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Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley says he'll likely be back for his senior season, and offers his thoughts on Noah Fant's early departure. Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — A year ago, T.J. Hockenson was a wide-eyed, red-shirt freshman playing his first snaps of college football at his dream school.

This week, he’ll find out whether or not he’s won the Mackey Award as the nation’s best tight end.

Later this month, he’ll probably decide whether or not he’s going to enter the 2019 NFL Draft.

As Ron Burgundy famously said: Boy, that escalated quickly.

“It feels like a video game,” the Iowa Hawkeyes’ leading pass-catcher said Sunday, acknowledging his football circumstances — that we’re talking about an NFL decision right now — hardly seem real. “I’m just trying to take in the moment."

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Hockenson has already made one football decision: He’s going to play in Iowa’s Jan. 1 Outback Bowl against Mississippi State — unlike his tight-end running mate. Iowa junior Noah Fant announced Friday he was leaving the team to focus on his pro career.

Fant’s freakish athleticism have him projected by pundits as a first-round pick. Second at worst.

Hockenson (6-foot-5, 250 pounds) doesn’t have Fant’s 42-inch vertical jump or track speed. But there’s a reason the third-year sophomore was Iowa’s every-down tight end this year.

He's got pancake blocks on his film. He's got maybe the best hands on the team. And yeah, he can run. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. recently named Fant the No. 1 draft-eligible tight end; he had Hockenson No. 5.

Hockenson will ask for feedback from the NFL’s College Advisory Committee — just like a lot of Hawkeye underclassmen like Amani Hooker, Anthony Nelson and Nate Stanley will. That information usually comes back in late December.

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Iowa tight end T. J. Hockenson was encouraged to study a pair of NFL stars this summer. And, yes, he does hear from former Hawkeye George Kittle often Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

They can give you a first-round grade; a second-round grade; or a stay-in-school recommendation. Their recommendations are typically spot-on.

“I’m trying to take in as much information as I can,” Hockenson said, “then make a decision from there.”

I asked him Sunday: If you win the Mackey Award (and he should), how do you improve from that?

“There’s a lot of things I can improve on,” the Big Ten Conference’s tight end of the year responded.

And he would love to do that improving at Iowa for his final two years of eligibility. He’s certainly got a great set of teachers here in Kirk and Brian Ferentz, for starters.

But …

The NFL, if it’s within reach, that’s tough to pass up — especially for a football guy like Hockenson.

He loves the game intensely.

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That much is apparent when you watch the passion with which he plays; when you listen to the way he talks. His best interviews this year were probably after losses, because you could tell how much they pained him … how much they motivated him.

And now the NFL could be dangling a carrot in front of this fierce competitor.

If he stuck around for another year, at least, his draft stock probably would go up. But he doesn’t sound like someone who cares whether he's drafted in the second round or the fourth. 

Look at George Kittle. A fifth-round tight end out of Iowa in 2017 is tearing up the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers.

“I have two more years of eligibility but at the same time, money’s not an issue,” Hockenson said in perhaps his most revealing comments Sunday. “It’s not something I’m chasing. It’s just more the talent level (of the NFL) and trying to push yourself to the limits. I think that’s what any competitor would tell you to do, is see what you can do as a player.”

Sure, it would take a massive bite out of the 2019 Hawkeye roster if Hockenson joins Fant in going pro. He said he might know his decision before the Outback Bowl, but likely would keep it to himself until afterward.

Skipping the bowl game was never a consideration.

“I owe everything to this football program,” Hockenson said.

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Knowing this could be the end of the line of his Hawkeye career, Hockenson wants to prepare intensely for the game — to give as much as he can to the program he loves.

If he were to return in 2019, he would be the face of the program, even ahead of Stanley. He would probably start the year atop 2020 NFL Draft lists at tight end. He’d get another crack at winning a Big Ten championship, a program goal that slipped away in too many close losses this season. He’d be able to finish his degree.

But no Hawkeye fan should blame him if the Outback Bowl is his Hawkeye finish line.

With his work ethic and his tenacious play, he's earned this decision.

Now he has about one month to make it.

“There’s so many factors. And I don’t have half the information I’ll need to make a decision,” Hockenson said. “Like I said, I love this university and I love the people here. I’d love to stay for the remainder of my eligibility. That’d be a lot of fun. We’ll see what happens.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

 

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