The Hawkeye junior from Norman, Okla., discusses his probably-increased role and how he's embraced blocking. Chad Leistikow | Hawkcentral.com
IOWA CITY, Ia. – With Iowa tight end Jake Duzey likely to miss most, if not all, of September, get ready to see a lot more of Iowa’s “Mini Gronk.”
Obviously there’s no comparing college backup George Kittle to New England Patriots superstar Rob Gronkowski — although new tight ends coach LeVar Woods did assign his players to study video of “Gronk” in the offseason.
And Woods said this about Kittle: “The guy’s a freak athletically. I tell him that to his face all the time, so there’s no excuses from him. He has all the physical tools.”
Even with Duzey, Iowa’s No. 2 returning receiver with 36 catches last season, sidelined while recovering from torn patellar tendon surgery, Kittle is listed as the backup to Henry Krieger-Coble. But his presence could change how Iowa uses its tight end.
Kittle has the athleticism of a wide receiver in what is now a tight end’s body at 6-foot-4, 235 pounds.
Look for Kittle to line up in the slot, like a receiver does, to create mismatches in the passing game.
“That’s something we’ve installed more, is to give the tight ends a little more flexibility,” Kittle said. “I just like being on the field, that’s my biggest thing. I don’t care where I’m at, as long as I can help the team.”
Kittle’s hometown is listed as Norman, Okla. — his father, former Hawkeye lineman Bruce Kittle, worked there for a few years as Oklahoma’s offensive line and tight ends coach before being fired by Bob Stoops in 2013. According to Rivals.com, George Kittle only got a scholarship offer from Kirk Ferentz after some other tight-end targets fell through.
He was a 200-pound receiver then. Now a fourth-year junior in the program, Kittle’s body has grown almost 20 percent. And his blocking ability, key for Iowa tight ends to see the field, has taken a leap forward.
“George is underestimated in his blocking ability,” said Woods, whose move to tight ends freed up Jim Reid to have sole control over Iowa’s linebackers. “I underestimated it when I took over that position. He’s emerged as a really, really good blocker.”
Kittle was one of the standouts in the April 25 spring game, catching three passes for 48 yards.
Ferentz called him one of the spring’s most improved players.
“I came in about 40 pounds lighter than I am right now,” Kittle said. “(Blocking) is just something at Iowa that you learn. I didn’t really block in high school. It’s Tight End University (at Iowa).
“I’ve had great coaches teach me everything I’ve known. I’ve learned to love it. Blocking’s not very fun if you don’t love it. But once you learn to love it, it’s the greatest thing ever.”
Offensive coordinator Greg Davis said Kittle “looks more confident than he’s ever (been)” and said he’s continued to impress coaches early in fall camp.
Before getting too carried away about Kittle’s upside, remember he had just one catch last season (against Maryland) for 25 yards and has five career receptions.
But new quarterback C.J. Beathard is going to need various pass-game wrinkles at his disposal while breaking in two young offensive tackles.
Kittle fits the bill as a new kind of target.
“He’s got speed, he’s got length, he’s got athletic (ability), he can jump,” Woods said. “He can do everything we want him to do. And he can block. For him, it’s been gaining weight and getting stronger, and he’s been doing that this summer. We’re excited.”