Steelers draft picks Justin Layne, Zach Gentry ‘still learning’ after college position switches
Heath Miller was given the Mackey Award 15 years ago as college football’s best tight end, and he became a two-time NFL Pro Bowler who set records as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ most productive career tight end.
So, there Steelers tight end coach James Daniel was late last month dropping Miller’s name when discussing newly drafted fifth-round pick Zach Gentry – he of all of 49 career catches at Michigan.
Why the lofty comparison, James?
“They were both quarterbacks,” Daniel said, flatly.
Gentry has a long way to go to become as valuable to the Steelers as Miller was. But he does share that commonality with the former Virginia star Miller, who was initially recruited as a highly regarded quarterback.
Gentry, a New Mexico native, was ranked the No. 8 pro-style quarterback in the country for the Class of 2015. He ended up a 6-foot-8 tight end for Michigan.
And Gentry wasn’t the only Steelers middle-round draft pick who was a four-star recruit who ended up switching positions. Third-rounder Justin Layne was the top-rated wide receiver in Ohio when he committed to Michigan State in 2015 as part of the next year’s class.
But the 6-3 Layne was moved to defense midway through his freshman season; Gentry likewise had abandoned quarterback for tight end by the time he hit the field as a redshirt freshman.
As somewhat-raw prospects with higher ceilings because of the relative lack of experience at their drafted positions, Layne and Gentry fit a profile of players the Steelers sometimes tend to be drawn to come draft time.
In his first public comments discussing each, for example, general manager Kevin Colbert was quick to point out both Layne and Gentry were converted from other positions.
Of Layne, Colbert said: “Justin Layne is really a long guy that is learning how to play corner. He’s a converted wide receiver. There was some instance this season where Michigan State actually used him as a deep receiver. … He’s long, he’s smooth, he’s still learning how to play corner, but we’re excited about that.”
Moments later, Colbert began his synopsis of Gentry by mentioning he “is probably a lot like Justin Layne.”
“He went to Michigan, was recruited as a quarterback, flipped over to a wide receiver, and then quickly went over to tight end,” Colbert said. “He’s learning how to play that position. Zach … is learning how to become an NFL tight end. Playing in an NFL scheme coming out of Michigan, he’s got a good start on it. Again, he will continue to improve and get better.”
By the time Miller was drafted 30th overall by the Steelers in 2005, he had been a productive star tight end for three full seasons. Taken at a spot 111 picks farther down 14 years later, Gentry understandably is more of a project.
It was two years ago the Steelers similarly used a fifth-round pick on a well-sized “project” who tested well but had recently converted positions. Tall former Utah wide receiver Brian Allen moved to defense and found his way to the NFL.
While Allen hasn’t made much of an impact yet, he remains on the roster and simultaneously has shown his promise as well as serving as a cautionary tale of the type of high-risk/reward pick a recently converted positional player can be.
“I have been playing both ways my whole life,” Layne said. “I am a football player at the end of the day.”
Perhaps because of the cache associated with playing quarterback, Gentry didn’t immediately embrace his position switch with as much enthusiasm.
“But when I sat down with (Michigan coach and former NFL coach Jim Harbaugh), he kind of laid out for me what he thought would be best for my future, with my body frame, and things of that nature,” Gentry said. “Being a little of 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds at the time (now 267) would probably make me a more successful tight end than quarterback at the next level.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .