Excelling in a new field

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October 23, 2007

3:31 AM

__Senior tight end Drew Atchison goes from relief pitcher to NFL prospect__

Now in his 24th season with the Tribe, offensive coordinator Zbig Kepa knows a valuable asset when he sees one.

p. “A tight end that can catch the ball,” Kepa said. “That’s a rare commodity.”

p. Even rarer than a pass-catching tight end, however, is one that comes to the team via the pitcher’s mound.

p. In his first year as a starter, senior tight end Drew Atchison has emerged as one of junior quarterback Jake Phillips’ favorite targets, hauling in 22 catches for 363 yards and 3 touchdowns through his first seven games. His production is particularly impressive considering the fact that three years ago he was not even playing football.

p. Atchison first came to the College on a partial baseball scholarship as a pitcher for the Tribe. He saw action in four innings as a freshman, yet struggled to perform well. He remained on the team heading into his sophomore year, putting in extra hours in an attempt to improve as a player. He remained on the roster for the first few games of the season but was not put into any games.

p. “That was kind of disheartening for me,” Atchison said. “I’ve always been a pretty good athlete and I’ve always been taught that hard work will lead to improvement and success and that wasn’t the case for me with baseball.

p. “I was working real hard both in practice and in the weight room. I was doing everything the coaches were asking me to do but I just wasn’t getting much better,” Atchison said.

p. So he decided to make the switch from the baseball diamond to the gridiron. Having played football for Albemarle High School outside Charlottesville, Va., Atchison was by no means new to the sport. He entered spring football practice as a tryout, and at the end of it was told he could stay on the team. The next obstacle for Drew was to make the 90-man roster.

p. “If you don’t get on that 90-man roster basically you’re behind the whole year because that’s when a lot of the instruction and learning occurs in football,” Atchison said.

p. After being told that it was unsure whether or not he’d make the 90-man roster, Atchison decided to stay in Williamsburg for the summer, just as he has every summer since joining the team, to try to improve his skills and bulk up his lean 6’7” frame. Atchison had done very little upper body lifting as a pitcher, so he found himself far behind the rest of the football team. His hard work was rewarded in the fall, as he earned himself a spot.

p. While Atchison was struggling to make the team, he was making himself well-known among the coaching staff.

p. “Right away we knew that he [was] tall, [and he had] ball skills,” Kepa said. “He made a splash pretty early with that.”

p. During the 2005 season, Atchison spent most of his time as the no. 4 tight end, but did get to travel with the team for the last few games of the season and played some on special teams. He entered the 2006 season as the no. 2 tight end behind Matt Trinkle. He saw action in two tight end sets, and began to feel comfortable in the offense.

p. Atchison believes his breakthrough as a football player came during his game-tying 57-yard touchdown reception against Villanova University. He took in a five-yard pass and did the rest all on his own, showcasing his speed and breaking tackles on his way to the end zone.

p. “I think I got a lot of respect and confidence from the coaching staff from that play,” Atchison said.

p. Entering this season as a starter, Atchison started off on a tear, catching 18 passes and 3 touchdowns through his first four games. Defenses took notice of his hot start and soon began to put more of a focus on him, which has caused his production to slip over the past three games. His presence still affects games, however.

p. “Now more teams are keying in on Drew,” junior wideout Elliot Mack said. “They’re covering up some of the routes he likes to run, which opens it up for other people.”

p. Phillips has no shortage of praise for his tight end, calling Atchison a “great weapon to have,” and saying that, regardless of whether he throws the ball behind him, low, or out in front of him, he can count on the senior to come down with the pass.

p. “He can make some tough catches,” Phillips said.

p. In addition to attracting defenses and winning the respect of his quarterback, Atchison has been making the National Football League take notice. Several NFL scouts have attended Tribe practices and games to take a look at the tight end. He is currently ranked 32nd among tight ends on NFLDraftScout.com. In the 2007 NFL Draft, 13 tight ends were selected. Most scouts have told Atchison that he needs to get stronger and gain more weight, although how much weight depends on who he talks to.

p. “One scout told me he’d like to see me at 265 [lbs.] or 270, and then another scout told me that they’re looking at me more as a receiving tight end so they don’t really want me any more than 255,” Atchison said. He added that “it’s definitely doable” for him to add some weight to his 245 lb. frame.

p. While it is unlikely for Atchison to hear his name called in April’s NFL draft, he has a good shot of signing as an undrafted free agent with a team in the spring or summer. His speed (he’s been timed in the 4.7 range in the 40-yard dash), length (6’7” with long arms) and pass-catching ability make him a valuable commodity. Also, his offensive coordinator believes that his limited experience works in his advantage.

p. “Some guys develop a lot later and he’s one of those guys,” Kepa said. “He’s going to be stronger and bigger. He’s only been playing for two, two and a half years. There’s an upside to him.”

p. While he says that he plans to try to make it onto an NFL roster, Atchison is not getting too wrapped up in the process.

p. “[Making it with an NFL team] is one of my goals, but it’s not one what I’m heart set on,” Atchison said. “A lot of my intrigue with the NFL is just to see how much better I can get and see how much more I can improve and keep improving.”

p. If Atchison is unable to catch on with an NFL team, he already has his backup plan lined up. He is currently maintaining a 3.92 GPA in his graduate school classes, where he is pursuing his masters of arts and education degree. He hopes to teach biology and maybe do some coaching as well.

p. Whether he finds himself next year catching passes from NFL quarterbacks, or teaching high schoolers biology, Atchison isn’t likely to rest on his laurels.

p. “I just want to keep pushing myself and push the limit of my abilities and see how far I can go,” Atchison said.

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