Leistikow: Hawkeye tight ends built, coached to match their 2018 hype
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa’s tight ends have deservedly earned the distinction of being the football team’s strongest position group entering the 2018 season that begins Sept. 1.
The duo of Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson alone brings back 54 receptions and 14 touchdowns from last year’s stat sheet. Others behind them possess a combination of experience and upside.
But just in case any of his tight ends get a little over-confident or feel like they’ve already arrived, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz is more than willing to rein them in.
“I’m pretty good about slowing down the hype train. I’ve had to do it in the past. I relish that role sometimes,” the 35-year-old Hawkeye assistant said, soliciting chuckles from media surrounding him. “There hasn’t been much of a need. I usually just reserve it for when I want to be extremely snarky with them.”
The group has star power — Fant is a preseason all-American and projected high NFL draft pick.
And it has depth — with five guys that Ferentz indicated would be involved in the rotation.
A re-introduction, if you need one:
Vitals: 6-foot-5, 241 pounds, junior
Skill set: A mismatch nightmare who has more size and speed than the linebackers that cover him.
Ferentz says: "What makes him unique as a football player is he can essentially play multiple positions."
RELATED:Two Hawkeyes listed as top-32 NFL draft prospects
Vitals: 6-5, 250, sophomore
Skill set: A full-service tight end who played far more snaps than Fant a year ago, and he has perhaps the best hands on the team.
Ferentz says: “I think T.J. is maybe undervalued in the way that people look at our offense. … Extremely productive in every phase of what he does.”
MORE:Iowa receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette is fast and (he says) serious
Vitals: 6-4, 250, junior
Skill set: He has primarily been used as a blocker (extensively in Iowa's 2016 win vs. Michigan) and after his first healthy offseason, the walk-on has been one of the summer’s most improved players.
Ferentz says: “He’s a guy that can do fullback-type things; he’s a guy that can do tight-end type things. And he’s a bright guy that can handle a very big role and get you out of some jams.”
ANALYSIS:Sizing up Iowa's WR options: Will anyone help out the core 4?
Vitals: 6-5, 240, sophomore
Skill set: Beyer owns a combination of athleticism and speed; lacks experience but would be best suited to replicate Fant’s role.
Ferentz says: “He’s more (a) hybrid type … that can run real fast but can put (his) hand in the line and come off the ball and block some people, too.”
RELATED:Breaking down Hawkeye rookies in NFL preseason Week 1
Vitals: 6-5, 250, junior
Skill set: The son of Hawkeye tight-end legend Marv Cook and converted quarterback doesn't have blinding speed but is progressing quickly in all areas.
Ferentz says: “I could see him going into a game and helping us right now. He’s been a quick study. And nobody works harder or cares more about the football team than Drew Cook.”
There’s a lot to like in each of those bios.
But perhaps there’s one thing being overlooked about this tight-end group — a reason it could really make a splashy difference this fall: Their new position coach ... the offensive coordinator himself.
With the NCAA-approved addition of a 10th full-time assistant, Iowa was able to hire Derrick Foster in January to take over Ferentz’s previous position group, the running backs, then shift Ferentz into the tight ends role that was vacated by LeVar Woods’ switch to full-time special-teams coordinator.
It's a natural fit. Ferentz coached tight ends under Bill Belichick as the New England Patriots rolled into Super Bowl XLVI (2011 season) with two tight-end torments, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, shredding defenses.
“Having the offensive coordinator in our room every day is really nice,” Hockenson affirmed last week. “We might get through 10 plays, but we’ve learned the whole offense in those 10 plays. We’ve learned the defense in those 10 plays.”
Last year, Iowa's talented tight ends did a good job doing what they were told.
This year, they’re better understanding Ferentz’s offensive concepts and how to read (and exploit) defenses.
And with an intricate knowledge of his best position group … you’d have to think that’s a play-calling and schematic advantage for an offensive coordinator.
“At the end of the day, you always have to think about: What can we do well?” Ferentz said. “What can we do better than anyone else? ... And are we spending enough time on that?
“Whoever you have at your disposal from a personnel standpoint, you have to make sure you’re building the offense around those people.”
The way Iowa builds its team, that focal point should almost annually be the tight end.
It’ll be fascinating to see how it all comes together in 2018.
Expect lots of two- and three-tight end sets — maybe with one playing the role of a fullback.
“At the end of the day, if it doesn’t give you more balance," Ferentz said, "it gives you the illusion of balance.”
The idea is that defenses will have to scramble to see where Iowa's tight ends are lining up — at fullback, at receiver or as a traditional in-line blocker. Then, based on defensive personnel, the hope for Iowa is to adjust play calls accordingly behind an experienced quarterback in Nate Stanley.
“Last year, we played around with it a little bit. Brian will figure it out for this year,” Wieting said. “I definitely think we have the personnel. We’ve got a really strong group.”
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.