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Super Sleeper: Is Dallas Goedert NFL's next matchup nightmare?

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This past fall, NFL.com went Back 2 Campus to tell the incredible stories of some of college football's brightest stars, profiling the players before they become household names. This is the 10th in a daily series leading up the scouting combine, where these players will gather and compete for their standing in the 2018 NFL Draft.<\p>

BROOKINGS, S.D. -- The alarm clock went off in 2015, awaking perhaps the sleepiest of the 2018 NFL Draft's sleepers.

Dallas Goedert's name and face are getting around now like never before, but at the time, he couldn’t have been more anonymous. His rising popularity was later marked within state borders on a South Dakota State football promotional billboard along I-29 in the equally sleepy state of South Dakota.

Almost everything about Goedert's path to becoming a dominant player at SDSU was unorthodox, unique, and very much his own. Top draft prospects typically come from an athletic background of intense competition and highly specialized training.

Goedert didn't.

Most are heavily recruited out of high school, identified and targeted by top college programs even before they can shave or drive a car.

Goedert wasn't.

"I didn't beat down his door to get him here," SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier admits about his former walk-on.

At his own pace, and with his own style, Goedert's become a favorite son of Britton, S.D., his hometown of only 1,250 residents. Scouting whispers are that he has the requisite physical tools to be the NFL's next tight end matchup nightmare. Scouts will find their background work on the star of the FCS Jackrabbits to be, fittingly, something of a rabbit hole itself -- full of the atypical.

* * *

IT TOOK ABOUT 17 YEARS for Goedert to choose football as his primary sport, but his father, David, had him marked for the NFL from the very beginning. He was huge at birth -- 10 pounds -- and David named him Dallas for the Dallas Cowboys, his favorite team, even though Goedert eventually became a fan of the Green Bay Packers.

As a kid, however, football was just one among a long list of sports Goedert notched in dot-on-the-map Britton. NFL scouts who prefer multi-sport athletes over specialization will marvel at Goedert's background of activities, a list as diverse as it is long: football, wakeboarding, track, ice skating, basketball, kayaking, soccer, swimming, softball, downhill skiing, wrestling, and ... unicycling.

Goedert's grandfather, Gordon Phillips, taught his five daughters to ride a unicycle and perform in local parades. Dallas eventually learned as well, but it took some nudging.

"I practiced some and never got it, but my grandpa called one day and said, 'Your cousin Drew has learned it, can you do it yet?' " Goedert recalled. "I said, 'Oh, yeah, I learned it, too,' even though I really hadn't. Well, then, I had to learn it."

He learned it alright, well enough to ride one with a 6-foot seat, so tall Goedert had to mount it from the side of Phillips' pickup truck. And it's not something he left behind in childhood; he rode it as recently as the summer of 2016 at the Lake City Fourth of July parade, a 20-minute ride from Britton down Highway 10.

"If I called him right now and asked him to do another parade, he'd do it in a second," said Goedert's mother, Mary.

The skill has paid football dividends, as Goedert has remarkable balance to absorb contact after the catch and shake free from tackles.

"The 6-footer is always the top attraction in a parade," he said. "It's pretty cool."

That flare for showmanship has its roots. Goedert's paternal grandfather, Clayton, used to walk around on his hands in nearby Veblen, often and well enough that a traveling circus came through and tried to recruit him. But the Goedert family tree is loaded with athletes, not just acrobats.

His grandmother, Bev Phillips, once scored 65 points in a high school basketball game, and that was in 1953, long before the dawn of the three-point shot. His mother and aunts were champion softball players, and David Goedert was a champion discus thrower. His sister Megan played volleyball at Presentation College in Aberdeen, S.D., while sister Emily played volleyball and basketball at Valley City State.

Football stars? Goedert is the first. But athletes populate the lineage on both sides of the family.

* * *

GOEDERT IS BLUNTLY HONEST about something few athletes would admit: He just didn't work all that hard to improve himself at the high school level. He didn't have to. He was always naturally bigger and stronger than his competition, and because he was planning to pursue basketball rather than football, the weight room never really appealed.

A couple years ago he returned to Britton-Hecla High and gave a speech at the annual sports banquet. He implored the Braves athletes to put more effort into their training than he did. Two weeks ago, sitting in the SDSU players' lounge with "The Price Is Right" providing background noise, he stared right through Drew Carey as he acknowledged it again.

"As a kid, you always had an excuse," he said. "I played around with weights sometimes just to see what I could do, but I never was on a program."

Goedert decided on football over basketball just before his senior year, but being the best athlete in the area had drawn just one scholarship offer -- to Northern State, a Division II school close to home -- and Goedert had ambitions to play on a higher level, even if it meant walking on.

In his senior year, his football team traveled an hour and a half to play Milbank High near the Minnesota border. In attendance was former SDSU offensive line coach Carl Larson, who at the time was the minister at American Lutheran Church in Milbank. He saw something in Goedert worthy of a phone call to his former boss in Brookings.

