Free Press sports writer Dave Birkett shares his thoughts after expected Lions coach Matt Patricia and the New England Patriots beat the Jacksonville Jaguars, 24-20, in the AFC title game on Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018, in Foxborough, Mass.
(Photo: Andrew Shurtleff, AP)
MOBILE, Ala. — When Tyler Conklin walked away from a basketball scholarship at Northwood to try and play football at Central Michigan, it had nothing to do with wanting a shot at the NFL, though truth be told he thought he could play there.
Conklin committed early to Northwood while starring in both football and basketball at L’Anse Creuse North, not wanting to wait on scholarship offers that may or may not materialize from a handful of bigger schools.
But when he arrived on Northwood’s quiet Midland campus, it didn’t take long for Conklin to realize it wasn’t for him.
Conklin’s mother, Diana, estimated she talked to her son up to 10 times a day during his first semester at Northwood as he debated transferring and sent her videos explaining his plight.
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“He was trying to push himself to stay there, but he just really was struggling with it,” Diana Conklin said. “He started kind of saying I don’t know if I want to stay here and I think I want to play football now. And we struggled, because it’s $38,000 a year in his hand, so it was a struggle on what advice to give. But I’m a counselor and a mom so my whole thought was I just want my kid happy and it’s his life so I told him whatever he wanted to do, I was in support of that.”
Conklin played in seven games as a backup guard early in the 2013-14 season, where he averaged 1.7 points and about 12 minutes a game, before putting the wheels in motion for a transfer.
He reached out to an assistant football coach at CMU who recruited him in high school and asked if he could walk on. Even though he was told he wasn’t guaranteed a spot, his mind was made up.
At one point, Conklin was home during a break from school, watching a Michigan State football game on the big screen at Buffalo Wild Wings. He saw Josiah Price catching passes and making plays, and he told his then girlfriend, “I can do that.”
“She was kind of optimistic about it like, ‘Can you?’ ” Conklin said.
At CMU, Conklin impressed enough in his tryout that he earned a roster spot that spring as a receiver and undersized defensive end.
Tyler Conklin tries to catch a pass against Texas A&M safety Armani Watts during Senior Bowl practice Tuesday in Mobile, Ala. (Photo: Glenn Andrews, USA TODAY Sports)
He moved to tight end while sitting out the 2014 season due to transfer regulations, and 3½ years later, he has remarkably emerged as an NFL draft prospect who’s in the midst of one very important showcase for NFL teams this week at the Senior Bowl.
“I knew I always had pretty good ball skills and natural hands,” Conklin said. “I knew that if I needed to put on weight and get bigger and stronger that I had the work ethic to do it. It was always something that I thought and knew I could do. I was just having a conversation with my friends and family at home, and they were like, ‘You used to always say it. We were rooting for you, but we weren’t really sure if it was going to work out.’ I always had faith in myself and it ended up panning out.”
Conklin was a backup in 2015 to tight end Ben McCord, who signed with the Detroit Lions as an undrafted free agent, and took over as starter the following season.
He finished third on the team with 42 catches in 2016, and was in line for a bigger role this season when he broke his left foot while running a pass route 45 minutes into his first practice of training camp.
“I just planted and just kind of swelled up in my shoe and I knew something was wrong,” Conklin said. “I went and kind of got it looked at. They said it looked like it was a Jones fracture.”
Conklin had surgery in August and considered a medical redshirt, but nine weeks later, on Oct. 7, he was back on the field setting career-highs in catches (10) and yards (136) in a two-touchdown performance against Ohio.
Tyler Conklin catches a touchdown against Oklahoma State on Sept. 10, 2016. (Photo: Brody Schmidt, AP)
“We had a lot of teammates kind of have the same injury prior, and they were all out six months, five months timespan, so I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do,” Conklin said. “I was going to be able to medical redshirt if I needed to, but I really wanted to try to come back and finish what I started with some of my best friends and a lot of the seniors on the team. So I went to a good doctor and surgery went great and I just worked my butt off to try to get back as fast as possible.”
Conklin finished last season with 35 catches for 504 yards and five touchdowns in eight games.
He said his foot “feels great now,” and he recently went for an exam that showed no problems structurally.
Though Conklin finished the season on a high note, with a seven-catch performance in CMU’s Idaho Potato Bowl loss to Wyoming, NFL teams are anxious to take an extended look at him this week against a step up in competition.
Conklin said scouts have given him positive feedback so far on his athletic ability and basketball background, but they want to see more of him as a blocker and route runner.
For now, he projects as a Day 3 pick in April’s NFL draft.
"I think I’m still a little bit raw," Conklin said. "There’s a lot of things I can get better at. Route running, blocking. I think there’s room for improvement in every aspect of my game and especially jumping to the next level, everybody’s a good football player, everybody’s a great athlete. So I feel like the little things and just improving my game, all the small stuff is really going to be big in having a successful transition to the NFL."