GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida tight end Kyle Pitts first talked to coach Dan Mullen about turning pro and leaving the program to prepare for the NFL draft two weeks ago, following his latest injury this season.
Mullen convinced his best player to stick around for the Southeastern Conference championship game and maybe the College Football Playoff.
Once the 10th-ranked Gators were officially eliminated from playoff contention, Pitts wasted little time opting out. He announced his decision on social media Sunday, less than 12 hours after Florida lost to top-ranked Alabama 52-46 in the SEC title game in Atlanta and before Mullen's team learned it was headed to the Cotton Bowl to play No. 8 Oklahoma.
“It was something we discussed about where he was at, his future and we talked about the opportunity go play in the SEC championship game,” Mullen said. “And he worked his tail off to get cleared to go play in that game. He said, ‘Coach, I’m not sure what I'll do after that depending on where we go and what the situation's going to be.'"
Mullen supported Pitts' decision.
“You completely respect it,” Mullen said. "He's a guy that has the opportunity to be a top-10 pick in the NFL draft, a phenomenal athlete, the premier tight end, I think, in the country. I give him a lot of credit for working his tail off to try to get healthy enough to go play last night's game. Had a huge game. We talked that he's going to go prepare for that next step."
The 6-foot-6 junior from Philadelphia finished with seven receptions for 129 yards and a touchdown against the Crimson Tide. He's widely expected to be the first tight end selected in the 2021 NFL draft.
“I have many great memories during my three years at Florida and I will always be a Gator,” Pitts said. "I hope to continue to make Gator Nation proud throughout my career. I will forever miss running out of the tunnel on Saturdays with my brothers in front of 90,000 fans.
“I know it's time for me to move on to the next chapter of my life.”
Pitts caught 43 passes for 770 yards and 12 touchdowns in 7 1/2 games this season. He missed 10 quarters following a vicious hit against Georgia in early November that knocked his helmet so sideways that his facemask fractured his septum. He had surgery and sat out two full games.
He returned and scored three times against Kentucky, including a 56-yard reception early in which he ran away from a starting cornerback.
He was on the sideline again for Florida's regular-season finale, a 37-34 loss to LSU in which the Gators had three turnovers in the second quarter and three three-and-outs in the fourth.
Florida said Pitts was dealing with a lingering injury from the previous week at Tennessee. He lobbied to play but was ultimately overruled, with his health and his future as the main considerations. There’s little doubt, though, that Pitts would have made a difference.
He's expected to win the Mackey Award given annually to college football’s top tight end and surely will get some Heisman Trophy votes.
Pitts will be one of many significant losses on Florida's high-scoring offense. Quarterback Kyle Trask, receivers Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes, and offensive linemen Brett Heggie, Stone Forsythe, Stewart Reese and Jean Delance are all seniors expected to move on.
“Kyle Pitts is the only one I've talked to. I've talked to other guys that are just viewing what they're options are for the future as they're getting with family to go make a decision," Mullen said. “Everybody's just trying to catch their breath here for 24 hours.
"I don't have any other reports of who will or will not play the bowl game for us. We'll see as the week goes on and as these guys make decisions about their future.”
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