Many college football coaches envisioned 6-foot-10 Nate Wozniak as an offensive tackle.
The University of Minnesota was willing to give the former Center Grove High School tight end a shot at staying at that position, and it’s working out.
The redshirt sophomore has earned a starting spot for the Golden Gophers.
“I feel like this is the best I’ve ever been, the fastest I’ve ever been, the strongest I’ve ever been,” Wozniak said.
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Gophers coach Jerry Kill has been impressed with Wozniak’s performance. Wozniak so far has six catches for 57 yards in Minnesota’s 2-1 start.
“He’s playing great,” Kill said. “He’s grown up so much from one year to the next. Last year, he made some mental errors, just learning how to play the position. I think he’s one of the most improved football players on our team.”
Senior Lincoln Plsek, who was projected as the starting tight end this season, has not played and might be out the rest of the season with a back injury. Duke Anyanwu has been slowed with a knee injury, so Wozniak moved into the starting spot.
Since arriving at Minnesota, Wozniak has gained about 30 pounds.
“His development is outstanding and he’s playing as good as anyone we’ve had,” Kill said. “He’s very strong. Athletically he’s better than he was a year ago. He spent a lot of time in the weight room and on his flexibility, etc. Offensively, he’s a big, big key for us in what we’re doing right now.”
Wozniak is just trying to make the most of his opportunity.
“We have the ‘Next Man Up’ mentality that you hear people talking about. You prepare to be that person who is going to step in when they get their opportunity,” Wozniak said.
That preparation begin with watching other tight ends, including Maxx Williams, who was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in the second round of the NFL Draft this past spring, and Drew Goodger.
“I had a pretty good opportunity to sit back and learn from some of those guys,” Wozniak said.
“Maxx ran pretty good routes and had good ball skills. Drew was a tough blocker. So I learned a lot from them, I worked hard in the off-season and the spring on my routes and my hands. I think it’s definitely helped me so far this season.”
Wozniak worked a great deal with Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner and wide receivers Drew Wolitarsky and K.J. Maye in the offseason.
“We were getting together in the off-season, working on perfecting our routes, catching every ball that came our way,” Wozniak said. “I think I have come far since (high school) because I’ve worked hard at it and put in so much time.”
Minnesota lost to No. 3 TCU, 23-17, at home before rebounding to beat host Colorado State, 23-20, and, most recently, visiting Kent State, 10-7.
“We would have liked to get the win against TCU and had the opportunities to do that. But we built off that going into Colorado State. We went into Colorado State and knew it was going to be a tough environment to play in. We knew they had a (nine-game) winning streak at home and we knew they were a 10-win team last year,” he said.
“We went into it with the same mindset against TCU and just fixed some of the mistakes we made earlier. We played hard and came up with a ‘W’. I think if we can do the same thing going into the Big Ten season, we’re going to be pretty hard to beat.”
Wozniak played in five games as a redshirt freshman last season, primarily on special teams.
Wozniak chose Minnesota instead of Purdue or University of Miami (Fla.). He said he is convinced more than ever he made the right call.
“I liked the fact that the coaches had been together for awhile, and there is a good academic environment here,” Wozniak said of his decision.
“The stuff they do with their tight ends in their offense was pretty intriguing to me. It felt right up here, similar to Indiana with a Midwest feel. It’s far enough away, but still kind of had a little bit of hometown feel to it.”
Meanwhile, Wozniak has been following the unbeaten start by his alma mater, now 5-0 and ranked No. 1 in Class 6A.
“I’ve been trying to watch the webcast every week,” Wozniak said. “It’s good to see those guys doing so well.”
THE WOZNIAK FILE
Name: Nate Wozniak
High school: Center Grove H.S. -2013
Major: Agriculture and Food Business Management
Favorite class: Government
Favorite TV show: “Game of Thrones”
Favorite way to relax: “Hanging with my roommates playing video games.”
Favorite video game: “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.”
Favorite musicians: “I couldn’t narrow it down to one, there are too many. I like a little bit of everything.”
Did you know: ESPN rated Wozniak as three-star recruit and No. 17 player out of Indiana in his senior class . . . Rivals.com rated him No. 13 in Indiana . . . As a senior, had 28 catches for 331 yards as Center Grove was 12-2 and reached the Class 5A semistate in 2012.