P.J. Fleck sprinted across the field one day during practice this month, a head coach on a mission, just to see how the Gophers’ uber-talented 6-7 tight end looked catching lobs in the end zone.
Brevyn Spann-Ford missed the first pass, the ball sailing just above his outstretched hands.
“Time your jump, Brevyn!” Fleck shouted at the towering redshirt freshman.
Second time around, Spann-Ford did just that, easily snatching an even higher throw from Tanner Morgan for the touchdown. The whistle blew, and Fleck fist-pumped before sprinting away.
With scholarship offers in both football and basketball, Spann-Ford is considered one of the best athletes ever from the St. Cloud area. After a year of development, he could be ready to become Fleck’s breakout offensive threat this fall.
“This guy is unbelievable,” Fleck said after he signed the state’s No. 1 prospect last year. “You need to be getting your Brevyn Spann-Ford jerseys now.”
Spann-Ford has done much of his work behind the scenes since he arrived at the U, adding 40 pounds, getting up to 270 this summer. He is battling sophomore Jake Paulson and junior Ko Kieft for the starting tight end job in training camp.
“The versatility of being a tight end nowadays, you have to be able to catch and block,” Spann-Ford said. “It was a big dream of mine to play here — and sometimes it still hasn’t set in with me I’m actually here.”
Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino’s staff went to watch Spann-Ford in high school.
As a powerful 6-7 forward with passing and ball-handling skills, Spann-Ford broke school records in points, rebounds and assists — notching a triple-double vs. Sauk-Rapids on senior night.
The son of former St. Cloud State basketball standout LaTroy “Scoop” Spann received a Division I basketball scholarship offer from North Dakota State his sophomore year.
“He started since his freshman year in both football and basketball,” said former St. Cloud Tech football coach Gregg Martig, who also was a hoops assistant. “In my 23 years at Tech, he was the only kid to do that. He played point guard for us in basketball. He was just a unique talent. He was obviously recruited in both sports. I just think down the road, he was probably looking at the overall bigger picture.”
The Bob McDonald Award, given to the state’s top basketball senior, included Spann-Ford on a list of finalists with Duke’s Tre Jones and Gophers Daniel Oturu, Gabe Kalscheur and Jarvis Omersa.
Spann-Ford and Omersa are buddies, but he never considered a walk-on role to join him in basketball.
“I never asked, but I don’t know how they do things over there,” Spann-Ford said. “Football [alone] is a big responsibility.”
Switching positions from receiver to tight end wasn’t a smooth process. Blocking was foreign, and Spann-Ford’s 230-pound frame out of high school wasn’t nearly big enough.
The physical transformation during his freshman year astonished the coaches, and Spann-Ford, too.
“It took a little bit to get used to at first,” he said.
A new NCAA rule last year allowed players to redshirt if they played four or fewer games. The Gophers played Spann-Ford the max before sitting him out. Battling against defenders who were superior in girth and strength was an eye-opening experience.
“But it was a big advantage for me to go into this year with snaps under my belt,” he said.
After being named offensive scout team player of the year, the bigger but still athletic Spann-Ford broke out during the spring game in April. Spann-Ford scored one of his two touchdowns on a fade route, leaping to snare the ball with two hands over two defenders before falling into the end zone.
An option revived
Spann-Ford’s ability to stretch the field at his size might force the Gophers to expand their primary targets beyond a deep receiving corps led by All-Big Ten senior Tyler Johnson.
To say Fleck’s passing game hasn’t featured tight ends much is an understatement.
Tight ends have caught 26 passes in two seasons under Fleck combined, including just eight last year. Not since 1999 and 2000, when Minnesota had 24 catches by tight ends combined, has the program had fewer balls caught by tight ends during a two-year span.
“Well, they’ve got to do a great job blocking,” Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said. “They’ve got to continue to show us in training camp that they deserve to be a bigger role in this offense. And how do you do that? By making plays out there, by getting yourself open consistently.”
Spann-Ford has no official catches yet on his college résumé, so the hype is still based on potential. Will the added weight and practice highlights carry over onto the big stage? Fleck and others can’t wait to see.