Leistikow: Flourishing tight ends among Iowa's best stories of young season
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Although he doesn’t fill his press conferences and radio shows with a series of jokes, Kirk Ferentz is a funny guy. He’ll pick his spots.
When he uncorks a zinger, it gets a laugh.
Less than an hour after a 3-0 nonconference campaign was in the books, the 19th-year head Hawkeye football coach threw this one into an answer about all the true freshmen he’s been playing this September.
“I kept reading in the papers up until August that we don't have any receivers,” Ferentz said, “so I figured, 'Hey, we might as well play the young guys.'”
A few of us in the room chuckled.
It was Ferentz’s way of needling the media a bit.
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It’s become evident through three games that he had big, fast pass-catching options on his roster all along — they just weren’t necessarily receivers by name.
Tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson have become clutch targets for new quarterback Nate Stanley, and their roles are imperative for Iowa’s upset chances against No. 4 Penn State on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium (6:42 p.m., ABC).
The pair of second-year players — Fant’s a 19-year-old sophomore from Omaha, and Hockenson’s a 20-year-old redshirt freshman from Chariton — have combined for 12 receptions for 159 yards this fall.
All 12 have gone for either a first down or a touchdown.
A year ago, when Iowa was blitzed by Penn State 41-14 in Happy Valley, one of the Hawkeyes’ many problems was getting stuffed on third downs (they converted just two of 10 chances).
Last week against North Texas, the pair combined for five catches and two touchdowns as Iowa went 11-for-18 on third downs and 4-for-5 on fourth, including Fant's 23-yard TD grab on fourth-and-5 late in the third quarter.
“Me and him run pretty well together," said Fant, who leads the team with three touchdown receptions. "... It’s encouraging where it’s going.”
A year ago, in 13 games, Iowa tight ends combined for just 32 receptions; Fant was responsible for nine as a true freshman.
Under first-year offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, it's clear the tight ends have been re-established as a high priority in how the Hawkeyes move the football.
In the season opener against Wyoming, Hockenson played on 84 percent of the offensive snaps and Fant 68 percent. The trend of them being on the field at the same time has continued.
And at Iowa, that means they're blocking a lot of the time, too. Against North Texas, each even lined up as a fullback on occasion.
That's a part of the game Fant (6-foot-5, 232 pounds) embraced in the offseason.
"Obviously as a freshman, I didn’t have much strength behind me," Fant said. "I really focused on building that, and T.J. came into his own with blocking and route-running as well.”
Although fans got to see glimpses of Fant last fall, Hockenson (6-5, 243) has been a pleasant surprise, even when he's not catching the ball.
On back-to-back fourth-quarter running plays against North Texas, Hockenson steamrolled a Mean Green defender into the secondary and onto the ground.
Hockenson wasn't asked to do much blocking in high school, where he was a record-setting receiver (238 catches, 3,560 yards, 49 touchdowns in Class 3A).
Embracing the physical nature of Iowa's tight-end position is where he and former Hawkeye George Kittle have a lot in common.
Kittle came to Iowa as a 6-foot-4, 200-pound receiver. This past April, at a sturdy 250 pounds, he was a fifth-round NFL Draft pick. And now, he's starting as a rookie for the San Francisco 49ers.
"There's a lot of tight ends in the country that don't want to block, and to his credit, he did," Kirk Ferentz said of Hockenson, who arrived at Iowa around 230 pounds. "George Kittle came here, skinny kid, and ... he blocked pretty well out there on the edge. But that wasn't natural for him. That was because he made up his mind he was going to do it."
The rapid development of Fant and Hockenson might be the biggest Hawkeye story nobody's talking about in this young season.
Having the pair on the field at the same time presents a matchup problem for opposing defenses. When the Hawkeyes line up in what's known as an "Ace" formation — a lone running back, two receivers out wide and two inline tight ends — they've got five legit threats to receive the ball from quarterback Nate Stanley while also presenting a power-run threat.
The Hawkeyes rushed 26 times for 30 yards against Penn State a year ago. For them to beat a 12½-point favorite Saturday night that's scored 30 or more points in 10 straight games, they'll need to keep up the offensive pace.
That involve more from the run game while also moving the ball through the air.
With Fant and Hockenson on its side, Iowa has a better chance to do both.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.