Knowing standout tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford would miss the Gophers spring game this April, coach P.J. Fleck had the perfect role for him: chaperone.

Fleck wanted Spann-Ford to escort former Gophers All-America Matt Spaeth for the day, letting him soak up knowledge from one of the program's all-time greats.

Spaeth, winner of the 2006 John Mackey Award given to the nation's top tight end, echoes analysts and pro scouts with his high praise for Spann-Ford.

The 6-7, 270-pound St. Cloud native, who returned to college for a fifth year, could break Spaeth's career Gophers records and be selected in the NFL draft after this year.

"I got to spend a lot of time with Brevyn," said Spaeth, who played for the Gophers from 2003-06. "I think he's an awesome guy. And I hope he does break my records."

Spann-Ford is 472 yards and 40 receptions away from eclipsing Spaeth's career marks of 1,293 yards and 109 catches. He might shatter those team tight end records with another big year.

Last season, Spann-Ford led the Gophers with 42 receptions and ranked second on the team with 497 receiving yards. It was the best season for a U tight end since All-America Maxx Williams had a school-record 569 yards at the position in 2014.

"I think he's the No. 1 tight end in the Big Ten," Big Ten Network analyst Jake Butt said recently. "Spann-Ford is an all-around tight end. And I expect him to continue that path forward. Hoping to see him get 50-plus catches this year and elevate his receiving yards."

According to Pro Football Focus, Spann-Ford enters the season as the 31st best player in college football and No. 2 tight end in the nation, behind Georgia's Brock Bowers.

Being showered by preseason accolades going into his fifth year hasn't changed Spann-Ford. He was a humble kid built like a basketball player coming out of St. Cloud Tech in 2018. He worked relentlessly, gaining 50 pounds and turning from a wide receiver into a complete tight end.

"You know there's always work to be done and things to improve," Spann-Ford said. "It's easy to become comfortable where you're at and accept any type of personal accolades."

Gradually increasing his production after his redshirt freshman year, Spann-Ford had a combined five catches his first two seasons. But his numbers jumped to 23 receptions in 2021 and nearly doubled that last year.

Fleck's confidence grew with Spann-Ford, as the coach not only trusted him to be a pass-catching threat but one of the best run blockers in the Big Ten.

As a senior, Spaeth caught 47 passes for 564 yards and four touchdowns in 2006, and he developed into a reliable blocker to boost his draft stock. Pittsburgh grabbed him in the third round of the 2007 draft. He sees the same path for Spann-Ford, who is similar in size, athletic ability and talent.

"It's been really fun to watch Brevyn," said Spaeth, who won a Super Bowl in 2009. "He's incredibly gifted, talented and athletic. But he's really developed his game.

"You're getting stronger, adding weight, and maturing. But he's also really blossomed as a blocker. Not everybody can do it. I was interested to see how he was going to take that on. That's what has impressed me as much as anything with Brevyn."

After Ko Kieft graduated and moved on to the NFL last year, Spann-Ford's role expanded in the passing game. He went from three to 13 starts. But Pro Football Focus also ranked Spann-Ford No. 2 among FBS tight ends with his run-blocking grade (82.5). He helped pave the way for Mo Ibrahim to have a record-breaking season on the ground.

Spann-Ford's emergence didn't happen without going through some adversity last year.

He suffered a torn labrum in a Nov. 12 win vs. Northwestern. Spann-Ford decided to play the rest of the season before having shoulder surgery. Despite playing the final four games hurt, he had a career-best seven catches and 97 yards in a victory at Wisconsin on Nov. 26.

"I feel great and back to 100 percent," Spann-Ford said. "I got cleared at the beginning of summer. So, this whole summer I've been just working. It's been great being back with my teammates. It's been a lot of fun."

The Gophers have seen chemistry build with Spann-Ford and new tight ends coach Andy Sowder. The promotion of Greg Harbaugh Jr. from tight ends coach to co-offensive coordinator should also help Spann-Ford bolster the passing attack again.

Spann-Ford, a touted NFL prospect last year, announced his decision to return to college on his birthday, two days before the Gophers beat Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 29. He called it an easy decision to play for Fleck one last time.

"I would say it was a big decision and not a very difficult decision," said Spann-Ford, who had surgery in early January. "I'm happy to be here. I'm really excited about this upcoming season."