Photo: Thomas Sirk
DURHAM, N.C. -- Thomas Sirk is sending a message for NFL scouts: Good things come in pairs.
Sirk played quarterback at two colleges, Duke and East Carolina.
He earned two degrees, a bachelor’s in political science and masters in liberal arts.
Now he’s trying to show NFL scouts he can handle two positions -- tight end in addition to quarterback.
The 6-foot-5, 220-pounder improved his odds of catching their attention, thanks to two former coaches allowing him to attend their schools' pro days. With that bonus, he was able to focus on one of the two positions at each site before the assembled NFL scouts.
“It was an advantage for me,” Sirk said at Duke’s Pascal Fieldhouse. “I can’t say enough about both programs and both Coach (Scottie) Montgomery at East Carolina and Coach (David) Cutcliffe at Duke. It allowed me to do both (positions) when they opened their programs to me. They gave me the best opportunity. I have the highest respect for both of those coaches. I’m proud to have played for both of them.”
Sirk went through the gauntlet of quarterback drills last week at East Carolina. Five days later at Duke, he worked out as a tight end, running routes and catching all the passes thrown to him.
East Carolina is only 108 miles from Duke, but what really made the transition easy was Montgomery’s Duke roots. He was Duke's offensive coordinator through 2015 prior to landing the East Carolina job in 2016.
Something else coming in twos that have benefited Sirk were NCAA rules that helped keep alive his NFL dream. One was a medical redshirt he used as a sixth-year graduate student at East Carolina. He had lost two previous years to Achilles’ heel injuries. The other rule was immediate transfer eligibility as a graduate without having to sit out a year.
The NCAA takes a lot of hits, but Sirk is a poster boy for the battered organization advocating athletes.
Sirk’s long-and-winding road to hoping to make the NFL as a 24-year-old rookie:
--- 2012: Redshirt as most quarterbacks do their first year on campus.
--- 2013: Missed the season recovering for ruptured right Achilles’ tendon.
--- 2014: Backup to starter Anthony Boone used in short-yardage situations. He ran 47 times for 238 yards and a team-high eight touchdowns.
--- 2015: As a starter he finished with 3,433 total yards. He threw for 2,264 with eight touchdowns and rushed for 809 with eight TDs.
--- 2016: He was about to open his second season as a starter when he suffered a partial tear to his left Achilles’ tendon.
--- 2017: Upon earning a sixth-year medical redshirt, he was still at Duke when injured he ruptured his left Achilles’ working out for spring drills. With Daniel Jones emerging as an NFL prospect in 2016 and unchallenged in 2017 spring drills, Sirk opted to transfer to East Carolina for playing time. He won the starting job and played in 11 games. He threw for 1,655 yards and nine touchdowns and ran for 165 and three scores.
There’s no disputing his persistence, but another question Sirk wanted to answer was his versatility.
“I’m really excited I got to showcase myself running routes,” he said. “I’ve been working out since December. I hoped I opened eyes I’m able to play the position. I wanted to prove to these guys (scouts) I’m healthy and that I can still do it. I wasn’t sure what my times would be, but I showed athleticism and I can still play the game of football.”
This is a football era when NFL scouts are willing to consider big, mobile athletes for another football role. Thanks to Trey Burton’s touchdown pass on a trick play to help Philadelphia beat New England in the Super Bowl, the tight end transition has been decorated.
Florida recruited Burton as a quarterback, although he finished his college career playing tight end, fullback and wide receiver. Burton went undrafted in 2014, but the Eagles signed him and he made the roster. He enjoyed breakout seasons in 2016 (37 catches) and 2017 (23 catches).
The Super Bowl fame helped him graduate from undrafted free agent to coveted free agent. The Chicago Bears signed him in March to an eight-year deal worth $32 million.
Burton is 6-3, 228, so Sirk has two inches on him and a frame that can add weight to handle more blocking responsibilities.
The NFL search for tight end conversions is open-minded, including NCAA Division II prospects. Jason Vander Laan (6-4, 244) set DII career and single season rushing records at Ferris State in Big Rapids, Mich. The Jets signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2016. He spent time on the practice squad before he was released, but the Indianapolis Colts signed Vander Laan to their 2017 practice squad. He was promoted him to the Colts' active roster for the final four games.
Of Sirk pursuing this path, he said: “It started with my body type. People said to me, ‘Have you thought about this … Trey Burton is a little undersized for a 240- or 250-pound tight end, but I think I’m flexible enough to do things in the league.”
He also thinks his knowledge of the game helps. He knows how to read pass defenses to help him find open spots in the secondary.
“When you’re a quarterback coming out of Coach Cutcliffe’s offense, you learn a lot of ins and outs of the game,” he said. “You’re not just playing the game; you’re learning football. It’s like a class at Duke. That’s one of the things I’m appreciative of about Duke. Over the years they’ve taught me more about football than being able to play quarterback. You need to be able to sit back and read the coverage. I don’t want to take shortcuts. I want to be the smartest guy on the field every time I’m out there.”