- The Washington Times
Wednesday, August 3, 2022

ASHBURN — Guys named Carson must have an affinity for Cole Turner. At the University of Nevada, the tight end formed a — ahem — strong connection with quarterback Carson Strong. And now, as a rookie for the Washington Commanders, Turner has quickly seemed to become a favorite target for starter Carson Wentz

It doesn’t take long to understand why. 

Over the first week of training camp, Turner has not only made his presence known in the red zone with his physical 6-foot-6, 240-pound frame — but the 22-year-old can regularly be seen running down and across the field on deep routes. Turner’s size gives him an edge when it comes to hauling in 50-50 balls, and he has the ability to hang onto catches through contact. 

“It’s kind of hard to miss me sometimes when I’m running out there,” Turner said. “That’s what [Wentz] tells me at least.”

Turner has arguably separated himself from the competition in a crowded tight end room. With starter Logan Thomas recovering from an ACL injury, the Commanders were counting on someone emerging at the position. That hope intensified when John Bates, coming off a solid rookie season, suffered a calf injury after two practices.

Turner’s rise, though, might have happened regardless of the injuries in front of him. On draft night, Ron Rivera hailed the fifth-rounder as the team’s most intriguing selection past the fourth round. The coach gushed over how Turner was able to create separation at the right time and his “tremendous” catch radius. 

Funny enough, Rivera noticed Turner leading up to the draft because he put on Nevada’s tape to watch Strong. Before trading for Wentz, Rivera and the Commanders had done extensive research on this year’s crop of rookie signal-callers — even drafting one in North Carolina’s Sam Howell. But when Rivera watched Nevada film, he kept seeing Turner.  

Turner reminded him of Greg Olsen, the three-time Pro Bowler that Rivera coached in Carolina. Turner was someone, Rivera recalled, that the Commanders had to keep an eye on. Unsurprisingly, the team arranged a private workout with him and the coach became even more enamored. 

“This is a dynamic pass catcher,” Rivera said of Turner in April. 

Rivera’s praise hasn’t changed since camp started. On Wednesday, the coach noted Turner’s development as a blocker — something the tight end rarely had to do in college. Turner, after all, came from an “Air Raid” offense in Nevada, meaning he was often spread out wide and mostly involved in the passing game. Turner, too, originally was a wide receiver in college before switching to tight end after two seasons. 

Along with blocking, Turner has had to adjust to the complexities of an NFL offense. That involves learning the playbook, which Turner admitted has occasionally been a “struggle and frustrating” as new plays are installed each day. To help with memorizing them, Turner said he likes to come off the practice field and then rewrite the plays on a board.

Even as he adjusts, Turner’s chemistry with Wentz is blossoming. During a down portion of Wednesday’s practice, Wentz and Turner could be seen chatting and laughing before the next set of drills. The two have formed a bond, Turner said, over sharing the same agent and spending part of the offseason in California training together.

When 7-on-7s started, Wentz’s first throw of the period was to Turner, albeit one that resulted in an incompletion. Later on, however, Wentz found Turner on a vertical route up the seam.

“He’s somebody that he’s going to remember every single play and then talk to you about it afterwards, tell you how he wants it run,” Turner said of Wentz. “ So I think that’s really helped me out so far.”

Historically, Wentz tends to favor tight ends. Over five seasons in Philadelphia, the quarterback targeted no player more than tight end Zach Ertz — who accounted for 21.1% of Wentz’s total targets and 21% of his completions. Since 2016, the year Wentz entered the league, only Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson (32.6%) has targeted the position more than Wentz (31.1%).

That should be good news for Turner. After practice Wednesday, Rivera was asked if he noticed a connection forming between the rookie and the quarterback. 

“Oh very much so,” Rivera said. “And I can’t wait ‘till we get John Bates back out there. Can’t wait till we get Logan back out there as well. I mean, the relationship (Wentz) can have with that unit as a group could be very good just because I like that group. It’s a very versatile guy group of guys. 

“Each guy has his own personality in terms of what they can do and I think that’s big for us.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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