"He started out playing inside linebacker on defense. He ended up playing quarterback, receiver, tight end and running back on offense. He was the whole team," Larson said. "I called coach Stig and told him, 'This guy's a player.' That spring, he was back in Milbank with the track team. The best (discus) throwers there were throwing it maybe 120, 125 (feet). He came up and whipped it 156. So I called coach again."

Both times, Stiegelmeier took the call, but he'd never even heard of the kid. In fact, in his 30 years at SDSU as both an assistant and head coach, he'd never even had a player from Britton on the team. Between the football and track seasons, Stiegelmeier took the trip to Britton to watch Goedert play a basketball game, and came away with mixed feelings.

"I saw a big guy who was athletic, but a guy who didn't play very hard. And I was concerned about that," said Stiegelmeier, who wasn't ready to make a full commitment to Goedert. "We asked him to walk on, and he took the bait. The way he's grown since then is just amazing. He has made himself, coming from that community, into what he is today."

After two years in the program, Stiegelmeier put Goedert on a 40-percent scholarship. A year after that, he went to 70 percent, then finally, a full ride. On the heels of that came his 2016 breakout season: 92 catches, 1,293 yards and 11 touchdowns, including a ridiculous one-handed TD catch against Drake that made an ESPN SportsCenter Top 10 list. Referred to around the program simply as "The Drake Catch," the highlight is now part of the pre-game hype reel on the SDSU video board, ending with Goedert pointing a football -- with one hand, of course -- into the camera.

Indeed, the minister's recommendation proved to come straight from the heavens. But doing it at an FCS school and in the NFL are two very different things.

Scouts wonder how Goedert will react when he's dropped into an NFL training camp environment, with 90 grown men battling like piranhas for one of 53 roster spots.

"The measurables are what they are, and they're very good. From that standpoint, he'll be as good as anyone his size," an AFC scout said. "As a small-town guy who sort of came out of nowhere though, teams are going to be more interested to know what makes him tick on the inside."

Two SDSU coaches corroborated that, saying scouts who have come through Brookings are primarily asking questions centered around Goedert's character, work ethic, and willingness to block. After all, as a pass catcher, his film speaks for itself. And if you think it's all been accomplished against FCS competition, you'd mostly be right. But consider what he did in the 2016 season opener at TCU: 5 catches for 96 yards and a touchdown.

Goedert gave brief consideration to leaving SDSU last year to enter the 2017 draft, and interest from agents came as a shock to the family. The agents ultimately advised Goedert that the strength and depth of the 2017 tight end class -- five of the first 45 selections were tight ends, including three of the first 23 picks -- made it wise for him to stay in school for a fifth year. He listened. And now he enters the 2018 draft as one of the top tight end prospects with a degree in operations management.

Scouts project Goedert as a second-day pick in the draft (Rounds 2-3), possibly the first taken at his position. They see the speed, quickness and balance of a big-play threat, and size that will make him a mismatch for smaller defensive backs. Meanwhile, his blocking has developed enough to be placed in the asset category.

* * *

ON THE FRIDAY BEFORE the Jackrabbits' homecoming game against Northern Iowa last October, Stiegelmeier -- sitting in his corner office with a glass wall overlooking newly constructed Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium -- is sure not to get too far over his skis in answering the question of how early Goedert could be drafted. He sticks with what he knows, referencing former SDSU tight end Steve Heiden, who played 11 NFL seasons with the Chargers and Browns.

"Dallas is more explosive, physically faster than Steve was, has more wiggle in him. Steve was closer to a tackle, a traditional tight end," Stiegelmeier says. "Steve got drafted in the third round (No. 69 overall in 1999). I'm not predicting where Dallas will be picked, but I think he's further ahead now than Steve was at the time."

Later that afternoon, Goedert shows he's come a long way, not only physically but mentally as well. After the entire offense watches film with offensive coordinator Eric Eidsness, Goedert and three other SDSU tight ends break off into a position meeting. Tight ends coach Luke Schleusner goes through a series of run and pass plays that make up the game plan for UNI, and it's loaded with all kinds of terminology and hot reads. The fifth-year senior listens intently and absorbs it all, at one point interpreting an assignment to one of his fellow tight ends.

"His first year, his football IQ wasn't too high," Schleusner said. "I don't think he played in a complicated system in high school. It was a challenge to get him lined up right, let alone execute a play. Now he's got an incredible football IQ. We line him up all over the field, use him in a number of different ways, and he grasps it all very quickly."

SDSU used Goedert in the slot, as a traditional in-line tight end, or in an off-set position. His blocking skills have improved a great deal -- "I don't mind getting my face dirty," he says -- but Schleusner finds him more valuable downfield. According to Eidsness, the coaching staff somewhat tailored the offense around him.

"We do a lot of the RPOs (run-pass option plays) because if we send him downfield, that's better than having him block," Schleusner says. "Because if we send him vertical, two guys might go with him, whereas even if he blocks and dominates his man, that's still only one man."

