June 19, 2019

After Record-Setting Career for PU Football, Receiver Horsted Aiming to Make Chicago Bears

BEARING DOWN: Jesper Horsted races up the field last fall in his senior season for the Princeton University football team. After a stellar career for Princeton which saw Horsted set the program record in receptions (196) and touchdown catches (28), he recently signed a free agent contract with the Chicago Bears of the NFL. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Jesper Horsted was mobbed by teammates after snatching a one-handed pass at a recent Chicago Bears practice during organized team activities (OTAs).

It’s the sort of play Horsted’s Princeton University teammates have seen many times before from the former Minnesota Athlete of the Year who often flashed that kind of ability as a record-setting wide receiver for the Tigers. Yet it wasn’t as easy for the dynamic Horsted to get a chance in the pros as some would have expected after an Ivy League championship season in his senior year.

“There were definitely a lot of ups and downs,” said Horsted, a native of Shoreview, Minn., who set Princeton records in receptions (196) and touchdown catches (28).

Following the 10-0 Princeton season in the fall, Horsted was honored with an invitation to the East-West Shrine Game and things were looking up. In the January 19 all-star game, he led all East team receivers in yards per catch average after bringing in two passes for 42 yards, including a 38-yard reception that was the longest of the entire game for either team.

He built on that showing by preparing for Princeton’s pro day, and that’s when his prospects took a tough turn. Horsted pulled his hamstring three weeks before the pro day, gave it time to rest, and tried to return only to injure it again in the 40-yard sprint test at the pro day.

“Literally the first thing you do is the 40, and he pulls up halfway through and now you’ve got to stand there in the corner and watch,” said Princeton head coach Bob Surace. “All the scouts are there and it’s just such a lonely feeling. I felt horrible for him.”

Horsted’s stock fell with most teams since he wasn’t able to show the improved strength and speed he’d focused on during the months since the season ended. Horsted had given up baseball, after having been an All-Ivy outfielder on the diamond, to prepare for the NFL draft.

“I definitely do miss it and I did all spring,” said Horsted. “It’s definitely weird not being out there. I’ve been playing baseball since I was 4, but I don’t regret any part of it. I did what I had to do and it just wasn’t really in the cards. I’ll always love baseball, no doubt about that. I’m happy to be here.”

Getting to the Bears took extra time. Horsted wasn’t selected during the three days of the NFL draft, and wasn’t signed immediately by any team at the end of the draft after getting hurt on pro day.

“It was definitely frustrating, definitely one of the low points, but I still kind of believed that my body of work was enough to get myself signed, which was not the case,” Horsted said.

“So I’d say an even lower low was after draft day and not really getting any calls at all, but obviously it was not the end of things and I was still the same football player whether I got drafted or signed or whatnot. I just had to get my opportunity to show what I could do.”

Horsted and his agent looked at potential landing places and liked the Bears and New Orleans Saints. The Saints never got a chance at Horsted, who visited the Bears mini-camp first and impressed them so much that they signed him as a free agent.

“I kind of just showed up and obviously they knew who I was, but I wasn’t one of their main guys and they had signed three other tight ends already in this class,” said Horsted. “It’s a really cool offensive-minded team and my agent had some connections here so we figured, ‘why not?’ I came and I did well in the camps.”

The Bears saw Horsted as a tight end. At 6’4, 228 pounds, Horsted would be a big wide out but wasn’t the fastest receiver. At tight end, he has other advantages, though there’s also a learning curve. He lined up in three-point stance for the first time in his life when he came to the Bears.

“I’m about 10 or 15 pounds lighter and quicker and faster and probably have spent more time running routes and catching passes than other tight ends, so I do have a leg up in that respect, which is definitely paying off because there are no pads right now and really not much running because of that,” said Horsted.

“But you can just tell in the future once actual training camp starts that I’m going to need to do some catching up to some of these other guys who have been run blocking their whole life and feel comfortable coming out of their stance and doing these different schemes.”

Surace points to Horsted’s play-making abilities as a reason he can earn his way onto the field. In addition to his career marks, Horsted set a single-season record of 92 catches as a junior and piled up 2,703 receiving yards in his four years at Princeton. This past fall, he was a finalist for the Bushnell Cup for the top Ivy League offensive player.

