Bob Surace couldn’t help but laugh when he heard Andy Reid’s assessment of his former player.
“You are a wild man,” Reid said to former Princeton quarterback John Lovett. “You have to calm down here just a little bit.”
Surace, the Princeton football coach, knew exactly what Reid was talking about.
“Welcome to my world the last five years,” Surace said with a chuckle.
Before Lovett joined the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent a few weeks ago, he worked under the tutelage of Surace, displaying his versatility and toughness at Princeton. As the Tigers’ quarterback, Lovett earned the Ivy League’s Offensive Player of the Year award two times in three seasons.
Now, he’s changing positions and beginning his NFL career as a tight end/H-back hybrid in Reid’s system — something Lovett is uniquely suited for with his skill-set and unrelenting work ethic. And it’s a position the Chiefs desperately need filled with the free agency departure of tight end Demetrius Harris.
“Lovett is a guy that can play a lot of different spots for you,” Reid said. “He’s not as big a normal tight end. You’re talking about 233 pounds, so he’s not going to be your grinder in there. But he can play the backfield, he can play quarterback and he can play in that kind of wing tight end position. Smart kid, tough kid.”
Listed as a quarterback at Princeton, Lovett began his collegiate career in a similar role to the one the Chiefs envision him playing.
His high school tape from Maryland’s DeMatha Catholic showed a talented quarterback, but the school’s run-based offense failed to truly capture Lovett’s versatility and work ethic.
It didn’t take long for that to come through at the team’s prospect camp.
“As big as he is and as fast as he is, he was the first guy in line for every drill,” Surace said. “I think he would’ve stayed out and practiced three hours if we let him. … It wouldn’t be odd for John to stay after practice and work on something for an extra hour. You literally would have to have somebody wait and eventually just say, ‘Hey, you’ve gotta go eat,’ or ‘You’ve gotta go shower,’ because he would stay out there all day.”
In 2015 and 2016, Lovett was used as a complementary piece to starting quarterback Chad Kanoff. In those two seasons, Lovett rushed for 29 touchdowns — including 20 in 2016 when he earned his first Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year award — and he had 51 receptions for 553 yards and two touchdowns.
Lovett continued to practice with the quarterbacks throughout that time, but his knowledge of the playbook allowed the Princeton coaches to move him all over the field.
“He was the best athlete on our team,” Surace said. “I don’t think as coaches we wanted him standing on the sideline. So we devised plays for him to run routes and run the ball and do other things. We would devise plays that we felt would fit his athletic ability.”
Then, as the Tigers’ starting quarterback in 2018, Lovett threw for 1,833 yards and 18 touchdowns, and he rushed for 894 yards and 13 touchdowns.
His numbers are even more impressive considering he put up most of them while battling through injuries.
He played the 2016 season with a fully torn labrum and bone damage in his left shoulder. He had offseason shoulder surgery and missed the 2017 season. When he finally came back in 2018, Lovett wore a cast through the second half of the season as he recovered from a broken wrist.
“He had to catch the ball with a cast on his wrist,” Surace said. “Didn’t fumble a snap. He was tremendous like that.”
Surace said he’s never had another player quite like Lovett, crediting some of his strength to his family, including his dad, a retired New York City firefighter.
“Any area that he has a deficiency, he will work until it becomes a strength,” Surace said. “He is, competitive-wise, rare that way. You add all those traits, and his ability level is an NFL ability level. It’s not like you’re taking just a guy who’s an overachiever who’s not talented. He’s a very talented individual as well.”
With his experience filling multiple roles in Princeton’s offense, the move to a full-time hybrid offensive role isn’t a difficult one for Lovett. And with the tight end depth behind Travis Kelce reduced to Blake Bell, Deon Yelder, and David Wells, Lovett has a real shot to make the roster and earn meaningful playing time.
“The tight end and H-back position, it’s the adjuster of the offense, right?,” Lovett said. “You really need to know pretty much everything second in line to the quarterback. It’s definitely still a load to digest. I think playing the quarterback position has helped me with that.”
So far, Lovett’s professional career is mirroring his collegiate one. Still recovering from a February clean-up surgery on his previously broken wrist, Lovett worked through the Chiefs’ rookie minicamp with a soft cast. The hard cast was removed just two weeks earlier.
With the soft cast, Lovett was supposed to be limited in the Chiefs’ practice, but he struggled to practice at anything less than 100 percent.
“I know one speed,” Lovett said. “So with my wrist, it’s been an adjustment as far as not being able to do certain physical aspects of the H-back position.
“But most importantly, just go out here and keep working hard and learn and get better every day.”