By James Irwin
The ball was in the air and so was Mo Alie-Cox, turning his body, reaching high the way he had done so many times before as a basketball player at Virginia Commonwealth University. Except Alie-Cox was not gathering a rebound or blocking a shot. He was playing tight end for the Indianapolis Colts, and he was nearing the end zone at the Oakland Coliseum, rotating, leaping and stretching his 6-foot-5 frame for a pass sailing through the California sky.
Most notably, Alie-Cox was aware of his bulky shoulder pads, and as he extended his arms for the ball, he knew his left hand (his trail hand on a ball passing over his right shoulder) was basically useless.
“If I went up with two I don’t think I would have gotten it,” Alie-Cox said of his now famous one-handed touchdown catch last October. “I just tried to get my [right] hand up there.”
What followed has been widely chronicled: Alie-Cox wrapped his right hand around the nose of the ball before stumbling into the end zone for his first professional touchdown. It was one of the top catches of the 2018 NFL season, one that showed why Alie-Cox — who did not play organized football between ages 14 and 22 — still possessed enough potential to sign with the Colts after graduating from VCU. The touchdown was one for the memory books, though Alie-Cox was one of the last people in the stadium to realize what he had done.
“Once it touched my hand, I knew I had it; I just didn’t know I scored a touchdown,” he said. “We’re playing on the road, it got dead silent. I got up and I was like, ‘Dang, I’m in the end zone.’”
WE SEE YOU MO! pic.twitter.com/EIIuIJ0xWT
— Indianapolis Colts (@Colts) October 28, 2018
Is Mo Alie-Cox the next college basketball player to successfully convert to pro football? It is a question worth asking as Alie-Cox enters his third season with the Colts, especially given the players who have followed similar paths to NFL careers.
There is precedent — even a formula — for what Alie-Cox is attempting to do: Take one uber-athletic college basketball star, ideally a powerful post player, and turn him into an NFL tight end. It has happened several times. Julius Thomas played one season of college football. Martellus Bennett and Tony Gonzalez played football and basketball at Texas A&M and the University of California, respectively. Jimmy Graham played four seasons of basketball and one season of football at the University of Miami. The 6-foot-7 Graham was so promising that the New Orleans Saints drafted him in the third round of the 2010 NFL Draft. He has scored 71 touchdowns in nine seasons.
Those men played at least some college football. Antonio Gates, like Alie-Cox, did not, instead averaging nearly 17 points a game across three seasons of basketball at Eastern Michigan University and Kent State before signing as an undrafted free agent with the San Diego Chargers. That was 16 years and 955 catches ago. Gates will one day be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Gonzalez is already there.
What they — and Alie-Cox — have in common is athletic ability beyond even that of most professional athletes, said Jason Michael, the Colts tight ends coach.
“I think everyone knows the physical things they have — the size and speed and quickness and agility that they used to play basketball,” Michael said. “And it transitions into playing the [tight end] position. Some of those things in basketball — creating space, posting up — there are similarities in football. Some of those skills correlate. [Mo] is learning how to do it on a different field.”
Michael is in his first year in Indianapolis. He coached Gates for three seasons in San Diego. He helped Delanie Walker reach the Pro Bowl in 2015 while he was with the Tennessee Titans. Michael has worked with tight ends and quarterbacks for most of his 17-year coaching career. He said Alie-Cox stands out, even among his two-sport peers.
“I think Mo is unique in his sheer size. He’s a big man,” Michael said. “And the thing about Mo is it’s not just the ability, it’s about the determination. Mo does exactly what you want. He asks questions. He’s a sponge for information. He’s learning every day and you forget sometimes that he’s doing some things for the first time because he hasn’t played a lot of football. He’s finding ways to get better.”
He’s finding ways to get better.
That is a scary proposition for opposing defenses, because Alie-Cox has the physical attributes to be a dominant player. He weighs more than 260 pounds. He has a 7-foot-1 wingspan. He can jump 3 feet in the air. His hands, which measure 11.75 inches from the tip of the pinky to the tip of his thumb, are among the largest in the NFL. And the Colts, a team with a top quarterback in Andrew Luck, like to use tight ends frequently and creatively. Alie-Cox is a promising talent playing in an offense ideal for his development.
