WESTFIELD, Ind. — Take a quick look at Hale Hentges’ college stats, and you might initially wonder how he finds himself currently battling for a roster spot in the NFL.
In 58 games across four seasons at Alabama, Hentges caught just 15 passes for 124 yards and six touchdowns. For comparison’s sake, Eric Ebron had 17 receptions for 263 yards in the first four games of his junior season at North Carolina.
But Hentges is the classic case in which his appeal as a player goes way beyond the numbers. A team captain, he was one of the Crimson Tide’s most dependable blockers, helping Alabama rank sixth in the nation in total rushing yards during his four years at the school. He was also extremely durable, playing in all but one game throughout his college career.
In other words, there’s a clear reason why Hentges played for one of the top collegiate programs in the country and turned away several others — including Missouri, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Ohio State and Oregon — in the recruiting process.
So the Indianapolis Colts knew what they were getting when they signed Hentges as a undrafted free agent back in early-May.
Yet, through 10 training camp practices, even the Colts’ coaching staff has been pleasantly surprised by the rookie tight end’s all-around game. In fact, offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni has been ribbing safety George Odum in recent days about the secondary’s inability to cover Hentges in one-on-one drills.
“I said, ‘You guys can’t cover him in one-on-ones,’” Sirianni recalled with a smile on Monday. “‘I think he’s undefeated.’”
That Hentges can create separation and make plays against NFL cornerbacks given his athletic traits seems unlikely, but he just figures out a way get the job done. The 6-foot-4, 245-pound Jefferson City, Mo., native ran a 5.04-second 40-yard dash at Alabama’s pro day, ran the 20-yard shuttle in 4.53 seconds and had a three-cone drill time of 7.39 seconds — all numbers that would’ve ranked at or near the bottom of all tight ends had he been invited to the NFL Scouting Combine (although his vertical jump of 33.5 inches would’ve tied for eighth).
But again, the numbers can be misleading.
Sirianni said Hentges has showed the ability to block, of course, but his consistency in the pass game has been “surprising.”
“I’m not going to say anything I don’t say to him — we know he’s not the most athletic guy, but he just finds a way to get open,” Sirianni said. “He finds a way to get open and even when he doesn’t find a way to get open, he catches the football, and that’s ultimately what a receiver and a tight end, when the ball is in the air, are judged upon.”
There’s also another factor in play when it comes to Hentges and a few of his teammates: the Colts have had an undrafted rookie make their Week 1 roster 20 straight seasons. And while many point to the fact Indy has numerous starters and backups returning from last year’s team, as well as the addition of nine draft picks available to play on this year’s roster, as evidence of this streak likely being snapped, Hentges is certainly making an early case for a 21st straight year.
Sirianni said it’s a little too early in the process to say how many tight ends the Colts would like to keep on their 53-man roster; last season, the team kept anywhere from three to five tight ends, with three usually being active on gamedays.
With starters Jack Doyle and Eric Ebron returning, as well as Mo Alie-Cox starting to come into his own heading into his second full NFL season, that doesn’t likely leave a ton of extra room at the position. But Hentges, who makes his NFL debut Thursday night in the Colts’ 2018 preseason opener against the Buffalo Bills, says he’ll continue keeping his head down and learning from those ahead of him as he makes his best attempt to keep the undrafted streak alive.
“I had a pretty decent past couple of days, but like I said, I’m just trying to learn from the guys that are so good in front of me — guys like Jack, Eric and Mo — and really just absorbing everything that they’re doing and watching them and watching their film and trying to figure out what makes them so good and trying to emulate that,” he told reporters Monday.