“He certainly is the type of guy that picks up things really quickly,” said Surace. “He’s big, he’s athletic, he has as great hands as we’ve seen over the years. He’s going to have some learning to do, especially in the blocking areas, but he’s so big they feel comfortable with him there, and where if he’s a receiver his matchup difference is his size over corners. Now as a U-back or tight end, his difference is his athleticism.”

Learning the tight end position is one new challenge that Horsted already has been adjusting to from his first day with the Bears.

“That was going be a given that the competition and the game speed and everything was going to be faster,” said Horsted. “But none of that really matters if I don’t know what I’m doing on a play, so I think before I get to that point I need to feel comfortable lining up in a stance, learning this blocking stuff, and then not making mental errors before I can even try to work my way up this roster chart. So it’s all a big challenge and all kind of intertwined, but I am really enjoying it. I do love a good challenge.”

Competing on a Bears team that signed eight tight ends is another big task. He felt better about his chances after the improvements he made through the OTAs.

“I was both learning a new playbook and a new position, so there were definitely times where I was a little bit uncomfortable on the field, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but I was able to show what I could do and they signed me afterwards,” said Horsted.

“I’m really enjoying it and this team has an incredible culture and the coaching staff has been really helpful with learning the playbook and transitioning to a new position, which really is a lot. You forget how hard it is to learn a new playbook, it’s been about three years.”

Over the winter, Horsted worked out with the idea that he would be willing to move to a new position if it would enable him to make an NFL team and contribute. He kept himself at a weight that he could play either spot. Since the Bears asked him to focus on tight end, he’s been eating as much as possible to gain weight and studying the nuances of the tight end position.

“They do have two different tight end spots in this offense,” said Horsted. “One is called a Y-back and one they call a U-back. There’s one that’s more conducive to my playing style. I’m more a U-back that actually lines up kind of all over and catches more passes than he does pass blocking. It’s not that big of a transition. It’s not like I need to put on 40 pounds and learn how to pass set, but it’s still definitely different. I need definitely to know blocking schemes and fronts that I didn’t really before, so I’d say the playbook is very challenging too but doing this whole new thing on top of the playbook has been challenging.”

Playing for Princeton has Horsted confident that he is prepared him for the adjustments ahead as the Tiger program established a blueprint to being a professional player.

“I think that both in the classroom and learning our complex and multiple playbook, it set me up for learning techniques to study and remember stuff and focusing for long periods of time,” said Horsted.

“In our offense you had to know multiple positions, which is kind of what this is all about. The tight end can line up wide in the backfield, can be getting snaps, can be getting runs, can be on the line of scrimmage, so you have to know the whole play and I think that Princeton did that and helped me a lot. Also just the way that Princeton football went about their business. You needed to be very attentive in meetings and take good notes and there were certain protocols you had to follow. We practice really hard there and so you get in the habit of finishing every pass you catch and sprinting 15 yards downfield and running between drills and stuff. There’s just a lot of habits that I don’t think I came into Princeton with that were just instilled over time.”

Utilizing that background, Horsted hopes to follow a line of Princeton players that have made the most of their opportunities in the NFL. He’s one of three Tigers signed to NFL teams this year along with quarterback John Lovett and fellow receiver Stephen Carlson, both who are trying to make teams at different positions than they played at Princeton.

“We’ve seen it with all of our guys,” said Surace. “School at Princeton is very demanding, and when they just train for football, every guy we’ve had that’s gone to the NFL has overachieved, from (Mike) Catapano and (Caraun) Reid being late-round picks to Seth DeValve. The Browns have 14 guys drafted in the fourth round or earlier. He’s (DeValve) the only one left. We saw it last year with Chad (Kanoff) making it as an undrafted free agent (with the Arizona Cardinals). I’m sure we’ll see it with these guys, and Jesper has the most upside. Jesper wasn’t available for football during the spring before and he hasn’t lifted. The beautiful thing is he’s such a talented athlete that he can play two sports and now he’s just going to specialize way later than all these other guys have, and he’ll really blossom.”

Horsted, for his part, just wanted the opportunity. He had to go through a lot in the spring to get onto a NFL roster. But the real goal wasn’t to get signed, it’s to make a final roster and contribute, and that’s the next challenge facing one of the best receivers in Princeton history.

“By no means has the battle been won, but I’m in a good spot,” said Horsted. “I’m improving and learning.”