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Tracing Sam LaPorta's path from small-town sensation to budding star tight end at Iowa

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Sam LaPorta’s story is playing out much like T.J. Hockenson’s did, and that could be great news for the Iowa football team.

In 2015, Hockenson was a small-town Iowa kid putting up eye-popping receiving stats but somehow being overlooked by major-college recruiters outside of the state. He went from Chariton, where he caught 49 touchdown passes, to the Hawkeyes, won the John Mackey Award as the nation’s best tight end and is now in the NFL.

LaPorta was a wide receiver at Highland High School in southern Illinois, talented enough to haul in 50 touchdown passes, the second-best mark in state history. But few people outside his town of 10,000 people seemed to notice.

Earlier:Inside T.J. Hockenson's quick rise to every-down tight end for the Iowa Hawkeyes

One day, Iowa special teams coordinator LeVar Woods was visiting nearby Edwardsville High School, where star defensive end A.J. Epenesa played. Matt Martin, the football coach there, mentioned that Woods should check out this LaPorta kid over in Highland. Woods did, and came away impressed. He invited LaPorta to a Hawkeye summer camp in 2018.

Everything fell into place for LaPorta and Iowa, which became the only major-conference school to offer him a scholarship.

On Saturday, LaPorta led Iowa’s passing attack with six catches for 71 yards against Purdue. It was the first game of his sophomore season as the Hawkeyes’ starting tight end.

Iowa tight end Sam LaPorta reaches up to snare one of his six receptions Saturday at Purdue. The sophomore led the Hawkeyes with 71 yards through the air.

On Tuesday, his quarterback, Spencer Petras, said this: “He really understands coverage well, how to beat coverage, which is what you want out of a veteran tight end.”

A veteran tight end?

LaPorta said he’s still learning the position, particularly the blocking aspect. Two years ago, he was a 190-pound wide receiver terrorizing defenses to the tune of 1,457 yards and 19 touchdowns. Now, he’s at 249 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame and said Tuesday that he doesn’t even recognize himself when looking at game film from last season.

“I’ve come a long way,” LaPorta said. “I’m proud of myself for that. I needed to come a long way.”

More:Iowa's new quarterback, Spencer Petras, knows he has the firepower around him to succeed

At Highland High School, LaPorta 'was better than any other team's dude'

Jim Warnecke has been the head football coach at Highland High School for 10 years and had sent only one player to a major college program before LaPorta. Tanner Farmer was an offensive lineman at Nebraska from 2014-18.

Warnecke sensed that LaPorta was a special talent, naming him a team captain as a sophomore, but wondered where all the scouts were.

“We’d never had anyone like him,” Warnecke said. “When he was on our team, we felt in a sense like invincible. We knew he was better than any other team’s dude that we would come across. It was a tremendous sense of confidence. It’s like, we have an answer for everything.”

Highland went 40-6 in LaPorta’s four years there. He gained 3,793 yards as a receiver, which ranks third in Illinois high school history, despite frequent double-teams. He also played defensive back, intercepting seven passes as a senior.

Warnecke was most impressed by LaPorta’s constant striving for improvement, which inspired his teammates.

“Whether it was a Monday in June or a Thursday in July or a Friday in October, he set the bar extremely high for himself and expected everyone around him to follow. And if you didn’t, whether you were a friend of his or not, he was going to let you hear about it. He held everyone accountable,” Warnecke said.

At Iowa, LaPorta credited senior tight ends Nate Wieting and Drew Cook for helping him learn a new position as a true freshman. He found a home on special teams initially, but kept impressing coach Kirk Ferentz with how quickly he was improving as an offensive player.

In the eighth game of the season, LaPorta caught his first two passes, one of them a 41-yard gain, as Iowa won at Northwestern. LaPorta grabbed three passes in a season-ending victory at Nebraska, and then had a breakout game in Iowa’s Holiday Bowl triumph over USC. He finished with six catches for 44 yards in that one, giving him 15 receptions for the season.

LaPorta has yet to find the end zone as a Hawkeye, but it’s just a matter of time. He already has a strong connection with Petras, as evidenced by his play in Saturday’s 24-20 loss at Purdue. Next up is Northwestern again, at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in Kinnick Stadium.

At Iowa, LaPorta shows his coach 'a real good energy, a good vibe'

“He loves football. Like he loves playing. He loves being out there on the field. He enjoys getting his ankles taped,” Ferentz said of LaPorta. “He kind of likes everything about this, and he's got a real good energy, a good vibe.”

Ferentz, who has produced a long line of NFL tight ends, compared LaPorta to one of his earliest, Dallas Clark.

And LaPorta said Clark has become a mentor of his. He also speaks often with Hockenson, who plays for the Detroit Lions.

LaPorta said the message he gets from the former Hawkeye tight ends is: “Take the little details into account and always listen to the coaches.”

So that’s what he’s doing in his second season at Iowa. LaPorta knows if he keeps progressing like this, the NFL awaits. And that’s always been his dream.

They’re following LaPorta’s career intently back in Highland. Warnecke said he too was amazed at the transformation he saw in his former player when he turned on Saturday’s game.

“He looked just a lot more fit I felt than last year. He looks huge, especially the lower half,” Warnecke said. “He plays faster because he understands the game more and has more confidence. That’s not surprising. He’s a guy that embraces challenge.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.