IOWA CITY, Ia. — Asked about how much blocking he did in high school, Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson laughs and — before the question is finished — deadpans his one-word answer.
“None,” he says, smiling. “I mean, a few (blocks). … I wasn’t asked to do a lot of hitting, a lot of anything. I was asked to catch the ball.”
True, says Chariton High School coach Curt Smyser.
In actuality, Hockenson was such a tall and effective pass-catcher there, Smyser transformed the Chargers' entire offense around him for Hockenson's final three years.
Chariton went from an I-formation running team to one that threw 60 passes a game. It worked, and it got the team without much else into the Class 3-A playoffs — as Hockenson piled up record-setting career receiving numbers: 238 catches (then-No. 1 in Iowa history; now No. 2 to Oliver Martin) for 3,560 yards (No. 2) and 49 touchdowns (No. 1) despite opponents knowing exactly where the football was headed.
All of that’s background to marvel about this: Hockenson, last year as a redshirt freshman at Iowa, regularly found his way onto the field because of his beyond-his-years ability to push around Big Ten Conference defenders.
After all, being an all-around blocker serves as a tight-end punch card to playing time under Kirk Ferentz.
“His blocking at the next level has been amazing,” Smyser says. “And I think that’s the part of his game he’s changed the most.”
But how did he do it?
How did he go from rare blocking assignments in high school to playing more snaps than any Hawkeye tight end — including the Big Ten’s touchdown-reception leader, Noah Fant — in 2017?
“First and foremost, he’s a tremendous kid. And he’s got a great work ethic,” said LeVar Woods, who worked with Hockenson as Iowa’s tight ends coach the past two years and is now special-teams coordinator. “I think he’s more aggressive, more physical than we thought in high school.”
But there’s a second part of the answer, one those familiar with Iowa football over the past 19 years probably can guess.
Hockenson fully embraced the workouts and diet given to him by the longtime Iowa strength and conditioning coach. Hockenson has turned his 225-pound body upon campus arrival in June 2016 into one that’s now listed at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds.
Smyser saw Hockenson over Christmas and was blown away how much bigger, stronger his former skinny receiving star had gotten.
“Coach Doyle; he’s awesome. He really told me what I needed to do,” says Hockenson, who packed on another five pounds since the Dec. 27 Pinstripe Bowl. “It’s not just eating a lot. It’s more (being) in the weight room and building lean body mass instead of just eating and getting fat. That’s a big difference.
“It definitely helps you in the blocking. You’re getting faster, because you’re building muscle. My legs are stronger.”
And now for the second time in Hockenson’s football career, an offense is being built around his skills. At least that’s partly the case at Iowa, where second-year coordinator Brian Ferentz’s offense is engineered around having two, and sometimes three, versatile tight ends on the field at a time.
“The whole offense is trying to get mismatches,” Hockenson says. “The tight ends as a group, we were a big part of mismatches last year (during an 8-5 season), and hopefully we will be again. We can block, we can route-run. We’re doing all that.”
While Iowa enters the fall of 2018 with one already-hyped tight end in Fant, its secret weapon might be the other guy.
Because Hockenson, despite being utilized more for his blocking ability as a redshirt freshman (he even lined up as fullback several times), made some pass-catching history as well.
The 24 receptions Hockenson accrued last fall (for 320 yards and three touchdowns) were by far the most of any freshman tight end in the 19-year Kirk Ferentz era. Fant had the previous high (nine, in 2016), followed by future NFL’ers Tony Moeaki (eight, 2005) and George Kittle (five, 2013).
Guys who had two or fewer receptions as freshmen tight ends at Iowa: Dallas Clark (1999; then a linebacker), Scott Chandler (2003), Brandon Myers (2005), Allen Reisner (2007) and C.J. Fiedorwicz (2010).
Everyone on that list got to the NFL.
Which underscores how tough it is to be an impact tight end as a Hawkeye freshman.
The Myers comparison is one that Iowa assistant Reese Morgan pitched when recruiting Hockenson.
Myers was another small-town recruit, out of Prairie City — about 50 miles and two counties north of Chariton. He caught 34 passes as a Hawkeye senior in 2008.
“I remember Coach Morgan telling him, he catches the ball better (than Myers). He runs better routes. The only thing, he’s probably not as fast or doesn’t jump as well,” Smyser says. “… And (Myers), he had an NFL career. So, that was good for (T.J.) to hear.”
Hockenson’s ability to catch anything thrown his way became legendary in Chariton. Of the 238 catches he made, Smyser doesn’t need one hand to count the number of catches he didn't. Under five drops, for sure, during his high-school career.
I can think of maybe one last season with the Hawkeyes.
"If it’s close, he can get it,” Smyser says.
Hockenson watches a lot of film of the New England Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski, today's preeminent tight end in the NFL. Most think of Gronkowski as a pass-catching phenom; but Hockenson notes the reason “Gronk” is so proficient is because of his blocking skills.
Hockenson is not yet an NFL-level tight end.
But no doubt, Hockenson is off to a great start. And he has all the tools — the dedication, size, strength and hands — to get there ... while perhaps becoming a sneaky-dominant force for the 2018 Hawkeyes.
“If the kid stays healthy, he’s going to get to play at the next level. And we’ll get to watch him on Sundays,” Smyser says. “I think he’s that good. And how he fits into that Iowa program, they make tight ends great.
“It’s fun for a small town to watch.”
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.