How Lucas Krull's trouble with the curveball led him to big chance with Broncos

In the spring of 2018, as the scorching fastballs and knee-buckling curveballs that made him a coveted national pitching prospect continued to miss their marks, Lucas Krull pondered a pivot.

That’s how he ended up on an empty track at Mill Valley High School, outside of Kansas City. The baseball team at Jefferson College, where Krull was pitching after transferring from SEC power Arkansas, had a road series nearby. Krull had pitched earlier in the week and wouldn’t be used in the weekend rotation, so he was granted permission to make a pitstop at home. He visited his mother, Diana, who was recovering from chemotherapy treatments. Then, he met Joel Applebee, the school’s football coach, who arrived with a stopwatch in hand.

Krull hadn’t played football in two years. After helping lead Mill Valley to the school’s first state championship as an impact tight end, he fully committed to a path he believed would take him to the major leagues. He had a fastball that touched 97 miles per hour and a curveball, when it was on, that would drop like it had been pushed off a cliff after it came out of his left hand.

But the more Krull worked to find the strike zone once he got to college, the smaller it seemed to get.

“I was just struggling with my control and I lost my love of the game,” he said. “And I was just missing football so much.”

Applebee told Krull to meet him at the track encircling the football field. They would start by filming a 40-yard dash, a required tentpole of any video they’d send to college coaches. Applebee hit the button at Krull’s first move, then slammed it again after his former player crossed the finish line. The digits read: 4.46.

“This is a guy who is 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds and had been playing only baseball,” Applebee said. “It tells you what kind of athlete he is to pick it back up that easily.”

That sprint was the start of Krull’s unique path to the place he finds himself now, as a tight end with the Denver Broncos who is not only on track to be on a Week 1 roster in the NFL for the first time, but could also play a pivotal role for a team in desperate need of more production at that position. Krull was a largely unknown NFL commodity this time last year, an undrafted player in 2022 who signed with the Saints and then spent a year on their practice squad before being cut ahead of the 2023 season. He signed with Denver’s practice squad and worked behind the scenes until tallying up a series of firsts toward the end of last season: first NFL snaps; first start; first catch; first touchdown grab.

On the day the Broncos opened their offseason practices to reporters in May, offering the first glimpse of the 2024 team, Krull was suddenly impossible to miss. Halfway through a practice in which Krull vacuumed in passes and showcased the open-field speed teased by that 40-yard dash six years ago, Broncos coach Sean Payton approached Krull with an observation.

“I said, ‘If you didn’t notice, everyone in the media was looking down at their rosters to see who (No.) 85 was,’” Payton told Krull, a reference to the number on the tight end’s practice jersey. “I said, ‘Someday soon, they’re going to know who 85 is.’”


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Krull isn’t a household name yet. He caught eight passes for 95 yards and a touchdown in seven games last season. But the opportunity to impact Denver’s offense this season is real. Greg Dulcich, a third-round pick of the Broncos in 2022, has flashed significant promise when he’s on the field, but injuries have limited his availability. Adam Trautman, who first befriended Krull when the two played together in New Orleans in 2022, is an important do-it-all veteran presence, but he’s never had more than 263 yards receiving in any of his four NFL seasons. The Broncos didn’t sign a veteran tight end in free agency. They didn’t draft one. There is a clear opening.

“To have a chance to do everything I can to help this team, and be the player I can be for this team and this coaching staff, that’s really all I can ask for,” Krull said.

Jon and Diana Krull met as athletes at Kansas State University. Jon was a football player under famed coach Bill Snyder. Diana was a standout basketball player. When their children — Lucas and his older sister, Hannah — naturally gravitated toward sports, the couple created a simple system of rules that helped outline their development.

“The only thing we laid out was, ‘You’ll do the very best you can, be respectful of your coach and be coachable, and you will not quit,” Jon Krull said, guidelines that applied to all their activities. “That was the biggest thing. You will not quit. They knew if they started a season, they’d finish it.”

That rule created a unique conundrum for Krull after the workout with Applebee, the video of which the coach sent to programs around the country, from SMU to Florida. The response had been immediate. Players with that size and that speed didn’t just pop up out of nowhere very often. Some schools had recruited Krull as a football player while at Mill Valley, but he had refused to even take visits, so firm was his commitment to baseball.

Now, with one sprint, a whole new path was lighting up.

“I’ll never forget because I literally heard back that day from Florida, Alabama, Michigan, K-State, Oklahoma State, just based on that 40 time and seeing him run it,” Applebee said.

From there, Krull knew he’d have a chance to return to football at the major college level. He also knew he had a commitment to see through. Krull began the season as a pitcher at Jefferson College. That meant he’d finish the season with the team, a talented squad that extended its postseason run to the JUCO World Series in Grand Junction, Colo., some 260 miles from where Krull now works with the Broncos.

The logistics were challenging. Krull took college visits around breaks in Jefferson’s schedule and even turned down campus invitations that couldn’t be squeezed into those cracks. After a visit to Missouri, Jon Krull drove his son up Interstate 70 and met the Jefferson bus at a rest stop on its way to the World Series. Krull didn’t get to pitch in the tournament, but he still soaked in his final baseball experience, even if it was far from the vision he had crafted in the sport since he had first begun pitching more than a decade earlier.

“You really learn a lot about yourself in those dark times and those times of struggle,” Krull said. “You have to be resilient and you have to be optimistic. Through those (baseball) opportunities, I just grew so much and it translated to the football field. There is so much in the game that can go wrong, and it can still become right. That was something I grew so much with and it really made me who I am today.”