Indianapolis tight ends caught 21 of Luck’s 39 touchdown throws last season (nine NFL teams had fewer than 21 total touchdown receptions in 2018). The Colts are innovators at one of the more flexible offensive positions in the league. Eric Ebron caught 13 touchdown passes last season. Jack Doyle made the Pro Bowl in 2017. Alie-Cox, playing intermittently behind Doyle and Ebron last year, caught seven passes for 133 yards and two scores.
“Tight end is one of the ways you try to attack defenses,” Michael said. “I’ve always said that other than the quarterback, tight end is the second hardest position to play, because you’re playing running back, offensive line, wide receiver. You put tight ends in those different roles to create matchups and different situations maybe the defense hasn’t seen.”
— Indianapolis Colts (@Colts) August 10, 2019
“We always laugh, you know, he wears those big white gloves,” Michael said. “And he catches the ball and the ball just vanishes.”
Ebron and Doyle are again ahead of Alie-Cox on the Colts’ depth chart. But Michael said Alie-Cox can be a consistent part of the offense. He watched this all spring. With Ebron and Doyle working their way back from injuries, Alie-Cox took the majority of snaps with the Colts’ first-team offense. It was a drastic change from the previous two offseasons, when injury, inexperience and a coaching change left Alie-Cox playing catchup through the spring and summer.
“[When] you go out there with no experience, everything is moving 100 miles per hour, because you are just nervous and overthinking,” Alie-Cox said. “Last year during camp, new coach, new system. It pretty much was starting fresh all over again. One of the biggest differences this year is my confidence level. I have a season under my belt and I went through a full offseason pretty much being the starter at the tight end position. From last year to this year is just light-years ahead.”
“We always laugh, you know, he wears those big white gloves. And he catches the ball and the ball just vanishes.”
Instead of spending the offseason trying to learn everything new, as they did a year ago, Alie-Cox and the Colts — who finished 10-6 last season and made the playoffs — have been doing more fine-tuning. Alie-Cox has been working on his blocking and improving his ability to run pass routes. He said he is growing more comfortable by the day.
“Like anything, you get more reps and you get more comfortable, and [when you] get more comfortable you’re going to get better,” Michael said. “The silver lining [to the injuries to Ebron and Doyle] was Mo was able to do some things and had those other guys been here we may not have had the chance to look at him as closely.”
Others, too, are noticing the development. Colts coach Frank Reich said Alie-Cox is improving as a route runner. Ebron told ESPN that the game is “finally starting to slow down for him.”
“He’s going to play a special role,” Ebron said.
The ingredients are there, and for a glimpse of Alie-Cox’s potential, return to that highlight-reel catch in Oakland last fall: the separation from the defender, the body control as Alie-Cox twisted midair, the way he pinched the football with his gloved right hand. After the play ended, Alie-Cox jogged to the sideline. His then-tight ends coach, Tom Manning, was waiting for him.
“I said, ‘I don’t think you realize what you just did,’” Manning said. “It was something special. He just made an incredible play on the football.”
Manning is now the offensive coordinator at Iowa State. Michael is in Indianapolis, with Ebron, Doyle and Alie-Cox. The Colts have three more preseason games before opening the 2019 season Sept. 8 against the Chargers. It could be the start to a big year — for the Colts and their promising tight end.
“I really don’t think about it,” Alie-Cox said when asked if he can join Gates, Graham and the other converted basketball stars who have had long and successful careers in the NFL. “I met Jimmy Graham when he was in Seattle. We had Erik Swoope here, and he played basketball at Miami. We also have Ross Travis with us now and he played at Penn State. There are a couple of us that have made the transition.
“I just try to control what I can control. We’re all in different situations. I just try and come here and focus on myself and improve every day.”
Michael believes that mindset, plus Alie-Cox’s work ethic and talent, are a potent combination. He sees potential. After all, Alie-Cox only recently returned to football. He is 25 years old. He is still progressing.
“I don’t want to put a ceiling on anything with Mo. I don’t think there is a ceiling and I think it’s unfair to even say that there is,” Michael said. “To see how young he is and to think that he hasn’t done this very long, Mo has a chance to do some special things. I wouldn’t bet against him in anything he does.”