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NFL Draft: Louisville’s Cole Hikutini a late tight end option for Dolphins

The Dolphins found a short-term solution to their tight end needs by trading for Julius Thomas and signing Anthony Fasano, but there’s more work to be done.

As Miami approaches next week’s NFL Draft, most of the attention is on what the organization will do with the 22nd overall pick. Defense is the clear priority based on the current personnel. However, there are other key spots the Dolphins can fill with their later-round selections, and tight end is a critical part of the roster.

While they likely can’t afford to take a tight end early, someone like Louisville’s Cole Hikutini could fit one of their fifth-round picks. He put up big numbers for the Cardinals last season and probably would have been projected to go higher if not for a knee injury in his bowl game. He’s one of many tight ends who have met with Miami this offseason.

The late start shouldn’t bother Hikutini, who stayed steady throughout a variety of ups and downs the last few years. In high school, he envisioned himself as a future pro soccer player. Football was such an afterthought that he didn’t play it until his senior year.

He was good enough in one season as a wide receiver to get picked up by Sacramento State, which immediately informed him he’d be moving to tight end. Hikutini wasn’t thrilled at the time.

“They told me that’s what I was going to do, and I complied,” he said. “There wasn’t much I could do about it, but now I think it was a blessing in disguise. I’d never played tight end. It was my second year playing football. It was difficult to start, but ultimately I think it was the best thing for me.”

Once he saw how well-suited he was for the position, he began plotting a route to the draft. He transferred to City College of San Francisco for a season and earned an offer to play his final two years at Louisville.

When Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino paired him with Heisman Trophy quarterback Lamar Jackson, Hikutini’s career took off. He was an immediate contributor his first year and followed with a senior season that included 668 yards and eight touchdowns on 50 catches.

That production, combined with his 6-foot-4, 247-pound build, puts him in the mix as a late-round pick even with the injury. ESPN ranks him the ninth-best tight end in this year’s class, and draft site WalterFootball projects him going as soon as the fourth round. Miami would have to hope he sticks around deep into the fifth if it wants him.

A good portion of his pre-draft work was recovery oriented, but he did not need surgery on his knee and was able to start position-specific drills last month. He should be fully ready for rookie minicamp after the draft.

Once he arrives in the NFL, there’s little doubt he has the receiving skills to be an effective player in any team’s passing game after the way he played for Louisville last season, but he admits his blocking needs work. That’s something the Dolphins talked about when they sat down with him, and Fasano would be an ideal mentor.

“I definitely think I’m a better receiving tight end than a blocking tight end, but there’s room for improvement in both areas,” Hikutini said. “I need to learn blocking better. That’ll come with time and coaching.”

In his meeting with the Dolphins, most of the conversation centered on his ability to read coverages and diagram plays. There wasn’t much talk about how he’d fit with their long-term plans. Thomas is under contract for two years, and Fasano turns 33 this week. Beyond those two, the team doesn’t have any proven playmakers.

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