As MyCole Pruitt flashed behind a trio of Pittsburgh Steelers linebackers into open space Sunday night, he looked up and saw the football floating in the night sky like a hot-air balloon. He had about a second to process what he was seeing, but in NFL time, that can feel like an eternity — especially for a rookie.
“Just don’t drop it, man,” the 23-year-old tight end thought to himself.
He didn’t. After his spinning catch, Pruitt ran the final 16 yards untouched.
In his first NFL game, albeit a preseason exhibition, Pruitt scored that touchdown and led the Vikings with 51 receiving yards on four catches. In the process, a national TV audience got a glimpse of the athleticism and talent that has made the Vikings so excited about Pruitt since they drafted him in the fifth round out of small-school Southern Illinois.
“Some guys get in games — in real games — and it’s too big for them,” offensive coordinator Norv Turner said this week. “Certainly, that’s not the case with MyCole.”
No Division I tight end was more productive in 2014 than Pruitt, who led his peers with 81 catches, 861 receiving yards and 13 receiving touchdowns. Granted, he did most of that damage at the FCS level. But in Southern Illinois’ only game against a FBS team, a loss to Purdue, Pruitt caught 10 passes for 136 yards.
“I just feel I have a knack for getting open,” Pruitt said. “I had a great relationship with my quarterback [Mark Iannotti] my senior year. We were on the same page and able to connect.”
Since arriving in Minnesota, Pruitt proved to be a viable target here, too, whether he was running routes for Teddy Bridgewater or Shaun Hill in training camp or in the preseason opener for Mike Kafka, the man who tossed him the touchdown pass.
Pruitt will try to stay on a roll Saturday night, no matter which quarterback is targeting him when the Vikings play host to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at TCF Bank Stadium.
Pruitt already is challenging veterans Rhett Ellison and Chase Ford for snaps in the team’s two-tight-end sets alongside Kyle Rudolph. And Bridgewater hasn’t been reluctant to throw the rookie’s way. He doesn’t care who you are as long as you’re open.
“MyCole, he’s a shifty guy to be a tight end,” Bridgewater said. “We can line him up at wide receiver, put him in the backfield to block, come out of the backfield to catch passes, things like that. He does it all. He’s a great athlete. He works hard. To be a young guy, he’s moving along fast in this offense.”
At Southern Illinois, Pruitt — who didn’t play football until his freshman year of high school and never received a Division I-FBS scholarship offer — was used to create mismatches all over the field, whether he was an in-line tight end, flexed out into the slot or lining up way out wide.
Because of that heavy pass-catching role, Pruitt’s blocking was a bit of an unknown. Coach Mike Zimmer has noted that Pruitt is showing improvement in that area and pointed out that the 6-foot-2, 258-pounder has the build to be a solid blocker.
“I feel like I’m making strides,” Pruitt said. “When I first came in, it was a little shaky.”
Pruitt has responded to Turner’s sometimes not-safe-for-work coaching style, in part because he knows his reputation of turning fellow former hoopsters such as Antonio Gates and Jordan Cameron into Pro Bowl tight ends.
And Turner has suggested that Pruitt is even better than the Vikings initially expected.
“You always find out something about a guy when you get him here, and the thing about MyCole is that he’s a lot more physical player than we thought from the tape,” Turner said. “He’s a 260-pound man, and he knows how to use it.”
Pruitt relied on his speed and soft hands, not his size, to score in his unofficial Vikings debut. The busted coverage by the Steelers defense was a major factor, too.
Whatever it takes, Pruitt plans to make those end zone trips a regular occurrence.
“I loved every second of it, and I want to be able to do that a lot more,” Pruitt said.