Leistikow: Shaun Beyer's emergence would be a welcome, feel-good story for 2019 Hawkeyes

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The Shaun Beyer story could be a good one to tell someday.

And this is how it could go ... 

The guy who grew up 20 miles away wanting to play football for his dream school …

The guy who didn’t catch a pass in his first three years of college …

The guy who suffered a significant knee injury just as he was turning a corner …

The guy whose career was first known for a crushing special-teams miscue …

THAT guy became Iowa’s next great tight end.

Shaun Beyer, second from right at last year's Iowa media day with two future NFL tight ends (in T.J. Hockenson, Noah Fant) to his right, is expected to be the leading target at that position for the Hawkeyes in 2019.

Given the Hawkeyes' recent history at this position and what we know about Beyer’s size, athleticism and character behind the scenes, the story could be told someday soon.

To suggest that outcome as a possibility isn’t anointing Beyer whatsoever. The smiling redhead from Cedar Rapids Kennedy is the first to tell you he has a lot to prove.

And he’s had a lot to overcome, in the past 6½ months alone.

Let’s start with that Wisconsin night game, Sept. 22 in Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeyes were finally outplaying their Big Ten Conference divisional nemesis in a throwdown that matched West title favorites.

Iowa was leading the Badgers 10-7 midway through the third quarter.

Then …

Beyer did everything he was taught to do as part of Iowa’s punt-return team. He saw return man Kyle Groeneweg make a move for the football, which served as his green light to find a Badger to block.

He didn’t hear the call of “Peter” — the signal for him to "get the hell away" from a rolling football, as Kirk Ferentz would later say.

“There might have been one,” Beyer said. “But I didn’t hear it.”

So, he kept blocking, and Groeneweg let the ball bounce to the turf. And Beyer inadvertently slid his foot against the football, making it live for either team to recover.

Wisconsin pounced at Iowa’s 10-yard line and punched in a game-changing touchdown in what became a 28-17 Badgers win.

Beyer’s name had become associated with his first big play as a Hawkeye, but in an unfortunate way.

“Obviously, it was a big hit, mentally. It was a communication error … but you’ve got to learn from it,” Beyer said this week, his first time speaking with media about that moment. “Everyone around here was just so supportive of me, asking how I was doing.

“It was tough, because I felt like I had let my teammates down.”

But Beyer bounced back. About a month later, he was playing his best football. And even with T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant ahead of him, Beyer felt he was inching closer to meaningful game reps at tight end.

Then …

During a late-October, non-contact practice ahead of the Iowa-Purdue game, Beyer injured his knee.

“I don’t think we were going live. I caught a flat ball and went to turn upfield,” Beyer said. “Something popped, and I went down.”

He ended up having surgery to repair his meniscus. Another setback, this time physically and mentally.

Tight ends coach/offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz encouraged Beyer to be patient and take the recovery one day at a time, telling him he had the same surgery as a player.

And on Tuesday, Beyer was a full practice participant for the first time since the injury.

Back on the field and, as you can imagine, hungry as ever.

And Iowa needs the redshirt junior.

With Fant and Hockenson off to the NFL as early entrants, the depth chart at tight end has opened for someone with his skill set to emerge. Beyer, with zero catches in 14 career games, is on the No. 1 line this spring.

At 6-foot-5, 244 pounds, Beyer's junior-year size is almost identical to Fant's.

And although Fant has off-the-charts speed — his 4.50-second 40-yard dash stole headlines at the NFL Scouting Combine — Beyer, a former track star, is nearly as fast.

"He was usually my partner for speed drills and stuff," Beyer said. "I could keep up, but he’d usually pull away a little bit if it got further than 20 yards."

Although Beyer doesn’t have the game reps to lean on, neither did Hockenson before he caught 24 balls as a redshirt freshman in 2017. A season later, he was the Mackey Award winner as college football’s tight end ... and a projected first-round NFL Draft pick.

Don’t forget, it was Fant — not Hockenson — who had all the preseason hype in 2018.

It was a year ago this week that I published a column titled: T.J. Hockenson, Iowa’s “other” tight end, on the path to big things.

The article outlines how Hockenson showed up as a skinny-but-talented in-state prospect and added 25 pounds of body mass before earning his way onto the field. 

Ring a bell? Beyer showed up at Iowa around 200 pounds. So did George Kittle, who in 2018 set the NFL single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end.

Those things are reminders that the Hawkeye program has a reputation of building up guys behind the scenes.

Could Beyer the next Hockenson, the next Fant?

“I don’t know. I guess we’ll have to see,” he said. “I know a lot of people are comparing me to Noah, size-wise and speed and what-not. But I really like the way T.J. plays and attacks. I’d really like to be a mix of both.”

That'd be quite a story.

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.