Tucker Kraft made it official on Monday, announcing via social media that he will enter the 2023 NFL Draft instead of returning to South Dakota State. Officially a junior, Kraft could have had two more years after this one, with the extra year granted to players due to the COVID-19 impacted 2020 season.
But the 6-foot-5, 255-pound Kraft established himself as one of the top tight ends in all of college football last year, catching 65 passes for 780 yards, and despite missing most of this year’s regular season with a foot injury, the Timber Lake native has been impressive enough since returning that it’s clear he’s capable of being the same player he was before the injury. He’s been projected as a top 50 pick, which made Monday’s announcement unsurprising.
“I pretty much had my mind made up the whole year,” Kraft said. “Scouts told me I needed to do one thing this season to solidify my spot (atop NFL draft boards) and that was to return to the field and still look like myself. I’ve done that, and I’m only feeling better every single week.”
As for the timing, Kraft made the announcement now so he can focus all his efforts on leading the Jackrabbits to a national championship. SDSU is the No. 1 seed in the FCS playoffs that start this Saturday (the Jacks have a first-round bye).
“The final regular season game he felt there were a lot of distractions, so he wanted to get this over with so he could focus on the team,” said Jacks coach John Stiegelmeier. “He asked us when we wanted him to do it so that it wouldn’t take away from any team stuff, because he’s a team-first guy. It’s bittersweet, but he believes and I believe this is the best thing for him right now. He’s given us more than we’ve given him, so we’re all in total support.”
Indeed, Kraft has more than proven his loyalty to the program. He turned down six-figure NIL offers from major college programs in the summer to stay at SDSU, and impressively worked his way back from the injury he suffered in the season opener, getting back on the field ahead of the projected timetable. He’s been electric since returning, with 19 catches for 232 yards and two touchdowns.
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“We’ve still got a lot of football left to play and I’ve had agents contacting me, so I said I’d make my declaration now because I’d like them to quit talking to me for a few weeks,” Kraft said. “Now everything else is in someone else’s hands. The only thing I have to do is play football.”
Kraft continues in a long line of star tight ends with NFL potential to come out of SDSU. Dallas Goedert was here just a few years ago, was a 2n.d round pick, and is now one of the NFL’s best. Kraft might not even be the only tight end from this year’s team to go in this year’s draft, as 6-foot-7 senior Zach Heins, who has 27 catches and four touchdowns this season, is also considered a serious draft prospect.
Still, the decision was a difficult one for Kraft, who could talk about his excitement to challenge himself in the NFL in one breath and express enthusiasm for returning for one more year to lead the Jacks as a senior in the next.
“Yeah, it was and still is (a tough decision),” he said. “I’ve got all my roommates and best friends and girlfriend and everything that I’ll be leaving behind while I’m training for the draft. But I know everything takes care of itself. These guys are in good hands. I just want to focus on one last ride with them.”