Free from his past, Gentry stands on the precipice

Thursday, September 13, 2018 - 6:29pm

Initially recruited as a quarterback, senior Zach Gentry now aspires to be a tight end in the NFL.

Initially recruited as a quarterback, senior Zach Gentry now aspires to be a tight end in the NFL. Buy this photo
Katelyn Mulcahy/Daily

Zach Gentry was supposed to be the next Andrew Luck, or something like that.

Back when a reference to Jim Harbaugh came with an obligatory preface of “quarterback whisperer.” When Harbaugh turned Luck into the surest prospect since Peyton Manning. When he dared start Colin Kaepernick and — three NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl appearance later — changed the way NFL offenses operated for the time being.

When any young quarterback would dream of playing for Harbaugh.

When Gentry was next.

He remembers the joy he felt when he picked up his phone one day late in 2014 and saw the Ann Arbor area code.

“I was hoping for a call from him, you know?” Gentry said Monday evening. “It was unbelievable. The guy working with all these great quarterbacks, was a great quarterback himself. It was definitely exciting for me.”

Much has changed since then, Gentry’s position on the field among them.

Gentry would like to politely tell you he isn’t a quarterback anymore; he hasn’t been one in four years. He’s a tight end and could be quite a good one. Named to the Mackey Award watch list of 52 players before the season, Gentry is more than just, “Jim Harbaugh’s first quarterback recruit at Michigan.” He’s looking to become Harbaugh’s first NFL tight end recruit at Michigan instead.

He thinks he has a chance. He’s done with what could have been or almost was. He’s ready for what is now, for what is coming. He’s not defined by his past, nor bound to a predetermined future, just like you or I.

He’s just Zach Gentry. Tight end. Basketball enthusiast. Albuquerque, N.M. native.

Sitting at a table in the back of Pizza House, towering over anyone in the vicinity, Gentry — now a redshirt junior — knows he’s being counted on to be an offensive weapon this season. He’s long been up-front about his desire to improve his blocking in order to justify a regular spot on the field. He says he’s never been more comfortable in that department. And there’s no doubt he has the athletic potential to achieve what he wants.

So is he sick of being asked, three years after the fact, about the move from quarterback?

“Ya know,” Gentry sighs, “makes a good story, I guess.”

Ten minutes later, Gentry is summoned on stage for his appearance on a local radio show. It only takes a few minutes.

“When you had… what was it… the conversion from quarterback to tight end,” the host says. “Take us through that.”

***

There are remnants of his past that still linger with Zach Gentry, though they grow ever fleeting by the day. He rattles off the names the best football players to come out of New Mexico — Brian Urlacher, chiefly among them — with impressive precision. At this point, you can count the New Mexicans ahead of Gentry on two hands.

A stranger donning a maize Michigan golf polo approaches Gentry, introducing himself by offering a mutual connection. Gentry makes small talk.

Eldorado gonna win the state title? the man presses.

Gentry smiles and shrugs. He has no clue.

Gentry’s high school career was a cavalcade of absurd feats and gaudy statistics. Nobody will ever confuse New Mexico for a recruiting hotbed, but perhaps that’s what made Gentry’s lure so appealing. Coupled with an unusual maturity — and from all indications, a rare humility — Gentry became legend in the area.

“Inescapably, Gentry finishes his career with the Eagles as the most accomplished QB in the school’s history — on a prep level,” wrote James Yodice, a reporter for the local Albuquerque Journal in 2014. “He leaves as one of Albuquerque’s most celebrated and recruited, and respected, football athletes of the last half-century.”

But then the eyes drift to the next quote in the story from former Eldorado head coach David Williams.

“His real legacy is what he does at the collegiate level.”

Both Gentry’s high school coach, Charlie Dotson, and Yodice single out a game against Cleveland High School his senior season. Gentry orchestrated a 52-51 comeback win, notching over 500 total yards. It wasn’t just that he did it, but how.

“I remember that night, in particular, and just thinking it was all gut comprehension that someone that size could come along and play the quarterback position that well, here,” Yodice said over the phone this week. “It was just a dazzling thing to watch.

“I don’t want to say man amongst boys because that’s a tired cliche. He just never looked like he belonged.”

Yodice still has a photo of Gentry from that game on his desk. It’s the only photo of a local athlete he’s ever kept.

When Gentry left Albuquerque, he left Albuquerque. Though he may not be bound to his past, his past will always be bound to him.

There was hardly an initial yearning to leave the state, as might be expected from an uber-talented recruit in a state that rarely breeds them. His grandfather, Bill, was a legendary New Mexico high school coach for 38 years. The University of New Mexico came calling during the recruiting process, and it’s where Gentry’s older brother, Sam, walked-on as a quarterback, punter and holder (yes, all three). Zach developed a close relationship with the Lobos, but it became clear early that the younger Gentry was destined for more.

Louisville, and coach Charlie Strong, came first. Then-Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin spearheaded Alabama’s quest. Oklahoma State was firmly in the mix. Baylor. Tennessee. Nebraska. You name it.

Strong temporarily secured Gentry’s commitment in May of 2014, after the coach was hired at Texas.

