Matt Spaeth never dreamed he would be where he is today.
“Not when I first got here,” he stated. “I didn’t really ever imagine anything like this happening.”
What has happened is that Spaeth has developed into one of the best tight ends not only in the Big Ten, but in the entire nation. Prior to the 2006 season, Spaeth was named to the Lombardi Award watch list for the nation’s best lineman and was a preseason First Team All-America selection by Athlon.
What is perhaps even more amazing is that this development happened almost overnight. Recruited out of St. Michael-Albertville High School where he played linebacker throughout his prep career, Spaeth spent much of his first year with the University of Minnesota football program playing on the defensive side of the ball. Self-admittedly, he struggled and ended up redshirting his freshman year.
While it was not an ideal situation for a player who was used to being the star of his high school team, Spaeth realized he was not alone and understood the importance of keeping his head up, knowing that eventually his time would come.
“The first year is hard for anybody just because there’s a lot to get used to,” he stated. “It’s a hard year. The good thing is you’re not the only one. There are 20 or 30 guys in the same boat as you, so you just kind of battle through it together. Once bowl practice came around, that’s when we made the switch.”
The ‘switch’ Spaeth is referring to was not just a position switch, but a move to the opposite side of the ball. Prior to their preparations for the 2002 Music City Bowl, the Minnesota coaching staff made the decision to move Spaeth from defensive end to tight end. At first, it was not a move he particularly embraced.
“The first thing that happens when they tell you you’re going to switch positions is you ask yourself, ‘Why?’” Spaeth said. “As a player, you think, ‘I must not be doing well. I must be doing something wrong.’ You don’t look at it as a positive, whereas coaches, they look and say, ‘Maybe he’d be better here.’”
Almost immediately, it was evident they were right.
“The minute he moved to tight end you could see he was going to be a great player there,” assistant head coach Mitch Browning said. “He had good ability and good size. He had good football smarts. He took coaching and learned. He was a natural.”
It has pretty much been all downhill from there, as Spaeth has become an integral part of the Minnesota offense and excels both as a blocker and as a receiver.
He is the prototype for what the Minnesota coaching staff looks for in its tight ends – big, physical, tough and athletic. He embodies the definition of Golden Gopher football.
Over the course of his career, Spaeth has helped open holes for one of the most prolific rushing attacks in the nation. The Golden Gophers have posted a Big Ten record of three consecutive seasons (2003-05) with at least 3,000 yards rushing, the only 3,000-yard seasons in Minnesota school history.
It was Spaeth’s block that sprung running back Gary Russell for a 61-yard burst down the right sideline to set up the game-winning field goal at Michigan last fall, bringing the Little Brown Jug back to Minnesota for the first time in 20 years.
And he can catch. No. 89 has come up with some memorable receptions during the course of his career. It was Spaeth who hauled in a Bryan Cupito pass in the back of the end zone in traffic to set up the game-tying conversion late in the fourth quarter of the Gophers’ double overtime thriller against Purdue last season.
His numbers speak for themselves. After the first two weeks of the 2006 season, Spaeth leads the team in receiving with nine catches for 149 yards. Entering this weekend’s game against Temple, he needs just 333 yards to surpass Ben Utecht as the school’s all-time leader for receiving yards by a tight end.
Ironically enough, Utecht did not start out as a tight end when he arrived on the University of Minnesota campus either. While his position switch did not entail a move to the opposite side of the football, it was a change of scenery nonetheless. It obviously worked out for Utecht, as he is now a regular in the Indianapolis Colts’ lineup.
Spaeth had the benefit of learning under Utecht during his first two years with the program and took advantage of the opportunity to acquire some knowledge from one of the best at the position in college football at the time.
“He was very helpful and I learned a lot from him,” Spaeth said. “He was the main guy and he was a great tight end when I was making the switch. He taught me a lot about the position and everything else as far as being on the field and how to carry yourself off it as well.”
Browning said Minnesota’s success at being able to convert both Utecht and Spaeth into superior tight ends has been the result of a combination of factors.
“It has to do with recruiting the right type of kid, No. 1,” he said, “from a personality standpoint and also the right type of guy athletically. The system also has something to do with it, and those guys have bought into what we’ve asked them to do and done a tremendous job.”
An injury to Utecht allowed Spaeth to step to the forefront during his redshirt freshman season in 2003. He appeared in all 13 games with 10 starts and was named to The Sporting News Big Ten All-Freshman Team, as well as being selected to the Rivals.com Freshman All-America Team.
Spaeth has been piling up the accolades ever since. As a sophomore, he earned honorable mention All-Big Ten recognition, and last year both the coaches and media named him First Team All-Big Ten.
It seems a future in the NFL is inevitably in store for Spaeth, and Utecht’s success only further enhances the prospect.
“It’s always nice to see guys who you are friends with have success,” he commented. “And it makes me think, ‘maybe it’s possible for me to do the same thing.’”
But for now, Spaeth has other things on his mind, such as helping the Gophers win as many games as possible in his final season of college football. He continues to work hard every day in practice in an effort to make himself and his teammates better. Focused on the task at hand, Spaeth tries to put the idea of a future NFL career to the back of his mind as much as possible.
“People bring it up a lot,” Spaeth said about the possibility of playing on Sundays. “But I really try not to think about it. I’ll go out on the field and do what I do and let the rest take care of itself.”
More than anything, Spaeth is characterized by his ‘act like you’ve been there before’ attitude. For all he has accomplished on the football field, Spaeth said it is nice to get recognized because it means he must have done something right, but at the same time, he is far from the type of player who seeks the spotlight. Despite all of the honors he has piled up over the last three seasons, he said the one thing he is most proud of during his career at Minnesota was being voted a captain prior to this season
“It’s something your teammates vote on,” he stated. “They are the only people who have any say in it. So for them to choose me as a captain means they respect me, trust me and look up to me. That’s by far been my biggest accomplishment.”
Spaeth’s most enviable quality is undeniably his humility. He has earned the respect of both his teammates and coaches for his demeanor both on and off the field. He is a leader by example – a player who does everything the coaches ask of him without saying a word, yet he is not afraid to speak up when one of his teammates is doing something out of line. Equally dedicated in the classroom, Spaeth has earned Academic All-Big Ten honors each of the last three years.
Simply put, Spaeth is the standard by which the current era of Golden Gopher football players are measured. He is a supreme talent with the work ethic and attitude of a walk-on.
Spaeth has come a long way since he began his career in a Maroon and Gold uniform. Just four years ago, it may have been unfathomable for the freshman to find a position, but after a stellar career in which he is sure to be considered among the greatest tight ends in Minnesota history, it’s safe to say he found the right one.
story by Tory Kukowski, athletic communications intern
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