The feeling has never changed for Kyle Pitts.

From his earliest days playing football, to a standout career at Archbishop Wood and now a start tight end for No. 7 Florida, Pitts still has the same feeling before every game he plays. It’s how he knows his love for the game is still real and despite all the accolades and hype around him, keeps him from never settling.

As Pitts and his teammates prepare to face No. 1 Alabama in the SEC title game on Saturday, the former Viking great reflected on his journey so far.

“To be labeled and just in the conversation with some of the guys who have come through is kind of crazy but sitting back and looking at it, it’s something I wanted to do and something I’ve dreamed of,” Pitts said by phone Thursday night. “I wanted to make myself one of those guys people talk about 20 years down the line. Those are accomplishments no one can take from you and that’s what I’m grinding so hard toward.”

Put Pitts’ name into any internet search engine and a swath of results pop up immediately, most reflecting on his gaudy stats this season, the various awards he’s up for or his projected status in the 2021 NFL Draft. It’s all for good reason as the 6-foot-6, 246-pound tight end has proven himself as one of the best players not only at his position, but across the board nationally this fall.

Despite missing two games due to a concussion and facial injury and being a late scratch in last week’s game against LSU, Pitts has posted impressive numbers. The junior currently has 36 receptions for 641 yards with 11 touchdowns and owns the program record for touchdowns and receptions by a tight end.

With COVID-19 causing plenty of disruptions and havoc on college football schedules this fall, several big-name players across the country opted out of the season. Coming off a breakout sophomore campaign where he caught 54 balls for 649 yards and five TDs while establishing himself as one of the top tight ends at the college level, Pitts could have gone that route as well.

But he wasn’t willing to settle on what he had done and wanted to prove he was capable of more.

“I had a couple more things to prove to people and tried to hone in one those things so when the time comes, there’s no questions about Kyle Pitts and he checks all the boxes,” Pitts said. “It’s something I took personal. I didn’t want to sit out the season and be home training, I wanted to play with the guys on this team, we’re very close and it meant a lot to me to be out there with them.”

Stopping Pitts has been a difficult prospect for SEC defenses all fall and the task now falls to Nick Saban’s defense. The Alabama coach had plenty of praise for Pitts during a press conference earlier this week.

“He’s a fantastic player,” Saban told reporters. “His size and speed and athleticism, all those things make it very difficult to guard the guy. He’s a very versatile player. He can play tight end, he can play on the line, he can play off the ball or out as a receiver. They move him around a lot and he creates a lot of issues and problems for you.”

Part of the irony is that Pitts wasn’t a pass-catching machine at Archbishop Wood. The Vikings have always been a run-heavy team but once Pitts arrived prior to his junior year, he learned how to make the most of his opportunities.

According to TedSilary.com, Pitts caught 28 balls for 394 yards and six scores as a junior in 2016 along with 21 passes for 337 yards and five touchdowns as a senior in 2017, both state championship seasons for Wood. Pitts laughed when it was mentioned he might have seen two or three targets total in a game at Wood and hits that number on one drive at Florida, but his time at Wood put him on the path to success in Gainesville.

“Being trusted to catch multiple balls and an option on big plays is still crazy but if they’re putting the responsibility on me, it’s my obligation to perform,” Pitts said. “At Wood, it might have been two passes a game so you have to cherish that. When those two balls come to you, you want to make the most of it and that’s something I’ve always known.”

Pitts transferred to Archbishop Wood after two years at Abington, seeking an opportunity to play tight end. The Vikings, under then coach Steve Devlin, gave him that chance but also asked more of Pitts, including a lot of run blocking and playing defensive end.

While he was an impact defender, picking off a pass in his final high school game, Pitts admitted he didn’t like the defensive side all that much. However, it did leave an imprint on Pitts, who played some special teams during his freshman season at Florida.

“I’ve never seen myself as a selfish guy, I love winning and hate losing,” Pitts said. “I lose sleep over losing, so being that guy that has an impact on helping your team win is pretty special no matter how you do it.”

Between out-of-state foes, the Philadelphia Catholic League and state playoff runs, Wood faced plenty of quality opposition during Pitts’ time with the Vikings. It’s no surprise he’s matched up against a few familiar names in the SEC over the past three years either.

“Wood, we kind of played the SEC of high school football,” Pitts said. “Going up against that great competition really put the dog inside of me and always wanting to compete against the best teams. Coach Devlin did a great job instilling that in the program and having us always wanting to compete.”

Despite missing three games, Pitts’ 11 touchdowns still rank second in the SEC and fourth nationally. He is a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the most outstanding FBS receiver and the Mackey Award, which goes to the nation’s top tight end as well as the Maxwell Award, which recognizes the most outstanding all-around player in the NCAA.

It’s elite company that Pitts finds himself in but the junior tries not to pay much attention to those accolades. He did allow that he wants to be recognized as the nation’s top tight end and earn All-American honors at his position but added that wouldn’t be reason to stop improving.

“I don’t want any minuses when my name is brought up,” Pitts said. “It’s great when I see it or the coaches tell me about it, it means I’m among some of the great players. That’s something everyone puts on their mirror at the start of the season, but it’s up to you to achieve it.”

As Pitts has thrived this fall, so has Gators quarterback Kyle Trask, spawning the “Kyle to Kyle” moniker that’s become a calling card for Florida fans. Trask, a redshirt senior, and Pitts began their relationship as second-stringers and found mutual success through waiting their turn.

“It’s one of a kind,” Pitts said. “We have the same name, but we’ve also had the same journey. We had to wait a little bit, we were together a lot and now we’re trying to be perfectionists. He knows where I’m at and I know where he’s going to throw the ball.”

Family has always been important to Pitts and he said the support system they provide is what fuels him. His parents were the ones who pushed him to not give up on his goal of playing tight end and despite the challenges of travel this fall, haven’t missed one of his games.

Pitts is widely expected to declare for the 2021 draft after Florida’s season ends, but he’s not thinking about that decision yet as the Gators look to upend the top-ranked Crimson Tide and hope to make the College Football Playoff. Should he leave Florida, the junior is consensus first-round pick with most mock drafts having him as the first tight end off the board and going in the top 20 with at least one projection as high as No. 6 right now.

“I’ve come a long way. I was told I’d never make it at tight end before I transferred but once I got the opportunity to make things work, I got my confidence back,” Pitts said. “Now, being able to go to the NFL, it’s something a lot of people dream of but can’t achieve. Being part of that select group is a special blessing, to be able to go to that level, I don’t even have words to explain it but once I get in, I want to stay in. I’m never going to be complacent, I’ve done great things at this level but I want to do great things at the next level as well.”

Saturday, before he runs out of the tunnel at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia, Pitts knows he’ll have the same feeling he’s always had before every game he’s played. It’ll be a welcome feeling and one he hopes stays with him wherever his career takes him next.

“It’s something that’ll never go away,” Pitts said. “Having those jitters but knowing they’re from competition rather than nervous jitters, that’s a good feeling and one I love to have.”

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