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Before Lance Kendricks put on a University of Wisconsin football jersey, he was burdened with unusually high expectations for a raw prospect out of Milwaukee, which has rarely produced recruits of national stature. Kendricks, then a wide receiver, was fielding calls from all parts of the country.
Even the Ol' Ball Coach — South Carolina's Steve Spurrier — made a late recruiting pitch to Kendricks, who also excelled as a triple jumper at Rufus King High School. But, in the end, former UW assistant Henry Mason left the biggest impression on Kendricks, who picked UW over the Gamecocks and LSU.
The Badgers wound up signing the top three players in the state that year, according to Rivals.com. In order, they were Sturgeon Bay offensive lineman Jake Bscherer; Kendricks, who caught 42 passes for 640 yards as a senior; and Monona Grove offensive lineman Gabe Carimi.
The Sporting News thought so much of Kendricks it labeled him as the "Newcomer to Watch" on offense in the Big Ten Conference. Kendricks thought he might have an impact as a true freshman wideout. But he didn't know. In retrospect, he realized he was overmatched.
"With all the hype, learning the playbook and competing with seniors, it all had an impact on me (instead)," said Kendricks, who injured his ankle during his first training camp at UW and ended up redshirting in 2006. "The game was a lot faster then and I sort of felt the pressure."
It started to slow down for Kendricks after he was moved to tight end the next season. "My time will come," he said. Not that any of the UW coaches had given up on him.
Said offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, "There will be a place for him." Added coach Bret Bielema, "He's going to be a good player for us."
All of the above.
Going into his senior year, the 6-foot-4, 241-pound Kendricks is back on the national radar as one of the tight ends on the John Mackey Award watch list. This comes on the heels of Kendricks' eye-opening performance (seven catches for 128 yards) against Miami (Fla.) in last December's Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, Fla.
In addition, Kendricks is one of six UW captains for 2010, joining Carimi, who's regarded as a first-round NFL draft choice. (Bscherer left the program last spring.)
Help from his friends
Given his early growing pains, did Kendricks ever wonder if he would find his niche?
"Oh, yeah, definitely," he said. "Especially after the position change. But after a while, I realized, ‘This is where I am and I have to adapt.' And the guys in front of me embraced me, and were good role models."
That would be fellow tight ends and H-backs Travis Beckum, now beginning his second season with the New York Giants, and Garrett Graham, a rookie with the Houston Texans.
"Me and Travis bonded a little bit just because we're both from the Milwaukee area," Kendricks said of Beckum, who played at Oak Creek. "He helped me a lot with my receiving — as far as catching the ball, and running routes.
"Garrett helped me a lot with the run game and blocking. So I got the best of both worlds from them."
Kendricks, who has stayed in touch with Beckum and Graham, is hoping to carve out his own identity without another proven tight end to complement and push him - like Graham pushed Beckum and Kendricks pushed Graham.
"It's more of a challenge because I realize that I'm not the guy behind Garrett," he said. "I am ‘the guy' so I have to make myself more accountable, especially to the younger players. But I like the pressure now."
He's an order taker
UW tight ends coach Joe Rudolph, a former offensive guard for the program, likes the way Kendricks handles himself physically as a lead blocker for the tailback at the point of attack.
"He's about as tough as they come and he plays big," Rudolph said. "Boy, he's blossomed into a really good player. And you have to love his unselfishness, his greatest attribute.
"Ask him to execute 15 lead blocks in a row, he'd be happy to do it. Ask him to run 15 routes in a row, he'd be happy to do that. Whatever you ask him to do, he works his tail off."
Kendricks has overcome some obstacles during his UW career, including some dropped passes at Michigan ("I was playing too timid") and a broken leg at Michigan State in 2008.
"There were some turning points," said Kendricks, who's on schedule to graduate in December with a degree in economics, "where I kind of matured and realized that I could play at this level. The game started to slow down for me.
"There are not a lot of student-athletes here from Milwaukee. So whenever I talk to my friends from back home — who are playing (Division II) ball — they tell me, ‘Make sure you hold it down' and I always try to."