Leistikow: Iowa TE George Kittle's freaky pre-NFL numbers say a lot
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Every time George Kittle posts another eye-popping number for NFL scouts to observe, perhaps the biggest reason for Iowa’s anemic 2016 passing game becomes clear.
It’s got to be half-agonizing, half-comforting to Hawkeye fans and coaches.
If Kittle hadn’t gotten hurt grinding for extra yardage in Iowa’s Oct. 15 win at Purdue, maybe the Hawkeyes’ passing numbers (118th out of 128 FBS teams) wouldn’t have been so paltry – and maybe they would’ve won the Big Ten Conference’s West Division, as they were predicted to do.
Of course, it's also a fair question to wonder if Iowa's offensive coaches failed to use him enough when he was healthy.
But it’s clear now, a month ahead of the NFL Draft, that Kittle was a what-could-have-been asset for the 2016 Hawkeyes.
With his performances at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis and in Iowa’s Pro Day on Monday, Kittle’s draft stock continues to rise.
His time of 4.52 seconds in the 40-yard dash – faster than some safeties that are projected to go in the April 27 first round, and the eighth-fastest Combine time posted by a tight end since 2008 – got things rolling earlier this month.
“I had a couple coaches come up to me afterwards,” Kittle said, “that said 'I’ll be at your Pro Day' that didn’t talk to me the whole week I was there.”
Pro Football Focus recently ranked Kittle as the No. 4 tight end prospect in the draft. Keep in mind this is a loaded tight end class.
It’s no wonder that a year ago around this time, Iowa tight ends coach LeVar Woods said of Kittle: “He can be as good as anybody that's played here.”
And that’s saying something, given the Hawkeyes’ illustrious list of NFL tight ends.
So, yes, it was an unfortunate missed opportunity for Iowa’s 2016 season – which got off to a 2-0 start with a top-10 ranking, when Kittle was healthy, and ended with an 8-5 record and an out-of-the-polls finish.
Perhaps Iowa's most perplexing usage of Kittle came during a 38-31 loss Oct. 1 to Northwestern, the first game after leading receiver Matt VandeBerg was lost for the season to a broken foot. Kittle had just one catch for 18 yards against the Wildcats in that pivotal game.
Two Saturdays later, Kittle would join VandeBerg as a hobbled receiving threat, and the passing game was officially gutted.
After his mid-foot sprain against Purdue, Kittle missed two games and was a shell of himself in the four games he did play – five catches for 34 yards.
As it turned out, the biggest game of Iowa's season was a 17-9 home loss Oct. 22 to Wisconsin, in which Kittle struggled with mobility in the first half (no catches) and had to sit out in the second. If the Hawkeyes had won that game, and every other result stayed the same, they would have repeated as Big Ten West champs.
“It wasn’t fun not playing,” Kittle said. “I’ll leave it at that.”
NFL people like Kittle’s speed, of course, and the blocking ability he possesses for his size (6-foot-4, 251 pounds). Among tight ends, his 38.5-inch vertical jump he posted Monday would’ve ranked No. 2 at the Combine and his Iowa-timed 4.07 seconds in the 20-yard shuttle would be the Combine’s third-fastest time since 2007.
And if scouts look even closer, they’ll see a guy with excellent hands, too. I still count his lunging, one-handed catch over the middle against Maryland 2015 as one of the most impressive receptions by a Hawkeye that I can remember.
“I can do whatever you want me to do on the field,” Kittle said. “Whether that’s catch the ball or take somebody to the ground, I’ll do whatever you need me to do.”
Another thing to like about Kittle: his personality.
He’s an engaging, fun guy to be around.
Especially if you like pro wrestling.
Kittle is an avid fan – having attended WWE Raw in Tampa, Fla., just hours after Iowa’s Outback Bowl loss to Florida with a few teammates.
He’s super-stoked for Sunday’s Wrestlemania 33.
“The way I describe it, is pick your favorite TV show, and that’s all it’s like,” Kittle explained to those of us (ahem) who don’t understand the allure of staged sporting outcomes. “It’s entertainment. It’s scripted. You find a guy that you like – my favorite guy is Seth Rollins from Davenport, Iowa. I like him, I just follow him. Once you find a character you like, it’s pretty easy to watch.”
Kittle, himself, is a character.
And the way things are tracking, he just might be the next tight end from Iowa to make it big in the NFL.
Pro Football Focus thinks he could be a steal for some team in the third round. CBS Sports projects him as a fourth- or fifth-rounder, but that was before Monday's Pro Day performance.
In the 2014 draft, ex-Hawkeye C.J. Fiedorowicz was taken with the first pick of the third round – 65th overall by the Houston Texans.
Kittle’s one inch and 14 pounds smaller, yes, but by comparison his physical numbers crush Fiedorowicz’s: 0.24 seconds faster in the 40; 7 inches higher in the vertical jump and 16 inches further in the broad jump.
It’s too bad for the Hawkeyes that they couldn't put him to maximum use in 2016.
“I always wanted to be healthy,” Kittle said. “It kind of hurt my statistics a little bit, but I really don’t care. I’m just glad I got to be on the field (for) Senior Day and the bowl game, being able to do something."
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.
HOW GEORGE KITTLE MEASURES UP
His NFL Combine numbers from February, and his Iowa Pro Day numbers, where applicable:
Weight: 247 pounds – 251 at Pro Day
40-yard dash: 4.52 seconds – Time was third-fastest among 14 participating tight ends. Did not attempt at Pro Day.
Bench press: 18 reps at 225 pounds – Ranked 11th among TEs. Did not attempt at Pro Day.
Vertical jump: 35 inches – His jump of 38.5 inches Monday would’ve ranked No. 2 for TEs at the combine.
Broad jump: 132 inches (11 feet) – Third-best at the Combine among TEs.
3-cone drill: Did not run at Combine; 6.76 seconds on Pro Day. Alabama's O.J. Howard’s 6.85 was fastest among TEs at the Combine.
20-yard shuttle: Did not run at Combine; 4.07 seconds on Pro Day. Howard’s 4.16 was fastest among TEs at the Combine.
KITTLE’S SENIOR YEAR, GAME-BY-GAME
Miami of Ohio: 0 catches, 0 yards
Iowa State: 3 catches, 26 yards, 1 TD
North Dakota State: 5 catches, 110 yards
Rutgers: 2 catches, 56 yards, 1 TD
Northwestern: 1 catch, 18 yards
Minnesota: 4 catches, 39 yards
Purdue: 2 catches, 31 yards (injured first quarter, did not return)
Wisconsin: 0 catches, 0 yards (DNP second half)
Penn State: 2 catches, 9 yards
Nebraska: 2 catches, 7 yards, 2 TDs
Florida: 1 catch, 18 yards