Once Harbaugh was hired by Michigan, though, the Wolverines nabbed Gentry in one fell swoop. It started with the phone call Gentry had quietly desired. Then Harbaugh came to New Mexico. The next weekend, Gentry was in Ann Arbor.

Within the span of a few weeks, Harbaugh had secured Gentry as his first quarterback commit at Michigan.

Retrospectively, the whole process strikes Gentry, now 22, as rather arbitrary. He remembers getting his first offer at age 14 from San Diego State. Soon after, he flipped on the television to see the Aztecs play. He liked their jerseys.

“Recruiting process happened really quickly,” Gentry said. “When you’re 14 years old you don’t know what kind of weight that carries. It kinda flew by. I don’t think a lot of the things that I think are important now. Maybe I would’ve looked at more if I could do it over again.”

The position change seemingly happened just as quickly.

In late September of his freshman season, the Wolverines coaching staff asked Gentry to mimic a taller receiver on BYU for the scout team in practice.

“I had made some plays in the scout team,” Gentry recalled, “(ran) some routes that opened their eyes a little bit to that.”

One such route was a deep post which culminated in Gentry nabbing a pass over the safety, putting every inch of his 6-foot-7 frame to use. The coaching staff saw something in Gentry. Toward the end of the season, Harbaugh sat down with Gentry and outlined the reasons he felt a permanent move would be best for both parties. Gentry reluctantly obliged.

“At the time, it was upsetting,” Gentry said. “I had never played another position other than quarterback my entire life. Being recruited to be one, it was a little upsetting.”

Adjusting from quarterback to tight end caused frustration, but frustration that needs to be put into context. It wasn’t just a new position that bothered Gentry. He had moved from New Mexico to the University of Michigan. He was not a big fish in a small pond anymore; he was just another fish in the vast ocean.

To boot, the first quarterback Jim Harbaugh came after at Michigan lasted just a couple months at the position. He wasn’t Andrew Luck. He wasn’t Colin Kaepernick.

For two whole years, he wasn’t even on the field.

Imagine going from those heights to these depths. Imagine expecting success from yourself — and having an entire region banking on it — then, suddenly, things don’t go as planned. For two years, you don’t sniff the field, and the disappointment extends far beyond yourself. To those back at home, it defied logic that their prodigal son wasn’t playing quarterback at Michigan, no less playing at all.

“I think there were some people in Albuquerque in the community that were a little upset about it,” Gentry said, “(They) didn’t really understand what was going on being here.”

***

Zach Gentry wants to be an NFL tight end.

He’s wanted to play in the NFL for as long as he can remember. There was a time when that destiny was as an NFL quarterback. It took some time, but he’s now determined to be an NFL tight end.

He’s worked on tailoring his game to meet the prerequisites of playing at the next level. Gentry came to Michigan weighing around 230 pounds — plenty big for a quarterback — but was asked to bulk up after the position change. He’s now listed on the Michigan website at 262 pounds.

“I think he’s gonna fit right in when he gets (to the NFL), because of the style of offense that he’s been a part of,” said tight ends coach Sherrone Moore.

When.

The confidence — sheer inevitability — conveyed in that word is enough to be convinced. After all, there are plenty of reasons to believe that is the path Gentry will take. Tight ends who are 6-foot-7, run a 4.6 40-yard dash and have quarterback instincts don’t grow on trees.

There have been flashes of it littered throughout Gentry’s time at Michigan.

During the 2017 Spring Game, then-redshirt freshman quarterback Brandon Peters hit Gentry for a 55-yard touchdown. Gentry caught the pass down the seam, and offered a juke that left the safety on the ground. A flash.

He scored on a 15-yard crossing route at Purdue last season, using his speed to gain space, his strength to power into the end zone. A flash.


He’s even developed an ability to run block, his self-proclaimed weakness after becoming a tight end.

But for all of the flashes, for all the tantalizing potential built in his NFL frame, there are still facts. Namely, a level of production that has yet to meet the preseason Mackey watch list hype.

Last year, 14 tight ends were taken in the NFL Draft. They averaged 81.8 catches, 997.5 yards and 8.8 touchdowns for their careers, including several drafted for their blocking ability first and foremost.

To this point in his career, Gentry has 20 catches, 324 yards and two touchdowns. While college production often has little correlation with professional success, Gentry’s lack thereof still sounds alarm bells.

Potential is a glistening word, but ultimately hollow until it's realized.

Gentry lists off several items he thinks will need to be improved upon to reach the next level.

Take care of his body. Work on the run game. Improve his pad level.

To his credit, Gentry thinks he’s close. He’s still learning how to work with the extra weight, still grasping the nuance of all that comes with playing tight end. His progress is noticeable in run-blocking in particular two games into the season.

“I think I’m getting close to being a complete tight end,” Gentry said. “I think I put together some good blocking games throughout the last couple years. And I made some plays downfield catching the ball. I think I’m getting there.”

Added Yodice: “I can hardly probably think of 10 kids who have come from New Mexico high school football and gone onto the next level and had a successful career. If Zach were to get to the NFL — and I think everyone expects that he will — that would be an enormous boost for this community.”

And I think everyone expects that he will.

There’s that pesky expectation again.