Florida tight ends coach Larry Scott had been offering the same advice for years, trying to push life skills along with the blocking and catching. And at the end of Kyle Pitts‘ sophomore year with the Gators, the player sat in Scott’s office listening to a variation of the message many others before him had heard.
Find a schedule. Manage your world. Pitts listened and understood.
“This was the first time I had a guy turn around and the very next day walk in my office and have it laminated, color-coded and say, ‘Here, this is what I think it is. Look it over,’” Scott said. “It was color-coded and laminated and timed out.”
That Pitts would do this is not surprising. He’d always been in tune with goals, which led him to be taken by the Atlanta Falcons in last month’s NFL draft with the No. 4 overall pick, the highest a tight end has been selected in the modern era.
Make a plan. Follow the plan. Crush the plan.
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Back in high school, he knew he didn’t want to be a quarterback so he transferred schools, maintaining he wanted to be the player catching passes instead of throwing them. He chose college at Florida after researching tight ends at every school. Pitts may be 20 years old, one of the youngest players entering the NFL, but he has the mentality of someone much older.
He spent years paying attention to what his parents and other elders said and did, turning into someone with a singular, yet adaptable, approach to his future.
“Being 20 years old and being the number four pick, that’s kind of, that’s not usual,” Pitts said. “There’s a lot of things coming at me and being able to handle it and do the right thing is something that I’ve learned through time.”
When Pitts arrived at Archbishop Wood High, just north of Philadelphia prior to his junior year, Steve Devlin had an idea of the kid’s talent and knew he didn’t want to be a quarterback.
What Devlin didn’t know was what he could see after working with him. How Pitts’ hands were large and uncommonly strong for a high school student. How everything his quarterbacks threw to him, Pitts caught, including a way-too-high pass against Bergen (New Jersey) Catholic, getting his hands up late while in the air with a defender on his back for a touchdown.
Or Pitts’ true speed, such as when he caught a screen against Roman Catholic in the middle of the field and outran everyone for a touchdown. The way he split corners and safeties on skinny posts told Devlin about his route-running.
“He would have flashes where it would be like, ‘Wow, he just did that,’” Devlin said. “Or I can’t believe he just did that.”
Raw talent and a team with multiple Division I and future NFL players helped. It was also what Pitts did when no one told him to. Before Pitts got to Wood, receiver Mark Webb organized post-practice, player-only workouts. Soon after Pitts’ arrival at school, he joined him. Together they took control.
Sometimes it would be the two of them and quarterback Jack Colyar. Other days it would be more teammates drilling and building connections. They’d work until Devlin had to come out of his office and tell them to go home because, well, he wanted to go home.
“I wasn’t doing it my freshman year,” Pitts said. “Once I learned that, it helped me a lot because it’s extra reps that people aren’t getting. Like, they go home and get in the shower and talk about other things.
“But we’re outside working.”
Sharon Hartranft didn’t know Pitts heading into his senior year at Wood, when he enrolled in her forensics class. She’d heard his name from football games but didn’t know much about the kid who now sat in her class’ front row.
But Pitts began to trust her. He knew he needed help in another science class and asked her for assistance the first part of the school year. Third period then became daily sessions with Pitts and Hartranft — Pitts preparing for his future and Hartranft aiding a student with potential to believe in himself in the classroom.
Conversations turned to life and how he needed to make sure he took things seriously outside of football, too.
“I was just trying to get him ready for this journey of being in college,” Hartranft said. “And being on a new team with new players and a new coach and meeting different people and having different responsibilities. And we talked about that.”
They created a bond Pitts never forgot. He became the scorekeeper during games Hartranft played in class. He went on a forensics field trip to Arcadia University — a rare athlete to take the day trip — and on the lunch break, challenged Hartranft to a game of pool.
Hartranft figured she had no shot of winning, even though she told him she would “wipe the table with you.” Then, stunningly, she won. They had enough of a relationship with Pitts she could tease him about it with a question on the final exam of the class, where one of the multiple choice questions had a possible answer as “as likely as Kyle beating Mrs. Hartranft in pool.”
Most students leave high school and don’t come back. If they do, they’ll see their high school coach. When Pitts returned to Archbishop Wood for an episode of the pre-draft show “Hey Rookie,” he sought out Hartranft to say hello and acknowledge what she’d done for him.
“I was completely shocked by that,” Hartranft said. “And the fact that he would come back and say that about me, it shows you he understands where he came from and he’s proud of that.”
In his first practice at Florida, Pitts learned a valuable lesson: How to put in contact lenses. During his first walkthrough with the Gators, Scott saw him squinting, with grass and dirt on his face mask.
