Austin Fort admits there are times he can’t help but look at the big picture.
It’s hard to believe, really.
“I pinch myself all the time,” Fort said.
Four years ago, Fort transferred from Wyoming to Chabot (Calif.) Community College in a last-ditch effort to keep playing quarterback. But Fort returned to Laramie the following season to walk on and re-earn his scholarship at tight end.
“My priorities were screwed up,” he said. “Why did I want to play a position this bad that I’m going to change my whole career path?”
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On Friday, Fort starred at his new role in the Broncos’ eighth training camp practice. The undrafted rookie tight end played on 30 percent of the team’s 11-on-11 scrimmage snaps (23-of-75) with four receptions and one touchdown from backup quarterback Kevin Hogan. Fort lined up in the backfield, split at tight and out at wide receiver with the first, second and third offensive personnel groupings.
In the injury absence of tight ends Jake Butt (ACL) and Bug Howard (ankle), Fort has emerged as a surprise candidate to solidify a roster spot; just so long as his playmaking extends to game settings. Fort gets his first chance Saturday when Denver hosts an open practice at Broncos Stadium.
“Hopefully, there are 50,000 people there Saturday to give (Fort) a little taste of a big environment, and the Hall of Fame game and the other preseason games,” coach Vic Fangio said. “He’s been doing well. Now he’s got to bring it. The practice fields are the quizzes. The games are the final exam. He’s been doing OK in the quizzes. Let’s see if he can carry it over.”
Few NFL scouts were buzzing about Fort prior to this offseason. The 6-foot-4, 244-pound prospect was limited to 17 games over his final two college seasons because of a pair of knee injuries. Fort averaged 13 yards per reception at Wyoming but managed only 17 career catches for 221 yards and four touchdowns. He needed eye-popping pro day numbers to get noticed. Loren Landow was happy to help.
Fort trained under the Broncos’ strength and conditioning coach for three months. When NFL scouts descended on Laramie, Fort showed out.
His times in the 40-yard dash (4.56 seconds) and three-cone drill (6.8) would have ranked inside the top three among tight ends invited to the NFL Scouting Combine. Fort put up similar numbers for Denver scouts at their local pro day, and within an hour of the NFL draft closing, he signed a free-agent contract with the Broncos.
“You could see in there the talent (Fort) was and how athletic he was,” said rookie Juwann Winfree, who trained pre-draft alongside Fort under Landow. “He’s hungry and he wants it. He didn’t get that big opportunity in college that he probably would have liked. This is his opportunity now and he’s making the most of it.”
Josh Galemore, The Casper Star-Tribune via APWyoming tight end Austin Fort (81) runs the ball down field against Fresno State during a game at War Memorial Stadium, Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017, in Laramie, Wyo.
Fort provides an offensive skill set not so different from Butt, a 2017 fifth-round pick, with a combination of speed, sure hands and explosive run-after-catch. Fort’s surest path to the roster, however, will be on special teams, where he must address the biggest transition between quarterback and tight end: Physicality. Fort continues to sharpen the blocking skills required at his position.
“There are going to be opportunities for me to get some one-on-one matchups and do some things in the passing game,” Fort said. “That will be favorable for me, but at the same time, we’re using our tight ends in every way. I’m in the backfield, I’m split out and I’m inline blocking. I’ve just got to be good at all that stuff.”
Fort now views his quarterback background as an advantage on the path to his NFL dream. But no matter the position, just one thing will guarantee a roster spot in Denver. Fort has taken Fangio’s challenge to heart.
“It’s one thing to do it in practice, but you’ve got to be able to do it on Sundays,” Fort said. “It’s a little bit different of a ball game when you put the pads on and you get under the lights. I’ve got to grind it out so I can play well in those opportunities.”