Leistikow: The battle for Iowa's No. 2 tight end has big impact on Brian Ferentz's offense

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — You've had plenty of history lessons about Iowa football and its development of top-level tight ends. If you’re participating in any NFL fantasy drafts soon, you’ll notice that three of the top eight tight ends off the board are recent Hawkeyes George Kittle, T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant. 

And it wouldn’t be a shock if current Hawkeye junior Sam LaPorta joins them as an NFL tight end sooner rather than later. LaPorta is the Hawkeyes’ unquestioned No. 1 tight end going into the 2021 season with an every-down ability to block and catch that offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz covets.

But what about the Hawkeyes’ No. 2 tight end?

"That might be as big a battle or as important a role as we have," Ferentz said in a recent podcast interview with the Des Moines Register, "because that’ll dictate how we play offensively."

Iowa’s offensive style is known as "multiple," meaning it constantly mixes personnel groups and formations. It’s an approach that emphasizes play-calling flexibility. The more different looks presented to the defense, the more the offensive coordinator can identify what matchups might work best on any given Saturday.

That is why a quality second tight end can be invaluable. In 2018, Iowa leaned heavily on two-tight end sets with first-round NFL Draft picks in Hockenson (No. 8 overall) and Fant (No. 20). Using two tight ends is a great way to disguise run vs. pass calls, because they typically can block or catch equally well. 

More:With inexperienced TEs around him, Iowa's Sam LaPorta will be vital to Hawkeye offense

After emerging late in 2019 and becoming Iowa's receptions leader in 2020 (27), LaPorta heads into his third year as a Hockenson-type asset for the Hawkeyes. There is no Fant equivalent, but having a viable No. 2 (and No. 3) is one of Ferentz's top goals in preseason camp.

"It’s one of those positions where in a perfect world, you’d have three guys that you felt really good about," Ferentz said. “If you have four, you’re doing really well.”

At Iowa’s media day recently, I interviewed the three top contenders to be Iowa’s No. 2 tight end.

Luke Lachey, redshirt freshman

Of Iowa’s top four tight ends, Lachey is the tallest and rangiest at 6-foot-6, 248 pounds. The son of Ohio State broadcaster Jim Lachey (a former all-pro offensive tackle) has an inside track to the No. 2 position in part because he’s been the healthiest.

In one of Iowa's open spring scrimmages, Lachey flashed with five receptions. One of those catches came on a key third-down call. But on the very next snap, Lachey went the wrong way on his blocking assignment and killed a running play.

“I’ve made some mistakes, at times,” Lachey said. "I also feel like I’ve made some good plays.”

Building reps and trust is ongoing. Lachey looks like a good route-runner with good hands. When Iowa’s first unit went with double tight ends in Saturday's “Kids Day at Kinnick” open practice, Lachey and LaPorta were on the field.

LaPorta’s fast growth was helped by gaining a mastery of Iowa’s offensive concepts. That’s a path Lachey is trying to emulate.

“It’s studying and fixing mistakes you see in the film room and taking it out to the field,” he said.

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Iowa's top four tight ends are Josiah Miamen (80), Elijah Yelverton (87), Luke Lachey (85) and Sam LaPorta (84). LaPorta is the unquestioned starter, the other three are vying for key time on the field this fall.

Josiah Miamen, redshirt sophomore

Miamen (6-4, 244) has the most Fant-like qualities in the Iowa tight-ends room. His issue has been staying on the field. A broken hand forced him to miss the 2020 season. An arrest from an April bar fight got him suspended for a week of spring practice. In addition to lost development time, embracing the blocking side of being an Iowa tight end has been Miamen's biggest adjustment.

"I played wide receiver in high school. … I didn’t really do much blocking," Miamen said. "That’s been my focus here."

At Kids Day, Miamen made a few eyebrow-raising catches. His athletic traits pop. Miamen said that in practices, he’ll often split out wide — as Fant used to do — to create mismatches in the passing game.

“Noah Fant ran a 4.4 (in the 40-yard dash). I don’t have that kind of speed, but ... I’m very comfortable outside,” Miamen said. “If you’re going to put me up against a linebacker, I think that’s a mismatch and I’m really going to enjoy that matchup. And if you put me up against a safety, I can use my body, use my size. That’s a mismatch as well.”

Miamen said it’s “night and day” where his game is now, compared to the stalled progression of the spring. With continued improvement, Miamen could be an interesting chess piece for Iowa's offense this fall.

More:Leistikow: A good day for Spencer Petras and other thoughts from Iowa's Kids Day scrimmage

Elijah Yelverton, redshirt sophomore

Of these four tight ends, Yelverton came to Iowa with the most recruiting acclaim. His final top five included LSU and Penn State. He even enrolled early in January of 2020, hoping to get a jump in his development.

But upon arrival, Yelverton (6-5, 248) was essentially on the sidelines for more than a year. He didn’t want to specify what the injury was, but it was something recurring that kept him out until the final week of spring practice. Finally, he’s moving well and getting all-important development time in fall camp.

“Feel great. We have a great system, great training staff,” Yelverton said. “Just glad to be back on the field.”

Yelverton seems to be running third in the three-way race to be Iowa’s No. 2 tight end but has the framework to be a classic blocking/receiving combo. Yelverton's story is just in the beginning stages at Iowa. If he's not a factor this season, he can be down the road with consistent health.

“I’m keeping my head down and grinding every day. It’s early in fall camp,” Yelverton said. “We’ve got a lot of talent in the room. There’s a lot of opportunity. We just want to be ready for Week 1.”

More:Leistikow: These Hawkeyes like each other a lot. That has to help on the field, right?

Decisions are happening soon for Iowa football

Winning the No. 2 tight end job isn't a guarantee to be dispatched for 30 to 40 snaps on game days. It could be more like 10 to 20 if Ferentz deems other personnel groups to be more useful to play-calling. It's up to Lachey, Miamen and Yelverton to prove they're worthy of Big Ten Conference snaps, starting Sept. 4 against Indiana. (Of that group, only Lachey has seen game action.)

A two-tight end set isn’t viewed much differently to a defense than a formation with one tight end and one fullback. In that sense, the No. 2 tight end is also battling with fullback Monte Pottebaum for playing time. A good No. 2 tight end also can take away snaps from a No. 3 receiver, as was the case in 2020 with Shaun Beyer playing more and Tyrone Tracy Jr. playing less.

How this shakes out is important for the 2021 Hawkeyes but also for the future, considering Iowa’s surprising recent struggles on the recruiting trail at tight end. A lot of top tight-end targets said “no” to the Hawkeyes over the summer.

That makes the growth of youngsters like Lachey, Miamen and Yelverton even more crucial to follow.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.