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Leistikow: Winning Mackey Award gives T.J. Hockenson's NFL Draft stock another boost

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

The other day, Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson was articulating his decision-making process for whether he’ll make the jump to the NFL sooner or later.

He needed to gather a lot more information, he said.

Well, more information is flowing in.

One of the reasons T.J. Hockenson was such a complete tight end for Iowa in 2018 was his elite hands, including on this first-quarter touchdown catch against Indiana.

And Hockenson’s NFL Draft stock probably can't get much higher than it is now.

Hockenson on Wednesday was officially named college football’s top tight end as the winner of the John Mackey Award. A redshirt sophomore, Hockenson is the first underclassman in the Mackey’s 19-year history to win the award.

Wow.

This has been quite a climb for the native of Chariton, Iowa. Just 2½ years ago, he arrived on the Iowa campus as a rangy, 225-pound wide receiver. Now, he’s a 6-foot-5, 250-pound force.

His impressive ability to block the run gave him every-down snaps over teammate Noah Fant, a preseason AP all-American tight end who has already declared for the NFL Draft.

But it was Hockenson’s hands and big-play ability that really shined this year. Entering the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl — in which Hockenson plans to play — he leads the Hawkeyes with 46 catches and 717 receiving yards. He won the Mackey over finalists Albert Okwuegbunam of Missouri and Kaden Smith of Stanford.

Seven of Hockenson's receptions this season covered 30-plus yards, hardly the hallmark of a prototypical in-line tight end. His 54-yard touchdown catch at Indiana showcased that he’s got decent wheels, too.

And when the game was on the line against Nebraska, in the final minute of a 28-all deadlock? Iowa turned to Hockenson, with Nate Stanley firing a 10-yard pass on fourth-and-8 to set up Miguel Recinos’ walk-off field goal.

Hockenson’s first-down point might be the most memorable image of the Hawkeyes’ 2018 season.

Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson (38) gestures for a first down following a 25-yard reception during a Big Ten Conference NCAA football game on Friday, Nov. 23, 2018, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

It also symbolizes how his football arrow is pointing forward — maybe into the NFL.

Hockenson has a passion for the game that will translate very well at the next level. I would compare it to the zest we saw from George Kittle, now shining as a second-year pro with the San Francisco 49ers, at Iowa. Surely NFL talent evaluators see that comparison, too, and realize that Hockenson is about as sure a bet as it gets at tight end.

Would Hockenson be the NFL Scouting Combine star that Kittle was or Fant will be? Probably not.

“Playing this game is something that, if you’re a real football player, motivates you. Just the love of the game, being able to play it,” Hockenson said Sunday night. “I think more so than money, (the NFL motivation) is going to play with the best players in the world, really pushing yourself to the limits and seeing what you can do at the next level.”

Hockenson has until mid-January to make a decision. Already, a mock draft produced by The Athletic classifies Hockenson and Fant as late first-rounders for the 2019 draft.

He’s ready now. He could be even more ready in 2020, for sure — maybe sure-fire, first-round ready. If he stayed, his development would continue under position coach Brian Ferentz — who once coached Rob Gronkowski with the New England Patriots.

He is the second Hawkeye to win the Mackey, of course. Dallas Clark was the other, in 2002.

All Clark did was become the one of the most prolific tight ends in the NFL. A late first-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts in 2003, Clark would enjoy an 11-year NFL career (mostly with Peyton Manning slinging him footballs) and racked up 505 catches for 5,665 yards and 53 touchdowns.

To suggest Hockenson could duplicate that type of career seems crazy.

Then again, it would have been equally crazy (even just three months ago) to predict this small-town Iowan would win the 2018 Mackey Award.

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.