INDIANAPOLIS -- The thought of chasing down a quarterback off the edge or going up and snagging a touchdown pass over a smaller defender could never get out of the mind of Mo Alie-Cox, even as he threw down a dunk, set a hard screen or added to his block total while playing power forward for four seasons at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Football was where his heart was. He loved the sport even though he hadn’t played in a game since his freshman year at South County (Virginia) High School.
"All you had to do is look at his body without seeing him play hoops or football," University of Texas and former VCU basketball coach Shaka Smart said. "His body has always been suited for that. We as a coaching staff knew it when we had him at VCU. Now he's out there slowly making a name for himself."
Alie-Cox was looked at as just another former college basketball player trying to make the transition to football until an October afternoon in Oakland, California, last fall, when he combined his basketball talent with his football skills.
Alie-Cox, who was getting playing time because injuries to fellow tight ends Erik Swoope and Jack Doyle, had arguably the best catch of the NFL season when he went up and made a one-handed touchdown catch over Raiders cornerback Gareon Conley. The catch was shown over and over again on highlights. Smart said he has watched it at least 100 times, and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni even planned to get a picture of that catch framed for his office.
“NFL page keeps playing that,” fellow Colts tight end Eric Ebron jokingly said.
Alie-Cox wants more than just one-handed catches and sporadic playing time. He wants to join the likes of Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham, players who made the transition from being predominately college basketball players to NFL tight ends.
Injury situations to Ebron and Doyle this spring allowed Alie-Cox to get plenty of first-team reps, and he was one of the standout players during the Colts' offseason workouts.
"I really think he is really starting to develop as a route runner," Colts coach Frank Reich said. "I mean, we know he has got good hands, but last year I thought he struggled a little bit in his route running and he was just very average. I have already seen ... some really key indicators to me. I mean, very tangible indicators that he can develop into a very good route runner as well. He is so long and big and they don't want to tackle him.”
That’s a long way for a player who thought his future would be playing basketball overseas or working his way up the NBA’s G League because he wasn’t tall enough to be a big man or quick enough to play on the perimeter in the NBA.
The coaching staff at South County High School thought they would have a two-way standout on the varsity football team in Alie-Cox’s sophomore year. Those hopes were dashed when he didn’t show up at the school the following year. Alie-Cox’s parents divorced, causing him to bounce around schools before settling into Middleburg Academy, which did not have a football team, in Northern Virginia.
Football didn’t return to the picture until Smart reached out to friend Mike Davis, who was an area scout for the Philadelphia Eagles living in Richmond, Virginia, at the time. Davis attended a VCU basketball practice during Alie-Cox’s freshman season.
“Mr. Davis was watching on the basketball court and he said, ‘I can see you playing football down the line,’” Alie-Cox said. “I didn’t think anything of it, and then a couple of years later, they would say it on TV all the time at my games. They say things like, 'This guy is probably going to be a tight end in the NFL.’ I still did my best not to pay attention to it.”
It became hard for Alie-Cox not to pay attention to what people were saying about him when Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten attended one of his games in February 2015. Witten was at the game because he and former VCU assistant coach Mike Morrell are childhood friends. But that didn’t stop the social media buzz about Alie-Cox.
Witten, like several others, told the 6-foot-5 Alie-Cox that he had a football body. His huge hands and 7-foot-1 wingspan would help him play tight end.
“Everybody assumed he was coming to watch me,” said Alie-Cox, who finished with the second-most blocks (255) in VCU history. “That took it to a whole another level when it came to the hype factor once people caught wind of that."
VCU doesn't have a varsity football program, and transferring to a school where he could play basketball and football for his final two years crossed Alie-Cox’s mind after Smart left VCU for Texas. He resisted the urge because VCU remained successful in basketball and he didn’t want to let his teammates down. He wanted to earn a master's degree in criminal justice, then immediately set his sights on a sport he hadn't played in eight years, more than a third of his life.
It remained a far-fetched dream, and because he was a year removed from NFL draft eligibility, agent Joe Flanagan had Alie-Cox travel to a training facility in Pensacola, Florida, to prepare for a workout in front of NFL teams.
“We had less than a month to prepare a basketball player for a football workout,” Flanagan said. “A young man who hadn't played football since his freshman year in high school. It was not an ideal situation. We got him ready for the teams showing up so that he could make a good decision in a short period of time before the draft because we wanted him to have as many options as possible before the draft and before undrafted free agents were signed.”
Flanagan used all his connections to get teams to attend. Representatives from 28 teams watched as Alie-Cox worked at defensive end and hauled in one-handed passes at tight end during a workout in which he dropped only two throws.
Alie-Cox’s top three choices were the Colts, Buccaneers and Eagles. He went with the Colts because of quarterback Andrew Luck and the fact there wasn’t a lot of proven talent at tight end on the roster at the time behind Doyle. Alie-Cox and his agent also wanted to work with general manager Chris Ballard.
“Chris is one of the few guys in the business that you can really, really trust,” Flanagan said. “The vision from Chris was we were going to get him in and let his athletic tools take over, give him a year to develop. Chris gave me his word on that, which is what we respect about him. The total package the Colts were offering and my trust in Chris in following through with the plan beat out the other teams who offered more money.”
Alie-Cox made a few one-handed catches in practice during his rookie season in 2017, but the majority of the year was spent learning. He also was behind the curve because many of his teammates already had a grasp of former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski’s system. Alie-Cox also suffered a torn ankle ligament in training camp that put him further behind. He spent 13 weeks on the Colts' practice squad.
“Everything was tough, to be honest, because basketball, you don’t have too many plays,” Alie-Cox said. “Here you have a play, but you have so many different formations off the play. You have to learn all the different spots to line up at. That’s probably the biggest thing -- when to step inside, when to step outside.”
Things shifted in favor of Alie-Cox when an entire new coaching staff was brought in after a 4-12 season in 2017, meaning everybody was learning a new offense from scratch at the same rate.
Alie-Cox spent a lot of time “nitpicking bits and pieces” from Doyle and Ebron, who made the Pro Bowl last season, since they are perfect complements to each other. Doyle is more of a blocking tight end who also is an underneath security blanket for Luck in the passing game. Ebron is a hybrid receiver who excels at route running. Alie-Cox had seven receptions for 133 yards and two touchdowns last season.
“We did everything from the ground up,” Alie-Cox said. “[Ballard] told me I could be a great blocker, so I kind of put that in my head. All of [the tight ends] run great routes, Running routes is the hardest thing after blocking. I’m just now getting better with my route running, but I really tried to focus on my run blocking last year and that’s what got me on the field, essentially.”
The Colts' tight end cupboard is a full one because Ross Travis is also on the roster to go with Ebron, Doyle and Alie-Cox. They potentially could have the NFL’s best group of tight ends next season. Alie-Cox's blocking skills and improved route running puts him in position to be an asset in an offense in which Reich and Sirianni put significant emphasis on spreading the ball around.
"The game of football is finally starting to slow down for him," Ebron said. "If you want to quote me on this, I think [tight end is] the second-hardest position on the field, next to quarterback. We have to learn blocking schemes. We have to know every route. We have to know what the O-line’s calls are. Then we have to know what the quarterback wants, because at the end of the day, we’re his best friend. I love [Alie-Cox]. Watching him grow is -- he’s not my son -- but it’s like watching your son become something special. That’s what Mo is doing. He’s going to play a special role."