Taking the next step toward the NFL

Mitchell Wilcox used the East-West Shrine Bowl to help gauge the steps he needs to take to make it in the NFL. ORACLE PHOTO/BRIAN HATTAB

ST. PETERSBURG — He could have been drafted last year.

After all, Mitchell Wilcox had a career year in 2018, setting the program record for receptions by a tight end (43), the program record for career receiving yards by a tight end (then 976) and was a key blocker in the 1,000-yard rushing season by Jordan Cronkrite.

Those are just a few of his highlights, mind you.

But staying for a senior season at USF was never a question for the Tarpon Springs native.

“I didn’t think about it too long,” Wilcox said after Saturday’s East-West Shrine Bowl at Tropicana Field. “It was really a simple decision for me. I think I wanted to prove myself a bit more this year, and I just thought an extra year of maturity and polishing up some things, just with my game, was really in order, and that’s what I went out there to do.”

Wilcox wasn’t targeted as often in 2019, though. His total number of targets (44) was 20 fewer than in 2018.

But that doesn’t mean he took it any easier, even despite the lack of receptions.

“I really just focused on beating the guy in front of me,” Wilcox said. “Just learn more about different schemes as far as coach [Kerwin] Bell’s different pro-style offense, and I think it was very beneficial for me to go through that installation process of some new schemes and route concepts.”

That may have actually helped his development as a player. Not just because he was playing in a pro-style offense, but because in his time at USF, he had to learn multiple offensive systems — which is something he’ll obviously have to do no matter where he lands in the NFL.

“Seeing three different offenses was very beneficial for me,” Wilcox said, “and just learning as much about this great game as I can.”

Projected to go in the mid to late rounds in the upcoming NFL Draft, Wilcox used the week leading up to the Shrine Bowl to gauge where he stands heading into all the madness that leads up to the main event — including Pro Day and the NFL Combine.

“I learned a lot of different languages as far as football goes,” Wilcox said. “Football is football at the end of the day, but the terminology is different at the next level and just adjusting on the fly and learning as much as I can.

“I’ve learned a lot. I need to keep my shoulders down, especially in the run game, and sustain blocks for longer. That’s a common thing with tight ends, but it’s something I’m very focused on. And just continuing to run good routes, and just be good at the top of my route.”

Whatever NFL team Wilcox lands likely will ask him to do a number of different things, so the versatility he displayed this season is no small thing.

“[I need to] just continue to be a well-rounded tight end,” Wilcox said. “Just focusing on as many areas of being a split-out wide receiver or fullback or an inline blocker. I just think the better I’m able to do that, the better off I’ll be.”

Wilcox also displayed his willingness to be versatile during the Shrine Bowl when he was called upon to be the long snapper on the punt team. While he never had to do it at USF — though he was the backup — he did it all four years of high school.

“They sprung that on me, but I was happy to step up for it,” Wilcox said. “They didn’t bring any long snappers … so I had to step up for it, and I thought I did well.”

What happens next for the “Bay Made” tight end remains to be seen, but at least he has an idea of where he stands.

“I’ve heard a lot of good things as far as my route running and the fluidity and being an instinctual player,” Wilcox said. “Weakness, of course, definitely just need to work on sustaining blocks for longer — just longer throughout the duration of the play and stuff like that.”

USF’s Pro Day date has yet to be announced while the NFL Draft takes place in Paradise, Nevada, from April 23-25.