Leistikow: Hawkeyes' tight-end usage goes under the microscope
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Since January, the Iowa football program has added three new coaches and promoted a fourth.
Yet the offensive assistant with perhaps the most daunting task this spring is the only one who isn’t in a new seat.
LeVar Woods entered spring practice with a bevy of tight ends but no obvious solution to supply the pass-game production his position typically needs to succeed at Iowa.
Woods’ battle is two-fold.
One, the Hawkeyes generated just 32 receptions from the tight ends a year ago — the lowest in the program since 2003 and a sharp drop-off from totals of 60, 62, 58 and 56 in the 2012-15 seasons.
Two, he has to replace the player who generated most of those 2016 catches. That’s because athletic, versatile tight end George Kittle is spending his spring shooting up NFL Draft boards.
So, the position is about as uncertain as it ever gets for Iowa, which last spring was tabbed by CBS Sports as the nation’s No. 5 program for producing quality tight ends.
To Hawkeye fans, first names aren’t necessary to itemize the tight-end windfalls of the Kirk Ferentz era: Clark, Chandler, Myers, Moeaki, Fiedorowicz — to name just five who have gone on to NFL success.
Well, there certainly is no shortage of candidates.
Woods has six scholarship tight ends, plus a walk-on who played a lot last year. That’s an embarrassment of riches, compared with offensive assistants Kelton Copeland (who has four scholarship wide receivers this spring, one of whom in Matt VandeBerg is on crutches) and Brian Ferentz (four scholarship running backs).
The No. 1 listed tight end is Peter Pekar, a fifth-year senior who was put on scholarship in January. He has one career catch for five yards.
“The competition is great for me,” Pekar said this week, “and for them as well. It’s healthy.”
The pieces offer a window into the Iowa offensive strategy, too.
There are the proven blockers who don't run many pass routes: Pekar and sophomore walk-on Nate Wieting (who was on crutches during Wednesday’s open practice). That pair started the Michigan and Illinois games when Kittle was hurt.
There are the young, athletic options with speed who have to become proven blockers: true sophomore Noah Fant (nine catches last year) and redshirt freshmen T.J. Hockenson and Shaun Beyer. Each is an intriguing 6-foot-5 target.
Then there are the unknown commodities: Fifth-year senior Jon Wisnieski, a Dowling Catholic product, has battled injuries throughout his Iowa career. And we’ve not seen much from redshirt sophomore Nate Vejvoda in his first two years.
“I’m game to do anything to help the team,” Pekar said. “If it’s a lot more run-blocking or pass-blocking (like last year). Hopefully some routes. We’ll see. We have a lot of different tight ends that are going to do a lot.”
Part of what Woods does will depend on the philosophy of Brian Ferentz’s offense in his first year as offensive coordinator. In four years with the New England Patriots, Ferentz saw the success that can be enjoyed from having multiple tight-end targets on the field together, as he had with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
I’d be shocked if Ferentz’s goal wasn’t to try to return to some version of that formula. A double-threat at tight end was also what worked for Iowa in 2015, with Henry Krieger Coble (35 catches) and Kittle (six touchdowns) proving critical in a 12-0 regular season.
Too often, mostly because of the Kittle injury, Iowa was predictable in its tight-end usage in 2016.
If Pekar was in, he’d rarely get targeted. Same with Wieting.
If Fant was in, he’d rarely be blocking.
Is Pekar ready to become more a receiving threat? Can Fant do enough in the run-blocking game to play nearly every down like Kittle did? What to do with Hockenson? Does Wisnieski have something left in the tank?
I think we’ll find out more this coming week.
Woods is scheduled to meet the Iowa media Wednesday.
Then, at Friday night’s open practice at Valley Stadium in West Des Moines, we should get a feel for how the young guys are coming along.
The development of the tight ends, in my opinion, is going to be critical to how this offense performs, especially with a new quarterback (either Nathan Stanley or Tyler Wiegers) and with the receiver group being extremely thin until freshman reinforcements arrive in June.
Woods and his tight ends have to progress quickly. Sept. 2 will be here sooner than you think.
For what it's worth, the first-stringer sounds confident.
“I think as a combination," Pekar said, "our tight end group is going to be real strong.”
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.
IOWA TIGHT END PRODUCTION, LAST FIVE YEARS
2012: 60 receptions (Fiedorowicz 45, Z.Derby 6, Krieger Coble 4, Duzey 3, Hamilton 2)
2013: 62 receptions (Fiedorowicz 30, Duzey 19, Hamilton 8, Kittle 5)
2014: 58 receptions (Duzey 36, Hamilton 18, Krieger Coble 3, Kittle 1)
2015: 56 receptions (Krieger Coble 35, Kittle 20, Outsey 1)
2016: 32 receptions (Kittle 22, Fant 9, Pekar 1)