- Heather Dinich, ESPN Staff Writer
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Duke tight end Cooper Helfet has played Division I lacrosse.
He has played two seasons as a receiver at a junior college in California.
Now, finally, entering his second season as a tight end in the ACC, Helfet is the most comfortable and most prepared he’s been as an athlete and he could be one of the best tight ends in the ACC.
NC State’s George Bryan has gotten all of the attention for the position as a first-team all-conference selection, but Helfet has become a more complete player this offseason and could push Bryan for the spotlight. Last year, Helfet played in 11 games and started one and finished fourth on the team with 34 catches for 380 yards and two touchdowns. This year, he’s a projected starter and his improved blocking skills combined with his ability to stretch the field vertically will make him a key player in Duke’s pass-happy offense.
Helfet said he’s grown “a ton” since arriving at Duke.
“I was a receiver at the JC,” he said. “I ran a lot of similar tight end routes, where it’s a lot of over-the-middle things, a lot of big body catches, but I never put my hand in the dirt. Coach Ron Middleton is probably the best coach I’ve ever had. He’s gotten me exactly where I need to be. In a very short period of time, he’s gotten me to be a tight end, which you’ll see a lot more of this year, more of real tight end, hopefully.”
By that he means he’ll be blocking a lot more. Last year Helfet was used on mainly pass plays, but this year he’ll incorporate more three-point stance blocks and motion blocks.
“You’ll see me get my face into some guys this year,” he said. “I struggled with it last year, just based on a technique standpoint, so I’ve gotten that this year. I’ve really focused on it.”
He’s come a long way from being an unheralded but talented three-sport high school athlete.
Helfet suffered a back injury during his junior year at Redwood High School in California, which he said derailed his recruitment and changed the course of his path. He received a lacrosse scholarship offer from Johns Hopkins and decided to give it a try.
“I just really wanted to play a really competitive DI sport at the highest level, so I got there and tried it out, but lacrosse was never my true passion,” he said. “It wasn’t for me. I couldn’t give it everything I wanted to give. I wanted to go back to playing football.”
The junior college route seemed to be his best option. During two seasons at Santa Rosa Junior College, Helfet had 68 receptions for 1,039 yards. It was a successful detour, but Helfet said he’s finally at the place he wants to be as a collegiate athlete.
“I just wanted to be in a place where I could compete and play Division I football,” he said. “Obviously the ACC is a big-time conference, and they’re putting me in a position where I can be an effective player. That’s really all I wanted.”
It’s up to him this fall to show just how effective he can be.
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