IOWA CITY, Ia. — Through four seasons at Iowa, Nate Wieting has more surgical scars (four) than passes caught (three).
He’s watched Henry Krieger-Coble, George Kittle, Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson go from Hawkeye tight end to the NFL. Wieting learned from all of them while recuperating from one surgery or another.
It’s Wieting’s turn now, and he has a message for all the fretting Hawkeye fans out there: It’s going to be OK.
“I still think we have a lot coming back. And I think the guys in the room can show that we can be really good at the tight end position,” Wieting said Tuesday.
“Sometimes, you take a look back, see what you’ve overcome ... I’m excited to get after it and show what I can do, try to help the team win some games.”
Wieting arrived in Iowa City from his Illinois home as a walk-on in 2015. He weighed 220 pounds. He marveled at Krieger-Coble’s footwork. He got schooled by defensive end Drew Ott. He hurt his foot so badly that he needed offseason surgery.
He never thought he didn’t belong.
In his second year, Wieting injured his shoulder but played through it, even starting three games. By the end of that season, he was suffering from inflammation in his knee. Both required surgery in that offseason.
For good measure, Wieting had his left foot operated on again.
In 2017, he was pushing for a bigger role in fall camp when he dove to catch a pass and ended up with a sprained AC joint. He missed two months but returned in time to start in Iowa’s Pinstripe Bowl game against Boston College. In the fourth quarter, he made his first career catch, diving for what appeared to be an 18-yard touchdown that would have been the game-winner. A review ruled him a yard short. Fullback Drake Kulick got the winning score. Wieting got a tantalizing taste of what could be.
The next fall, coach Kirk Ferentz pulled Wieting aside after practice and let him know he was now on scholarship. Wieting headed back to the team hotel and gleefully called his mother, Sue.
“That was one of my goals, coming in,” he said of earning a scholarship. “It didn’t change how I went about doing things — I came in every day, I worked hard to try to get better, try to get some playing time, try to help the team win games. After a while, you look up and say, ‘Wow, I’ve made a lot of progress.’ But you can never let that get to your head.”
Wieting then played third fiddle to Fant and Hockenson, who both left Iowa early and became first-round NFL draft picks. He caught two passes for 51 yards. But mainly, he blocked his rear end off. He helped Iowa win a second consecutive bowl game.
And now, at 250 pounds, Wieting is ready to show that maybe he does have some “skill” to apply to a skill position in flux. Iowa has been producing great tight ends for years. It’s up to Wieting, fellow senior Drew Cook and junior Shaun Beyer to keep that tradition alive.
“There is a standard, but that’s a good thing to have,” Wieting said.
He doesn’t consider himself an athletic “freak” like Kittle, Fant or Hockenson. But Wieting does think there’s a little more talent there than most fans have been able to see. And he’s been working hard with quarterback Nate Stanley to make it visible when the season begins Aug. 31.
“It’s all about footwork at the top of the route. It’s about working the defender. It’s the little nuances you pick up over years that help you improve your route-running,” he said.
“I’ve been working on how I run routes and then I’ve also been working on my speed with our workouts and our conditioning. You’ve got to approach every rep like it’s a 100-meter dash — that’s how you get faster. … I think I’m a very athletic player and I think with practice and fundamentals, you can compete.”
Naturally, Wieting has thought about what it would be like to finally score a touchdown. But he hasn’t gone so far as to plan some elaborate celebration. That’s not his way.
“If it happens, great. If it doesn’t, that’s OK, too, as long as we’re winning games,” Wieting said of getting into the end zone.
“If it does, I’ve got to celebrate with my teammates, got to go give Stan some love, give the O-line some love. That builds camaraderie. That’s why football is such a great team game.”
Mark Emmert covers University of Iowa athletics for the Des Moines Register and Iowa City Press-Citizen.