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Lucas Krull’s next stop after his baseball career was playing football for the Florida Gators. (Sam Greenwood / Getty Images)

Krull still reached some measure of his baseball goal when he was selected by the San Francisco Giants in the 34th round of the MLB amateur draft in 2018. By now, Krull had committed to Florida to resume his football career, but the Giants flew out Krull and his family for a meeting nonetheless. Over breakfast, they painted a scenario in which Krull could play spring baseball with the organization and then head back to school in the summer to train for football.

Just as he had spurned football opportunities to pursue baseball a few years earlier, Krull now did the same thing — in reverse.

“I decided I had to be fully committed to football,” he said.



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Krull relished his time at Florida, where he made lifetime friends, became a fixture on special teams and earned his college degree. But he had also spent much of his time on offense playing behind Kyle Pitts, the All-American who became the No. 4 pick in the NFL Draft. In search of a larger opportunity as a receiver, Krull went to the University of Pittsburgh in 2020 as a graduate transfer. His talent immediately stood out while playing with future first-round quarterback Kenny Pickett.

“You could tell there was still really good football in front of him,” said Tim Sample, the tight ends coach at Pittsburgh at the time. “He had a lot of potential. And he was motivated to get going. He was one of those guys who was tall, long, rangy. He could run, had good ball skills. He blocked better than people gave him credit for and was tougher than people gave him credit for.

“He turned he turned into a damn animal.”

Krull played just one game at Pittsburgh during his first season due to a knee injury. So he took advantage of his extra year of eligibility granted by the COVID pandemic and returned for a final season in 2021. While helping lead the Panthers to the ACC title, he became one of Pickett’s most trusted targets. He caught 38 passes for 451 yards and six touchdowns. He had taken a long road to get there but was beginning to look like a developed version of the player Applebee had seen dominate at Mill Valley.

“The first game of (Krull’s senior season), we are playing probably our biggest rival in Saint Thomas Aquinas, and I’ll never forget this picture, which was on the front page of the Kansas City Star,” Applebee said. “Lucas is catching a pass and stiff-arming one of their kids to the ground as he’s going in for a touchdown. It set the tone for the whole year. We took it to them and it was the first time we had beat them (soundly). I’ll never forget that picture, and it’s something you’re starting to see now.”

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Lucas Krull leads the band playing the Pitt alma mater after defeating North Carolina in overtime in 2021. (Charles LeClaire / USA Today)

Despite the breakthrough during his final season at Pittsburgh, Krull went undrafted. It was a blow, but Krull had been through far too much to view not hearing his name called as some insurmountable obstacle.

“It was, ‘You know what? This is your journey,’” Jon Krull told his son. “He found a way to really stay present in the moment, to keep stacking days. That’s what he could control. He had aspirations — who wouldn’t? — of being drafted to Major League Baseball and the NFL. But that’s something you have no control over. You do what you can, and that’s the growth he showed. It didn’t matter if others didn’t make a decision he would emotionally like. It didn’t change the course of what he was going to do to accomplish his ultimate goals.”

The Broncos saw that determined approach behind the scenes last season. The Saints released Krull as part of their final wave of cuts and then offered him a practice squad spot. Denver did the same, and Krull was drawn by the opportunity to reunite with his former position coach, Declan Doyle, and Trautman. As Dulcich rehabbed from his latest hamstring injury, Krull got up to speed in Payton’s offense.

“Getting practice squad reps, you’re going against the first-team defense, the best of the best, so being competitive and trying to beat them, that’s where I got my confidence up,” Krull said. “I was just putting my head down and getting ready to roll.”

His first real opportunity came in an unlikely spot, on the road in Week 13 against the Texans. The Broncos were trailing, 22-17, and faced a third-and-goal in the game’s closing moments. After evading pressure just after the snap, quarterback Russell Wilson threw a jump ball into the end zone in Krull’s direction, but it was intercepted by safety Jimmie Ward, sealing a crushing Denver defeat.

Krull hadn’t been able to make the play, but he “grew a lot from that moment.” His time was coming. He caught his first pass, a 35-yard ball from Wilson up the right sideline the next week during a road win against the Chargers. He caught four passes, including a touchdown, in a Christmas Eve loss to the Patriots. The momentum rolled into the offseason program, where Krull often looked like a difference-making target.

“He’s starting to flourish because he’s probably finally starting to feel like he understands the game,” Applebee said. “He probably understands his position much better, too.”

After an OTA practice in late May, Krull returned to his locker and found a voicemail from his mom. The timing was strange. She knew his schedule and typically waited until he was free in the evenings to call.

“I play it,” Krull said, “and she says, ‘Hey, I wanted you to hear this first …’ My heart kind of sunk and I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’”

The anxiety quickly gave way to joy. Diana explained that she had been elected to Kansas State’s athletics hall of fame. She was a two-time all-conference player and left Kansas State in 1991 as the school’s all-time leading scorer at the time.

Lucas darted around the locker room, sharing the news with every teammate he saw.

“I was like the proudest son ever because it’s been a long time coming,” Krull said. “She was the best athlete in the family, by far, so finally getting that news was like a dream come true. I’m unbelievably proud of her and so glad to be along on that journey.”

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The Broncos’ schedule offers a fortuitous break. They will have a weekend off between the end of the preseason and the start of preparation for a Week 1 clash with the Seahawks. It gives Lucas the chance to be with his mom at Kansas State as she and the other members of the school’s 2024 Hall of Fame class are inducted and then recognized at the football team’s home opener against Tennessee-Martin.

Then, Krull will be back in Denver, ready to keep chasing his own dream, one that began with a pivot and a sprint on an empty track.

“Every day he wants to get better and there’s no destination to it,” Jon Krull said. ” … It may not have been the path he thought it was going to be, but that’s the cool part of the story. This is another piece of it.”

(Top photo: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

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