Healthy again, Gronkowski is a devastating weapon

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Arizona's tight end Rob "Big Freak" Gronkowski got his butt kicked by a sneaky foe who is much smaller than him.

To hear him talk about it, mononucleosis laid waste to his finely tuned 6-foot-5, 260-pound frame, and was a far worse experience than an injury you can point at, actively rehabilitate and work around.

"It weakens your body," he said. "If you have a sprained ankle you can still lift weights and all that. But when you're sick, you've just got to sit there and not do anything until it goes away. It was definitely worse than a sprained ankle. I'd rather have a sprained ankle any day."

Mono forced Gronkowski to miss the first three games, which wasn't a disaster until the Wildcats completely fell apart in a 36-28 loss at New Mexico, a result that likely would have been different if quarterback Willie Tuitama's favorite touchdown-maker had been playing.

With Gronkowski back in the lineup, the Wildcats opened their Pac-10 schedule by whipping UCLA and Washington by a combined count of 79-24, with the sophomore converting five of his eight receptions into touchdowns.

"Five TDs in two games is extraordinary for a tight end," said Arizona coach Mike Stoops, whose 4-1 squad is trying to reach the program's first bowl game since 1998.

And Gronkowski isn't a safety-outlet tight end, or a guy who merely gets dumps in front of a linebacker or in the flat. He's averaging 17.6 yards per reception after averaging 18.8 yards (on 28 receptions for 525 yards) as a true freshman in 2007.

When healthy, Gronkowski is one of the conference's most dangerous offensive weapons and a matchup nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators.

"I don't know if he's an impossible matchup, but he's about as close to that as you can get," said Stanford defensive coordinator Ron Lynn, who's preparing the Cardinal for a visit from Arizona on Saturday.

By the way, the term "impossible" was where Lynn's thought process started, not his inquisitor's.

Gronkowski hails from perhaps the most athletic family in the history of Amherst, N.Y.

His dad, Gordie, a highly successful entrepreneur, played offensive line at Syracuse. His brother Chris plays with him at Arizona. Another brother, Dan, is the starting tight end at Maryland. Eldest brother Gordie Jr. played baseball in the Anaheim Angels organization. Youngest brother Glenn is a high school sophomore and two-sports star who may be the best athlete of the lot.

Believing one could eclipse Rob Gronkowski is hard to imagine. At his present pace of development, he looks like a future first-round NFL draft pick, likely after the 2009 season.

Stoops said he could see rust when Gronkowski returned against UCLA, but that was all gone when he suited up against Washington two weeks later and hauled in three touchdown passes. He's also quickly regained the 12 or so pounds he lost while he was sick.

It's clear that Gronkowski and receiver Mike Thomas give Tuitama two All-American-type options.

And the chemistry between quarterback and tight end is far better than a year ago.

"That's one thing we didn't have last year, but now we definitely have it," Gronkowski said. "It's great. The whole offseason, that's what we worked on."

So while a microscopic virus might have flattened this freakish athlete, it remains to be seen if any secondary can even slow him down.