Kraft prepares for draft: Former Jackrabbit tight end is projected top-50 NFL pick

Jon Akre, Sports Reporter

South Dakota State’s All-American tight end Tucker Kraft didn’t have much time to celebrate the Jackrabbits’ first-ever FCS National Championship. 

“I was on cloud nine there for a couple days, but I didn’t take a break,” Kraft said in describing SDSU’s 45-21 title game win over rival NDSU Jan. 8. “We played the game on a Sunday, I got on a flight on Monday, and I started my combine training on Tuesday.”

Kraft, the 6-foot-5, 255-pound tight end from Timber Lake, officially declared his name into the NFL draft in November. But now that the confetti has fallen and the college football season is over, he has turned his focus toward the NFL. While all the other members of the football team were celebrating their historic season, Kraft didn’t have much time take it all in.

The NFL draft is April 27-29 in Kansas City, Missouri, and Kraft says he will have a very busy schedule until then. Kraft is a projected top 50 pick in this year’s draft.

While Kraft is ready to move on to bigger things, he says he will always be proud of being a Division I national champion. 

“Not a lot of people can say they won a national championship, and I’m never going to let someone take that away from me either,” he said. 

Kraft will be in Nashville, Tennessee, for the next five weeks, training for NFL Draft Combine.  

“Still keeping my goal in mind of getting drafted as high as I possibly can, and then I’ll have my pro day with South Dakota State, and then it’s just continuing to work out and stay in football shape,” he said. 

Kraft says NFL teams may invite him to come and do a workout after the combine, but with the combine so far out yet, it’s still all an unknown. Kraft received his NFL draft combine invite last week after everyone else because he is leaving South Dakota State early to pursue the NFL. Players that still have years of eligibility get their invites after everyone else, which is why Kraft got his invite later.

“I’m leaving school in my pursuit for football. This isn’t like me taking things as a chance like ‘oh, I’ll give it my best,’” Kraft said. “I’m trying to play in the league for a decade, like I’m leaving school knowing that this is my shot, and I’m going to give it everything I have and I’m telling myself I’m going to succeed.”

There is no doubt, Kraft has the mindset to play at the next level. Newly retired head football coach John Stiegelmeier knows Kraft’s game will translate well into the NFL.

“Guys like him are hard to find because he is a complete tight end, which means he can put his hand in the ground and block and is very good at it,” Stiegelmeier said. “And he can run and catch and has very good speed, which a lot of pro scouts say is rare to find nowadays.”

The Jackrabbits have some history of high-level talent at the tight end position in the NFL. Steve Heiden was a third-round pick back in 1999, and Dallas Goedert was drafted 49th overall to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2018 and is now gearing up to play in Super Bowl LVII Feb. 12 against the Kansas City Chiefs. Stiegelmeier sees similarities in Kraft and Goedert.

“A huge similarity is their work ethic,” Stiegelmeier said. “They’re small-town student athletes who know how to work.”

The Jackrabbits’ heavy rushing attack was one of the biggest contributors to their success in the playoffs, averaging roughly 250 rushing yards a game and almost seven yards per carry. Kraft was a huge part of that heavy running scheme along with other the tight ends like Zach Heins and Michael Morgan. While most would assume the best chance of winning is to give your NFL-caliber tight end the ball, offensive coordinator Zach Lujan sees the underrated side to Kraft’s game.

“While it’s easy to see when obviously he’s catching it and making plays downfield, what people don’t see is how dominant he is in the run game and how much of a difference maker he was at the point of attack,” Lujan said. “And you watch most of our big runs in the playoffs, most of them were right behind him at the point of attack, making the key block.”

With many teams looking for tight ends in the NFL, expect Kraft to be making a huge impact to whichever team picks him. Kraft ends his career with the Jacks as an FCS All-American, two-time All-MVFC first team and as an FCS national Champion in 2022. He finished his collegiate career with 99 catches, 1,211 receiving yards and nine touchdowns.