Iowa tight end Jon Wisnieski returned to his old stomping grounds Friday.
“It’s always nice coming back home,” he said following the Hawkeyes’ open spring practice at Valley Stadium, where he proudly wore the maroon and white during his high school days at Dowling Catholic.
Wisnieski hopes his final year in black and gold provides another return to glory.
He enters his fifth-year senior season with no statistics, having only played in a handful of career snaps.
It’s probably not the collegiate career he envisioned after being the state’s No. 2-ranked player in the class of 2013. He chose Iowa over an impressive offer list that included Nebraska and Ole Miss.
But he also never could have pictured not only the injuries he suffered, but the bad timing surrounding them.
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After redshirting his first fall on campus, he tore an ACL in the spring.
Surgery, recovery. Already, two football seasons had evaporated.
Then, after sparse work as a sophomore — he was stuck behind a logjam of tight ends that included Henry Krieger Coble, George Kittle and Jake Duzey — Wisnieski again got hurt at an inopportune time. On the third day of fall camp in August, Wisnieski was sidelined by an MCL sprain in his knee.
The sprain was severe enough to keep him out until the middle of the regular season. By then, he had lost too much ground to catch up. He didn't travel to road games. His only action was brief in Iowa’s 30-3 Outback Bowl loss to Florida. Year 4 was in the books.
Now, though, he’s happy to string these two words together: “I’m healthy.”
The trick will be getting on the field. Wisnieski is part of a crowded position, but one filled with opportunity after Kittle’s departure. Iowa returns only 10 career tight-end receptions.
Where could the muscular 6-foot-5, 250-pounder fit into the plans?
The younger crop of tight ends — Noah Fant, T.J. Hockenson and Shaun Beyer — fit the mold of athletic pass-catchers.
Wisnieski, listed starter Peter Pekar and walk-on Nate Wieting are the burly, blocking types.
“I love having John in the room, because he's an older guy,” tight ends coach LeVar Woods said. “He's good for the room. He's good to help the young guys, particularly. He's a very smart guy. We're working, trying to get him in the mix. … Jon could be a really good run blocker for us. We're working to develop that.”
Having a breakthrough fifth-year senior season is rare, but it can be done. In 2015, linebacker Cole Fisher went from Year 4 afterthought to Year 5 starting linebacker and the Hawkeyes’ second-leading tackler.
Iowa has six spring practices remaining before August camp begins.
Wisnieski knows if he’s going to make a similar jump, time is running out.
“It’s my last go-round, so I’ve got nothing left to lose,” he said. “I’ve got to go out there and give it my best shot.”