Tyrone Swoopes’ path from college quarterback to NFL tight end

Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports   Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images
Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images /

It’s an early morning in McKinney, Texas, and former Texas Longhorns quarterback Tyrone Swoopes is already at the Michael Johnson Performance facility working out.

For the past three months, Swoopes has worked day in and day out with coaches and trainers at MJP, spending time on speed training, position drills and film study. Unlike the vast majority of prospects at the facility, Swoopes isn’t here to refine his skills or build up his body, he’s trying to learn an entirely new position.

After a roller coaster season for the Longhorns, Swoopes is now preparing for the 2017 NFL draft as a tight end instead of a quarterback. That might not have been the plan a few years ago when he began his college career, but it now appears to be his best chance of playing in the NFL.

Expectations were high for Swoopes coming out of Whitewright High School in Texas. A four-star recruit, Swoopes was a talented dual-threat quarterback who was expected to take the reigns of the Longhorns offense from David Ash and Case McCoy.

Swoopes finally got that chance in 2014 as a sophomore, but unfortunately it wasn’t the coming out party he expected. The Longhorns ended the season with a 6-7 record, including a 31-7 loss to Arkansas in the Texas Bowl, while Swoopes compiled 17 total touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

The Longhorns had a tough decision to make prior to the 2015 season as to who should start at quarterback, and the coaching staff decided to move Swoopes into more of a reserve role in favor of playing Jerrod Heard under center.

“It was tough to go from starting to not starting, but it didn’t really bother me that much,” Swoopes told FanSided. “It was just part of my role. I was willing to do whatever I needed to do to be successful.”

Despite not starting, Swoopes was able to contribute to the offense by playing in a special set of plays called the 18-Wheeler Package, a tribute to the quarterback’s jersey number and powerful running style. Utilizing Swoopes’ 6-foot-4, 249-pound frame, the Texas quarterback would come in primarily for run-heavy packages, especially near the goal line and in short-yardage situations.

“Tyrone epitomizes what you want as a coach from a teammate,” former Texas quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson said about Swoopes embracing a lesser role in the offense. “He always put other players first.”

The new role wasn’t one Swoopes envisioned but it allowed him to make an impact on the Longhorns offense. In his final two years at Texas, Swoopes finished with 19 rushing touchdowns, including a career game in the season opener against Notre Dame when he scored three touchdowns, including the game-winning score in double overtime.

The process of learning the tight end position hasn’t been easy for Swoopes. However, he believes that he has a unique edge compared to other tight end prospects given his experience reading defenses as a quarterback. Swoopes credits his former quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson, who is now the offensive coordinator with the Pittsburgh Panthers, for setting him up for success after college.

“Coach Watson taught me the most during my time at Texas,” Swoopes said. “He taught me a lot about reading defenses, and that’s what’s helped me the most making the transition. He was the most influential coach in my college career as far as football knowledge goes.”

Despite his big, athletic frame and role in the 18-Wheeler package, no one at Texas ever suggested Swoopes try switching positions in college.

“I didn’t have much film at quarterback this year, so I just got with my agent,” Swoopes said. “We started talking and he brought up moving to tight end, and I was down to do it so we just made the move.”

As it turns out, some of those who knew Swoopes best thought that he could be successful at tight end in college.

“I thought he’d be an excellent tight end prospect,” Watson said. “Had we had a better QB situation, I would have wanted to move him to tight end. We couldn’t afford to move Swoopes, or else we would have.”

Training at Michael Johnson Performance has been rigorous for Swoopes. Most days start at 7 a.m. with an hour of speed training (pro agility, three-cone drills, etc.) before a weightlifting session. At 1 p.m., Swoopes works with a position coach on his footwork and getting in and out of cuts. Swoopes then moves to working on pass and run blocking drills, something that Swoopes admits is foreign to him.

“Just learning the technique of pass blocking has been the hardest part of this process,” Swoopes said. “Having to work your feet and hands at the same time while learning all the ways to react to different pass rushing techniques can be challenging.”

The training program is a rigorous one, but it’s one that has paid off for plenty of prospects who have worked out at Michael Johnson Performance in the past, including tight end prospects like Jermaine Gresham and Brandon Pettigrew. Swoopes is obviously a much more raw prospect, but like anything, the training is a process.

“Naturally, from a limitations standpoint, it’s just learning to line up at a different spot on the field,” Michael Johnson Performance’s Director of the NFL Combine program Brian Abadie said of Swoopes. “It takes a few weeks to walk out there and see the defense from a different position.”

An average day of work usually ends around 5:30 p.m. for Swoopes. While the former Longhorns quarterback is behind the curve in an extremely deep class of tight ends, he is hoping that his work ethic and natural athleticism will help him land a spot on an NFL team.

“If someone gives me an opportunity to be on their team, whether that’s getting drafted or being signed as a free agent, I just want to show that I’m ready to come in and work every day and be prepared for whatever they throw at me,” Swoopes said.

A strong work ethic is something that Swoopes takes pride in, and his former mentor thinks that the time he put in at quarterback will help him at tight end as well.

“I think that [NFL teams] are going to find out that because of his QB background, that he’ll understand the details of the passing game and understand what he has to do,” Watson said. “He understands the game of football. You tell him once and he’s got it. He’s a natural football learner.

“He’ll have to learn technique and everything, but like I said he’s a great student and a phenomenal athlete.”