Despite looming bad weather on game day, tailgating is still in full effect on Jackrabbit Avenue a couple of blocks from the on-campus, 17,000-capacity stadium. Storefront windows are painted in SDSU blue and yellow and the dismal conditions can't dampen local excitement.

At least until kickoff.

Almost nothing goes right for SDSU on the homecoming celebration known as "Hobo Day," with third place in the Missouri Valley Football Conference at stake. It's a rough afternoon for quarterback Taryn Christion, as the chilly rain and the Northern Iowa pass rush conspire to foil the SDSU passing attack in a 38-18 loss. It's late in the third quarter before Goedert makes his first catch, but once he does, the top comes off. On his first reception, he runs past UNI safety A.J. Allen on a go route and Christion's deep ball hits him right in stride for a 57-yard completion. On the next play, Goedert climbs the ladder for a tough 19-yard touchdown catch on a seam route in traffic.

With scouts from the New Orleans Saints and Jacksonville Jaguars looking on, he finishes with four receptions for a game-high 120 yards as the lone bright spot in an otherwise forgettable afternoon for the home team.

* * *

IT TOOK ONLY ONE live practice rep for Goedert to realize the distance between Britton-Hecla High and South Dakota State could be measured in more ways than miles.

"I lined up for the first time at 205 pounds against our starting D-end, working blocking drills with him. I didn't have my chinstrap buckled, I didn't have my mouth guard in, and he told me, 'You might want to buckle up and put that in,' " Goedert said. "We were just in helmets and shoulder pads. No (football) pants on, just shells. In high school, if we were in shells, we weren't hitting. In high school, half the time we didn't have enough players, so we'd be going against our coaches holding bags."

The rep outcome was predictable: "I got thrown like a rag doll," Goedert said.

While Goedert's background in football has its rough edges, he's also escaped a lot of the trappings that can saddle high-profile college players.

He was a highly competitive swimmer from age 4. When he was 6, he emerged from the water at one meet and was told by his coach and aunt, Dianne Yelkin, that he'd broken a record. Dallas began sobbing, as if he'd instead broken a window.

"Is that a good thing?" he asked.

He's been just as unassuming ever since, fun-loving, and with seemingly zero sense of entitlement. Working from walk-on to full scholarship in three percentage tiers has a way of keeping anyone humble.

"I went back home for a football game last year and all the kids were lined up wanting to take pictures with me and sign their stuff," Goedert said. "They were giving me T-shirts to sign, their phones to sign, and I'm asking if their moms are OK with it. I'm wondering if I'm gonna be in the paper the next day for vandalizing people's phones."

Besides a sense of humor, there's a confidence about him, even a little ego, but not too much.

He knows he's good, but he's still learning just how good, and so is the NFL.

* * *

THE SLEEPER BEGAN TO STIR after his sophomore year in 2015, the year Goedert told Jackrabbits strength coach Nate Moe he was serious about playing in the NFL.

Not serious enough, Moe retorted back.

Goedert was around 230 pounds at the time and had shown the coaching staff vast potential, but they all knew there was more to be mined.

"I challenged him, Coach Schleusner and I both, that he had a chance to play at the next level. To that point, he had done what I had asked, but he just kind of did it," Moe said. "But he responded better than anybody I've ever had that NFL conversation with. After that, he attacked it. Since then, he's been our lifter of the year in the offseason."

That's the sound of the alarm, and this is the song it sang:

Goedert now stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 270 pounds. He can run the 40-yard dash in 4.65 seconds, a blistering time for his size. His squat max is up to 552 pounds, his vertical jump at 36 inches. In short, he's significantly narrowed the gap between what he can be and what he is.

"He was a 35-inch vertical when we first tested him at 230 pounds, and he can still do that now at 270," Moe said. "That's explosiveness."

His hands measure a whopping 10 1/8 inches, and they're cotton-soft.

"He can go get the high ball, but what's even more impressive is how he can go get the low ball," Schleusner said. "Balls behind him, or thrown at his feet, he suctions everything in. You talk about a catch radius, he's got a huge one."

Another test Goedert excels in is the 20-yard short shuttle drill, known as the 5-10-5, in which prospects run 5 yards, stop and run 10 in the opposite direction, then reverse again for 5 more yards. It measures change-of-direction, agility, and quickness, and it's among the drills Goedert will test in at the NFL Scouting Combine.

He can do it 4.21 seconds, per Moe. That would have ranked fourth among combine tight ends last year, and a shade better than New York Giants first-round pick Evan Engram, who clocked 4.23 at a weight 36 pounds lighter than Goedert.

For a tight end, these are the kind of numbers that put NFL scouts on planes to places like Brookings. A steady stream of them -- more than what SDSU is used to -- made its way through campus this past fall, including multiple scouts from the same club. According to Sports Information Director Jason Hove, about three per week dropped in on Jackrabbits practices, and as many as four have come to a game.

The secret is out.

And at last, the alarm has sounded.

Follow Chase Goodbread on Twitter @ChaseGoodbread.

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