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Ravens tight end Crockett Gillmore has high ceiling, mentality to play in trenches

Ravens tight end Crockett Gillmore has high ceiling, mentality to play in trenches
Ravens tight end Crockett Gillmore (80) turns to power into the end zone for a touchdown while defended by Oakland Raiders' D.J. Hayden (25) and Curtis Lofton (50) in Oakland. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Over a plate of four peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches Thursday in the team cafeteria, Crockett Gillmore told Ravens teammates he had to bulk up so he could play offensive tackle. After film sessions studying opposing defenses, he tells his brother Austin he still belongs as a pass-rushing defensive end.

On the verge of a breakout year after his 88-yard, two-touchdown performance in Week 2 but limited recently by a calf strain, Gillmore has spent the season battling the notion that his ascent to starting tight end has been a surprise.

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Before long, he'll be the only one who still needs convincing. Most NFL trench-dwellers dream of catching passes like Gillmore. He dreams of taking their place.

"I could care less about playing offense," Gillmore said. "I have the mentality and the want-to to be the best, no matter what I'm doing. To me, defense is where I belong. That's where I've always belonged, and I have that mentality. I play with, I've always said, a mentality of playing with bad intentions."

None of that fits the mold of the impact tight end that Gillmore's game and 6-foot-6, 275-pound frame suggest he will become.

The drive that enables Gillmore to succeed wherever he's lined up — despite changing positions on the football field as frequently as he has — can carry him further at tight end than anywhere else on the field.

"He's going to be one of the best tight ends in the league," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.

Gillmore won't put a ceiling on where his career can take him, now that he's settled at tight end.

"I don't think there is one," he said.

In describing his seemingly limitless potential, Gillmore words his response oddly.

"I think we can do more things that people have never seen, because we do it all," he said. "We're not just a one-trick pony. We block, we can split out, we can throw."

He's talking about himself, but his three brothers are the same, so they're all considered together.

Gillmore credits his family's diverse sports background, especially wrestling, for his versatility.

He developed the technical skills of a small wrestler, then an 8-inch growth spurt — which made neighbors mistake him for his eldest brother — turned him into a big one.

Even against stocky heavyweights, Gillmore beat them using moves no one else 77 inches tall would attempt. He learned varied positions in football, too, playing safety, cornerback, linebacker and defensive end at Bushland High.

Bushland's football team got its start when he arrived as a freshman, so it was on him to provide enough back-in-the day, Texas-boy stories of past glory.

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Gillmore suplexed opposing quarterbacks, played nose guard at 200 pounds on a dare, and needed to be controlled in practice because he wouldn't rest until he sacked the only quarterback he said he couldn't get to — in the NFL, college or high school — Austin.

"He wants a championship, and he'll play wherever to get there," said Steven Flowers, Gillmore's offensive coordinator at Bushland. "It's not about boasting about how I can do this or I can do that. 'You just put me somewhere, and I'll get good enough to play it.'"

So what else could Flowers do but put Gillmore at wide receiver? With tape wrapped around his ring finger to simulate the championship ring he craved, he used those hands to score on 22 of his 45 receptions as a senior.

He still shied away from glory. When coaches called a screen for him, Gillmore switched places with another receiver so he could be the lead blocker. But as Bushland tried to erase a deficit in the state semifinals, Gillmore's quarterback's orders were simple.

"Don't worry about your reads; throw it to Crockett," Flowers told him. Gillmore caught three touchdown passes that day, including the game-winner. "He was not going to be denied."

The coaching staff at Colorado State was the last to grant his wish to play defense. Barely a week before his true freshman season began, injuries forced him from tight end to defensive end. He responded by picking up a sack in the Rams' rivalry game against Colorado in the season opener.

Colorado State needed tight ends the following spring, so he switched back just before the spring game and caught 111 passes for 1,308 yards and eight touchdowns as a three-year starter. Austin Gillmore was on the team, too, pushing his brother as only he could.

"He was not going to let Crockett be a baby," said Flowers, who had Austin on staff last season at West Texas High. "He was going to be the best, and if he wasn't, his brother was going to make sure he was going to be the best."

The Ravens selected Gillmore 99th overall in last year's NFL draft, and announced him as a tight end, ending any illusions of playing defense.

But his self-described bad intentions helped him find what he called his "one thing" to play as a rookie.

Gillmore grew up admiring Owen Daniels, who entered last year pairing with Dennis Pitta in similar pass-catching roles. So Gillmore shed no tears in deciding his calling card and path onto the field as a rookie would be as a blocker.

Pitta's hip injury changed Gillmore's role, and he caught 10 passes for 121 yards and one touchdown as a rookie. More targets loomed this year after Daniels left in free agency. So Gillmore prepared for more targets the way a Texan who jokes about moving to tackle too often for it to really be a joke would: He trained like an offensive lineman.

Gillmore joined former Bushland and Colorado State teammate Weston Richburg, now the New York Giants' starting center, in training with former NFL offensive lineman LeCharles Bentley during the offseason.

The focus on footwork, balance and weight distribution paid off at home before the football field. An admitted klutz, Gillmore stumbled running through his house and thought, "I'm going down." But he didn't. He had developed the step required to save his balance.

"I was always the one who'd be on the ground, because I've got big feet and I was slow and wasn't very strong," he said.

His brother was more blunt.

"He doesn't have very good balance," Austin said. "His [butt] was so heavy that he'd just fall right on it."

Gillmore added 25 pounds of muscle this spring, plus speed and balance evident from the moment team activities began.

A penalty negated a bruising 33-yard touchdown in the preseason. Nothing denied him in his breakout Week 2.

After a routine 26-yard touchdown, he ran through a tackle on a 38-yard reception on the next series and capped that drive with a scoring play that surprised even his brother, who was watching on a slight delay in his office.

"What, did he house it again?" Austin asked a fellow coach who appeared in his doorway. "He caught it 6 yards short of the goal line. I thought, 'Gosh, he didn't have this one,' and all of a sudden, he breaks through one and rumbles in with two guys on him. Holy cow."

Gillmore knows his calf strain couldn't have come at a worse time. He's ready to resume his featured role in the offense, but there he was in the cafeteria Thursday eating enough sandwiches for his entire table.

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"I asked him, 'Crock, what are you doing?' " fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. "He said, 'I've got to get back up to 300 because I'm trying to play tackle.' We all just kind of shook our heads at him. I feel like he tries to play mind games with you. He likes telling everyone that he's not a receiver, but he's out there balling as a receiver.

"That's just Crockett."

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