Florida’s coaches relayed plays through signals. Pitts couldn’t see a thing. After practice, coaches discovered Pitts wasn’t good at putting in his contacts, so he sometimes went without. In a teenage teaching moment, they taught Pitts how to put in contacts.
“It kind of helped me a lot,” Pitts said. “I got more comfortable with touching my eyes.”
Next practice, vision fixed, he caught everything.
Pitts arrived at Florida growing into his 6-foot-6, 240-pound body. He was willing to block, but needed to learn to do it better. He made catches at his feet, moves other tight ends couldn’t.
Six weeks in, Florida’s coaches saw this daily. Finding a way for him to play somewhere, they moved him to receiver as a freshman. He played around 15 snaps a game, gaining experience and a different vantage point.
By his sophomore year, it became clear: It was time to return to tight end.
“He was finally like, ‘I need to be what I am,’” Scott said.
Pitts became a coveted option for Florida as a sophomore. At times, he became the option for the Gators’ offense.
By then, Sunday meetings with Scott commenced, too, at Pitts’ urging. Usually, that’s a time for coaches to get ahead for the next week. For Pitts, it was a way to figure out what would be next and to continue consuming football.
The goal was to be a complete player. Even as a teenager, Pitts was close. He bought into the blocking. Receiving? Not a problem.
By the time Florida went to LSU at night on Oct. 12, 2019, Pitts was known in the SEC. But the Tigers would become the national champion three months later with an offense and defense littered with eventual pro players.
Pitts, a focal point for LSU’s defense, still caught five passes for 108 yards.
“The look in his eye, the approach, his mindset, how he played that game,” Scott said. “I was like, ‘Yep, the moment, the environment, none of that was too big for him.’”
It was the moment Scott realized Florida should make plans for a new tight end by 2021. Pitts probably would go pro after his junior season. Pitts said he didn’t think about it then. His coaches did. In a postseason planning meeting after the Orange Bowl, coaches started figuring out recruiting schedules.
The message was obvious. The Gators should sign two tight ends because Pitts, with his trajectory after 54 catches and 649 yards, was good enough to leave after the following season. At the time, Scott didn’t know he’d be leaving before that, becoming the head coach at Howard.
When Scott got the Howard gig, before Scott could even ask, Pitts reached out to two acquaintances at Howard to praise Scott for what he did for him as a person, giving his coach a good first impression he didn’t know he was receiving.
“He had a great impact on my life,” Pitts said. “The first day I got on campus, he was a father figure away from home with me coming down to Florida. He made sure I was on top of my school, football, trying to teach me how to be a professional, so I feel like he kind of laid the ground on how to be a professional at a young age.”
The two stay in touch, Scott often bringing up the laminated plan they discussed in one of their final meetings together.
When Tim Brewster arrived on Florida’s campus as the Gators’ tight ends coach in 2020, one of the first people he reached out to was an old friend he first met at a Duke-North Carolina basketball game: Arthur Smith.
Brewster had to tell the offensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans about his latest prospect.
“I texted Arthur and said, ‘Arthur, you’ve never seen one like this. You’ve never, ever seen one like this,’” Brewster said. “And I don’t gush about players. I’ve coached a lot of great players. But this guy, absolutely different.
“I told Arthur, point blank, right then and there, somehow, some way, you’ve got to find a way to get this kid. And that’s basically where it started.”
Throughout Pitts’ senior year, where he won the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end with 43 receptions for 770 yards and 12 touchdowns, Brewster was impressed. His initial recommendation to Smith looked better by the week as Brewster saw a player with a “skillset like none other in the National Football League. None.”
After the season, with Smith hired as Atlanta’s head coach, he hired another tight end Brewster coached, Justin Peelle, to coach tight ends. Smith’s sports performance director, Jake Pfeil, had connections with Brewster, too.
And months after he first told Smith about Pitts, he wouldn’t stop talking about him to anyone involved with the Falcons.
“I’m reaching out to him saying, ‘Hey man, I got a dude. I mean, I. Got. A. Dude. And you got to see him,’” Brewster said. “And I basically told him you’re really going to like this guy.”
The Falcons did. Pitts became their target early in the draft. General manager Terry Fontenot said Pitts was a player they’d “coveted” for a long time. Pitts wasn’t sure how to put his emotions into words and a couple of days later, the reality of his journey sunk in – one for which he’ll almost certainly have a plan.
“To be here and just walk in the building, I was just like, this is real,” Pitts said. “This is happening.”