cincinnati. The Plain Dealer noted in its article on his commitment that while some schools were viewing the 6-6, 235-pound recruit as a tight end, Kelce was still more interested in quarterback. He wouldn’t rule out changing positions, however.
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“The University of Cincinnati is also giving me the opportunity to play basketball, too,” Kelce told the Plain Dealer. “But the main reason is football and it came down to the kind of offense they run.
“They run the spread and that’s what I’m used to.”
Part of Kelce’s decision to commit to Cincinnati came down to the chance to play quarterback. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported he had offers from Michigan, Michigan State and West Virginia and that Bearcats coach Brian Kelly’s pitch to Kelce was that he might be able to play the position.
Kelce redshirted in 2008. In 2009, the coaches started to look at ways to get Kelce more involved in the offense. The Bearcats created a Wildcat package to get Kelce on the field as a quarterback. He’d make read options with top wide receiver Mardy Gilyard, who was also in the backfield.
“It was all Travis’ world, whatever he wanted to do back there,” Gilyard told The Enqurier. “What he did was crazy, but it worked because we all trusted his athleticism.”
Kelce was suspended for the 2010 season, and the Enquirer reported that in 2011, new coach Butch Jones made the decision to shift Kelce to tight end full time. It was a slow transition, Jones told the Enquirer, but Kelce eventually began to pick up on the position, staying after practice to improve.
“It was a process,” Jones told The Enquirer. “But when you look at the position traits that you look for in a tight end from a toughness standpoint, from an athleticism standpoint and from the ability to create matchups against a defense — it was a no brainer. But he had to put himself into that position. He had to work every day. Every day there were struggles and triumphs, but in two years he became a changed individual on and off the field.”
In 2011, Kelce was the team’s third-string tight end, and quarterback was in the rearview mirror. The next season, his redshirt senior year, he caught 45 passes for 722 yards and eight touchdowns. He was off to the NFL after the season, and the rest, well, is history.
Could Kelce have challenged Patrick Mahomes for quarterback? Probably not. But Mahomes is likely happy Kelce gave up throwing passes and made a career out of catching them.
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