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Colts’ Mo Alie-Cox is latest college basketball player turned NFL tight end

If a casual sports fan were to recognize Mo Alie-Cox on the street, it still might be for what he accomplished playing basketball for VCU in four NCAA Tournaments.

Alie-Cox is closing in on changing that narrative, though, as the now fourth-year NFL tight end has made himself an important part of the Colts’ offense. Despite not playing football after his freshman year of high school through the end of his college basketball career, Alie-Cox took a chance on football, which took a chance back on him. For both sides, it seems the shift in profession is paying off, and it’s just the latest example of a college basketball player becoming a solid NFL tight end, following in the footsteps of greats like Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham.

Here’s more to know about the Colts’ big red-zone target Alie-Cox, from how good he was at basketball to just how he became an NFL player.

Where did Mo Alie-Cox play college basketball?

Alie-Cox played his college basketball at VCU (Virginia Commonwealth University). He went to four NCAA Tournaments with the Rams right as head coach Shaka Smart made VCU one of the top mid-major programs in the country.

Alie-Cox still ranks as VCU’s all-time leader in field-goal percentage, at 57.4 percent. He’s also second in school history in blocks, with 255. 

Listed at 6-7 by VCU, Alie-Cox often played the center spot on athletic, tight-pressuring Rams’ defensive units. One of the biggest games of Alie-Cox’s college career came in his junior season in an NCAA Tournament opener against Oregon State. He scored 20 points with eight rebounds and three blocked shots to move the Rams on to the next round.

Alie-Cox scored a career-high 23 points as a senior against Dayton, and his shot-blocking prowess led to a career-high of five blocks in a game, which he achieved on seven separate occasions. 

How Mo Alie-Cox became an NFL tight end

Alie-Cox played football in high school as a freshman, but that was it until his addition by Indianapolis. The Colts signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2017 after Alie-Cox’s college basketball career was over, a speculative add of an enticing athlete to bring to training camp and see if there was anything there. Turns out there was.

The Athletic detailed the timeline for Alie-Cox finding his way to the NFL. An NFL scout came to a VCU basketball practice, did a once-over of Alie-Cox, and remarked, “Yep, that’s how they look.” Veteran tight end Jason Witten had connections with the VCU coaching staff, and Witten too saw an NFL body when he saw Alie-Cox.

After his senior basketball season ended, Alie-Cox held a football workout that all 30 NFL teams attended. A former Colts scout pitched Alie-Cox to Indianapolis general manager Chris Ballard, and Ballard went for it.

The Colts had to cut Alie-Cox twice in his first two seasons, shuffling him around on the practice squad and dealing with the numbers game that can at times be NFL rosters. It’s taken four seasons, but Alie-Cox has rewarded Ballard’s faith. He became a consistent third tight end for Indianapolis in 2019, and thanks to injuries at the position, has often served as first or second-string at TE.

In Week 2 of the 2020 season, Alie-Cox caught five passes for 111 yards against the Vikings. He thought to himself in the locker room afterward, “Did I really just have a 100-yard game in the NFL? I honestly never thought that would happen.” 

Since Week 2, Alie-Cox’s role has fluctuated depending on the health of other tight ends Jack Doyle and Trey Burton. But Alie-Cox has grabbed a couple touchdowns in 2020, and he continues to be a dangerous target in the red zone. After all, a great college basketball shot-blocker ought to be able to time a leap and get his hands on a ball, whether on a court or the gridiron.

List of college basketball players turned NFL tight ends

The following is a non-exclusive list of NFL tight ends who played basketball in college. Some were multi-sport college athletes, while some, like Alie-Cox, only played basketball in college before transitioning to professional football.

Antonio Gates

Gates played only basketball in college, finishing his collegiate career at Kent State with an Elite Eight berth as a junior and a 20.6 points per game scoring average as a senior. In the NFL, Gates starred for the Chargers, for whom he caught 116 touchdowns and had the third-most catches by a tight end (955) in NFL history.

Jimmy Graham

Graham began his college career as a basketball player at Miami, where his sturdy frontcourt presence led to back-to-back seasons of 1.2 blocks per game as a junior and senior. He used a final season of college eligibility to play football for the Hurricanes, and he caught 17 passes and five touchdowns for The U. That led to his third-round draft selection by the Saints in 2010. Graham became one of the NFL’s premier red-zone threats, including a 2013 season when he led the league with 16 touchdown catches. Graham is still active in the NFL in 2020 for the Bears. 

Tony Gonzalez

Unlike Gates and Graham, Tony G was a two-sport athlete in college at California from the start. He was an All-American tight end for the Golden Bears, so his professional success on the gridiron likely wasn’t a huge surprise. He also averaged more than 6.0 points and 4.0 rebounds per game as a forward for the Cal hoops team. Gonzalez became the NFL’s all-time receptions leader (1,325) among tight ends, ranking third in NFL history for any pass-catcher with that total.

Darren Fells

Fells was a collegiate star in the Big West for UC-Irvine. He led the conference in field-goal percentage (56.9) as a senior while averaging 14.4 points and 7.2 rebounds per game for the Anteaters. After college, Fells played professional basketball in Argentina, Belgium, Finland, France and Mexico. After not having played college football, Fells eventually pursued the NFL in 2013, and he’s now caught 17 touchdowns in his NFL career. He’s playing for the Texans in 2020. 

Julius Thomas

Thomas was a forward at Portland State, and he went to two NCAA Tournaments and averaged double-figure scoring as a senior. Thomas chose to use a final fall season of eligibility as a walk-on for Portland State’s football team in 2010, and he showed enough to be picked in the fourth round by the Broncos in 2011. He became a favorite target of Peyton Manning’s for a couple seasons, catching 12 touchdown passes in both 2013 and 2014 before fading out over the next few seasons.

Rico Gathers

At 6-8, 280 pounds, Gathers was a dominant college basketball force at Baylor, where he once had a 25-point, 28-rebound game. As a junior, he had his best statistical season, averaging 11.6 points and 11.6 rebounds per game. Gathers entered the 2016 NFL Draft despite not playing football for the Bears, and the Cowboys took him in the sixth round. He caught three passes during the 2018 season for Dallas, and he’s currently a free agent.

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