Q & A with Zach Gentry, a player on the rise entering Year 4 in the NFL - Albuquerque Journal

Q & A with Zach Gentry, a player on the rise entering Year 4 in the NFL

Pittsburgh tight end and Eldorado High alumnus Zach Gentry greets Steelers fans during pregame warmups before an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022 in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photos/Reed Hoffmann)

On Monday, Zach Gentry flies to western Pennsylvania for his fourth NFL training camp with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The 2015 Eldorado High graduate, selected in the fifth round (No. 141 overall) by Pittsburgh in the 2019 draft, was an All-Big Ten selection as a senior at Michigan in 2018, and is considered a rapidly improving tight end in the NFL.

This fall, the 6-foot-8, 265-pound Gentry, who turns 26 in September, will be working along side a new quarterback in Pittsburgh. That is one of the topics Gentry discussed in a lengthy Q&A session with the Journal, conducted Friday at his alma mater. (Some of this conversation has been edited for length and clarity).

Journal: You’re entering your fourth year. Assess your first three seasons in the NFL.

Zach Gentry: It’s been a steady improvement, getting more and more snaps every year. I started a handful of games my rookie year, my second year was tough because of a season ending injury at Jacksonville. Last year was fun, started every game. Got to play a bunch and be more a part of it.

AJ: You took on a much larger role in the Steelers offense last season, not just as a blocking tight end. You also caught 19 balls. And it sounds like that role is expected to expand even more this season. Can you talk about that?

ZG: Last year was an important stepping stone to be able to contribute more. It was good for my confidence to get out there and play the majority of the game, and be able to perform against stand-up defensive ends, outside linebackers, stuff like that, building off of that. Ben (Roethlisberger) was able to find me in some open situations, and I was able to make some plays.

AJ: Explain your growth as a tight end. Last season, not only did you become more active as a pass catcher, Pro Football Focus rated you as the fourth-best blocking tight end in the NFL. Describe the balance you’ve tried to strike.

Zach Gentry goes upfield during the Steelers’ game vs. the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Terrance Williams)

ZG: It’s constant development, and finding that balance of being able to do the run blocking, pass blocking and receiving stuff, with my God-given size to be able to toe the line between those two different things. A lot of guys specialize in one or the other. I was able to, just through repetition, get a lot better at blocking. That’s what I like to hang my hat on, is first and foremost being a great run blocker and pass protector. I think I can be one of the best in the NFL at both of those.

AJ: Sitting here at Eldorado, the name you made for yourself in high school (as a standout quarterback) is certainly different than the name you’re making for yourself now. Wondering if you could have ever imagined that someday you’d become one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL?

ZG: (laughs) In hindsight, it does (seem weird). I’m not hard wired to look back at stuff like that, but when I do, and I reminisce, never in a million years would I have thought that I’d be playing in the NFL as primarily a blocking tight end.

AJ: What did you need to get better at (after being drafted) to get where you are now?

ZG: Adjusting to the speed and size of the next level, but I felt like for a while I had the ability. It was just honing some things. The NFL is just a different league. A lot of it was just seeing, and waiting my turn, waiting on my opportunity to break through and get on that 53-man roster and being able to display things on the field.

AJ: You ended up catching Ben Roethlisberger’s final pass. How meaningful a moment was that?

ZG: In the moment, I wasn’t really thinking about it, but I wish I would have a little bit more. Immediately after the game (a loss at Kansas City), I thought about it. It’s a pretty cool thing to be able to look back on. The thing that made it real for me … he and I, for the majority of the away games, had lockers next to each other. I do remember on that catch, I knew it would be the last play of the season. There was a line of KC defenders at the goal line, and I thought, could I go over the top? Then I thought, I don’t want to get hurt on the last play of the season. After the game, I went over to Ben’s locker, told him I was sorry I couldn’t get that one in the end zone for your last (pass). I made a business decision, basically (laughs). I think that was the first time it really hit him that it was his last pass.

AJ: You played with him for three years. Can you share any wisdom that he imparted to you, or something you picked up playing with him that you feel will be beneficial to you?

ZG: So many good things. A lot of them were coaching points. And he was so talented at quarterback, he could put it wherever you wanted it. He imparted a lot of stuff. And he was the figurehead of that organization for 18 years. It’s gonna be strange without him, but I definitely learned a lot from him.

AJ: This will be the first Steelers training camp in almost 20 years without him. Based on OTAs and other offseason activities, how will this offense look with a different QB?

ZG: It was a really productive offseason. Our offense was really clicking during OTAs. It feels like we’ve put the pieces together. We’ve really shored up the O-Line with some free agents, and the defense looked really good with guys like Minkah (Fitzpatrick) and T.J. (Watt). It feels like we’re all coming together.

AJ: Who do you think is the best tight end in the league?

ZG: George Kittle (of the 49ers) is probably the most complete tight end. Travis Kelce (of the Chiefs) is probably the best run-after-catch tight end in the league.

AJ: Tell me what you most enjoy about being an NFL player.

ZG: I’m just happy to still be playing football. It doesn’t even feel like a real job to me. There’s good perks that come with it. Pittsburgh enjoys the Steelers, the Penguins, the Pirates, and it’s a good sports town and we get treated well. NFL — Not For Long, right? I’m lucky to be going into Year 4.

AJ: Your best experience so far in the NFL?

ZG: I don’t know if there’s one. I didn’t give up any sacks last year, and I run block pretty well, I think, so it’s always cool to do that against the big name guys, guys you respect. Von Miller. Myles Garrett. That’s pretty cool. It sticks with me. Venue wise, it’s hard to beat Lambeau.

AJ: Read something that teams already are scheming away from you. You hear that, it must give you validation for the improvements you’ve made.

ZG: I’ve worked my tail off at it. A lot of times, it’s the dirty work that goes unnoticed, and that’s fine with me. I’m not someone who needs to catch five touchdowns a year. I’m happy to do my part. As long as I’m doing my job, I’m happy about that.

AJ: So, Heinz Field is out. How are we feeling about Acrisure Stadium?

ZG: It’s gonna be weird.

AJ: Lastly, what are your thoughts on the current direction of college football?

ZG: It’s kind of bizarre. I don’t know I feel about all this stuff. I still love college football. We get done with our walkthroughs on Saturday morning, and then I’m watching college football all day. But it feels different. I don’t know if I agree with the super conferences. USC and UCLA going to the Big 10 is a little bit dicey for me. The NIL (Names, Image and Likeness) stuff, the transfer portal, all that stuff is changing the landscape. It’s not college football as we know it anymore.

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