Recently retired South Dakota State coach John Stiegelmeier says the legacy tight end Tucker Kraft leaves at the school has a lot to do with his resisting six-figure NIL deals via a transfer to remain in the program and become a part of the Jackrabbits’ FCS national championship season.
Kraft’s next team will be as excited to be meet him up-close-and-personal at the 2023 NFL Combine and learn about both his off-the-field attributes and on-field skills.
Kraft, who forewent remaining NCAA eligibility to enter the NFL Draft as a junior-eligible prospect, was one of 20 tight ends in a strong class at the position and 319 overall players announced on Wednesday for the Combine, to be held from Feb. 28 to March 6 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. He’s one of nine players invited from FCS programs, a group that also includes North Dakota State tight end Noah Gindorff.
The 6-foot-5, 255-pound Kraft follows in the footsteps of SDSU’s similarly sized, former tight end Dallas Goedert, who attended the 2018 Combine before he was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the second round.
“What he’s meant to the program is a number of things,” Stiegelmeier said. “Number one, obviously he’s pursuing a dream, and everybody in any program – it doesn’t matter what college program, what level you’re talking about – they all want to pursue that dream of the NFL, and it’s real for him. He’s a picture of that. And our guys can relate to and reference the hard work Tucker’s put in terms of ball skills and blocking skills and so on.
“And then something really unique, to turn down six-figures NIL money, to stay at South Dakota State, play his last year, play with his (teammates), I think makes a statement that not a lot of young people make nowadays. We’re going to build on that moving forward in terms of loyalty and what really matters when you end your career.”
In a longer SDSU career, Goedert was more of a receiver than Kraft, finishing with twice as many catches (198) as Kraft’s 99 in 32 career games. Kraft played a key role as a blocker – an “XL O-lineman,” left guard Mason McCormick said. “He gets in there and brings brute strength and physicality.” – yet still had 65 receptions (the most among FCS tight ends) for 773 yards and six touchdowns as a first-team All-American in 2021.
Kraft tracks the ball well and uses strength to power through contact and pick up yards after the catch. After a reception in the first quarter of the 2022 season opener at Iowa, he suffered a right ankle injury and was sidelined for about eight games. He returned to catch 26 more passes and three touchdowns in the final eight games of the Jackrabbits’ national title season.
“I’m a small-school guy, so my biggest thing moving on would be getting my Combine invite and then wowing people with my athleticism,” Kraft said.
He feels motivated from where he’s come from, and while he admits defenders will be bigger and faster at the next level, he says, “It’s still the same game.”
The 2023 NFL Draft will be held from April 27-29 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Former FCS Players Invited to 2023 NFL Scouting Combine
Fullback: Hunter Luepke, North Dakota State
Tight end: Noah Gindorff, North Dakota State; Tucker Kraft, South Dakota State
Wide receiver: Andrei Iosivas, Princeton
Offensive linemen: McClendon Curtis, Chattanooga; Mark Evans II, Arkansas-Pine Bluff; Cody Mauch, North Dakota State
Edge: Isaiah Land, Florida A&M
Cornerback: Myles Brooks, Stephen F. Austin/Louisiana Tech