A college quarterback moving positions in the NFL isn’t common, but Swoopes is far from the first player to make the switch. Players like Cleveland Browns wide receiver Terrelle Pryor (Ohio State) and New England Patriots receiver Julian Edelman (Kent State) played quarterback in college, as did Green Bay Packers receiver Randall Cobb during his freshman year at Kentucky.

Swoopes is even working with a former college quarterback in Patrick Crayton this offseason. Crayton played QB as a senior at Northwestern Oklahoma State, but then moved to wide receiver after being drafted by the Dallas Cowboys, where he played from 2004 to 2009 before retiring from the league in 2013.

“[Crayton told me] he really had to work on his route running, breaking down and getting used to blocking,” Swoopes said. “He said having basic knowledge of coverages and what the QB does helped him a lot.”

Former Missouri quarterback Brad Smith is another player who understands what Swoopes is going through. Smith was a fourth-round pick taken by the New York Jets, and played with them for five seasons before he spent time with the Buffalo Bills and Philadelphia Eagles. Originally entering the draft as a quarterback, Smith wound up spending the majority of his NFL career as a wide receiver and return specialist.

Unlike Swoopes, Smith didn’t even think about the possibility of playing receiver at the next level.

“Through the whole process, all of my training and workouts leading up to the draft were to play quarterback,” Smith said. “I got drafted by the Jets, and Coach Mangini told me to do whatever the team needed me to do.”

Despite having to learn a new position in such a short amount of time, Smith wound up having a successful NFL career. He played in the NFL for nine seasons and picked up 104 receptions, 987 receiving yards, 2,879 total return yards and 14 total touchdowns that included five receiving, four rushing, one passing and four kickoff return TDs.

Even with nine years of constant practice and training, Smith admitted that learning wide receiver was an ongoing process throughout his career, and that even the most established veterans are trying to master the position. For a former college quarterback, developing into a legitimate NFL receiver was even trickier.

“It’s like playing point guard in basketball and suddenly having to move without the ball in your hands,” Smith said. “Mentally, as a quarterback you can understand concepts and formations. From a physical standpoint, it’s a different way of moving and cutting and there’s a whole different thought process.”

Smith, like many others, feels that players like Swoopes are going to start becoming more of the norm than the exception. As players like Ty Montgomery and Deone Bucannon begin to have more versatile roles in their respective systems, Smith feels scouts will start to emphasize athleticism and physical traits more than what position they specialized in.

“I don’t think [specializing in a position] is as important today,” Smith said. “You can move a guard to tackle, a tight end to a receiver. Just having that basic athleticism and intangible traits is more important now because teams can envision where you fit in their system.”

As for Swoopes, Smith thinks that he has the capability to make a statement in the NFL, and he understands that the process won’t be easy for the former Longhorns quarterback.

“He’s a tremendous athlete to do what he’s done in college,” Smith said. “He’s a big, strong guy who is just pursuing the dream.”

“You go from being one of the best QBs in the country coming out of high school to playing a completely new position. It’s mentally difficult. But I wouldn’t trade my experiences for the world, and [Swoopes] will get to learn a completely different dynamic to the game of football.”

With the 2017 NFL draft  just a few weeks away, the time to deliver is now for Swoopes. His months of training, Pro Day and offseason workouts have led up to this moment, and he has plenty of supporters in his corner.

“I think [moving to tight end] will be an easy transition for him,” Abadie said. “He’s already a freak athlete. He moves extremely smooth and is fluid with his routes. He knows what his QB is going to want. He’s got more speed than most linebackers. I think he’s going to surprise and impress a lot of people.”

NFL draft scouts everywhere are intrigued by Swoopes’ athleticism and his attempt to make this transition, but they also admit that there’s a lot that they need to see before they’re willing to buy into his game.

“So much of how I scout a player is based on athletic traits and not so much positional production,” Bleacher Report’s lead NFL draft writer Matt Miller said. “For Swoopes, I want to see power in his movements, flexibility in his hips, easy moving in space, quickness/speed and then start to see if he can even catch the ball.”

Getting drafted isn’t a guarantee for Swoopes, unfortunately. He’s competing to be one of 253 prospects taken in the draft, but even if his name isn’t called, he’ll have a chance to battle for a roster spot as an undrafted free agent.

The biggest challenge for Swoopes will be standing out in an extremely deep tight end class that includes names like O.J. Howard, David Njoku, Jake Butt, Bucky Hodges and a number of others. His inexperience at tight end may scare away some teams who want an immediate contributor.

“I would say [Swoopes’ chances of getting drafted] are very slim,” Miller said. “This is a deep draft class and it’s also very good at tight end. Because of that, we’ll see fewer projects drafted because the value of ready-made players is higher. I expect he’ll be a UDFA.”

Swoopes understands that being a project will hurt his chances of hearing his name called during the weekend of the draft. It doesn’t bother him, however.

“I’m raw talent,” Swoopes said. “I think I have a lot of ability that no one has seen yet. I think that with enough work and the proper coaching I could belong in the same class as anyone else in this draft class.”

Swoopes isn’t the first player to switch positions from college to the pros, and the 18 Wheeler is ready to be the NFL’s next great success story.

“I will never bet against Tyrone because of his character,” Coach Watson explained. “I would say that Ty knows right now that he has a major transition ahead of him. He knows who he is, so when he gets an opportunity to prove himself, he’ll be ready for it.”