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Joel Honigford Hoping To Catch On As Cardinals Tight End

Former Michigan offensive lineman had one college reception

Rookie tight end Joel Honigford runs after a catch in a recent OTA workout.
Rookie tight end Joel Honigford runs after a catch in a recent OTA workout.

Joel Honigford remembers all the details of the catch.

It was a night game in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 2021, the loudest game in which the tight end from Michigan had ever played. He ran his route, which he had done before, but quarterback Cade McNamara threw it to him, which had never happened before.

"I turned my head and the ball was already on its way," Honigford said. "I didn't have a chance to think about what was going on. I caught it, starting running. I really have no idea what happened. I got tackled, got up, and the first thing I thought was, 'Don't smile, act like you've been there.'

"Then one of my friends, (tight end) Erick All came up behind me and said, 'LET'S GO' and I just broke. Started laughing."

A 10-yard reception in the first quarter on a drive that ended in a punt isn't usually cause for detailed memories. But for Honigford, one of two tight ends the Cardinals signed as an undrafted rookie free agent, it was because it was his only one.

The one-time offensive lineman converted to tight end midway through his college career and had just the one catch in college. In his final season in 2022, he wasn't even targeted. Yet here he is, battling for a spot at a position where the Cardinals have wide-open opportunity in an offense that plans to use multiple tight ends often.

"That's a key part of our offense," Cardinals tight ends coach Ben Steele said. "Him having that background is huge. One catch in college, that is a stat obviously most tight ends don't want to have, and it's no secret that guys aren't making it to the Pro Bowl because of their blocking.

"At the same time, there are plenty of guys in the league who make a really good living being the dominant blocking tight end. And he has a leg up on that because he has been blocking most of his career."

Honigford found himself in 2020 battling for an offensive tackle spot against two players who eventually ended up in the NFL. He wasn't the choice, and the engineering major began to mentally wrap his head around the idea he'd be a college backup and graduate into the real world soon enough.

Then one day as Honigford sat in the offensive line's meeting room, head coach Jim Harbaugh walked in.

"Honigford, you want to move to tight end?" he asked in front of the room. Honigford didn't hesitate. He immediately picked up his things and left with Harbaugh to start his new journey.

Honigford quickly dropped weight just by going back to his normal eating habits (the 6-foot-4 rookie is about 260 pounds now). More importantly, "it made me love the game again, because I thought I was just going to be a second-team guy."

His one college catch didn't translate to a second. He said he actually only ran one route all year last season for a Wolverines team that made it to the college football playoff.

His blocking attributes were enough to earn NFL interest, and he picked the Cardinals over the Jaguars to sign because of the opportunities on the depth chart and his connection with the coaches.

Arizona definitely provides opportunity. Veteran tight end Zach Ertz is still rehabbing from an ACL injury. Second-year man Trey McBride continues to show improvement, Steele said, and the coach also has noticed Noah Togiai, a free agent who played with the Eagles last season.

Honigford and Wake Forest's Blake Whiteheart are the two undrafted rookies who aim for a spot, and Steele said he likes their intelligence and work ethic. Honigford, who said he didn't even run that many routes in practice at Michigan, is getting that work now as he continues his metamorphosis from offensive line.

"Usually, you don't have a lot of time to think," he said. "When you do have time and think 'Oh I've got to catch this' it doesn't go very well. It's been good. I've enjoyed it. Being able to (catch the ball) every day has been good for me."

Steele, who had four NFL catches in his NFL tight end career over seven seasons, said Honigford has been good at picking up the Cardinals' passing game, even with his lack of college reps.

"One catch," Steele said. "All of his other teammates in his (OL) position group are jealous of that one."