Tight end takeover: Hawkeyes turn to tall, athletic position to power 2017 offense
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa’s tight ends insist they turn serious once they put pads on.
Saturday’s annual media day was more like a break in their daily position group meetings.
There were laughs and huddles and teasing when the tall horde wasn’t dispersed for interviews, but the essential unit for Iowa’s 2017 offense is ready to be heavily used and featured on the field this fall.
“I think our meeting room is the best room,” starter Noah Fant said with a laugh. “That’s just my opinion. We’ve got guys that love to joke around with each other, like to have fun. Obviously, the competition level is high with the scenario that we’re in, but guys know when it’s time to get going and when it’s OK to mess around.
"We’re a tight-knit group.”
Fant is a 6-foot-5, 232-pound true sophomore and the only tight end to catch more than one pass for the Hawkeyes last season. The focal point of a young and absurdly deep position — Iowa has more tight ends on scholarship than receivers — highlights how the Hawkeyes intend to play under new offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz.
The versatile and sizable athletes are expected to be integral blockers in the run game and capable receivers in the pass game, and tight ends coach LeVar Woods thinks his unit possesses the ability to live up to the hype.
“For years and years and years with this program, tight ends have played a big part,” Woods said. “It’s fun to be involved with these guys every day, and they work hard every day.
“It’s a very rare situation where you have all these guys who can contribute.”
As college football trends towards spread offenses and consistent four- and five-wide sets, listed next to Fant as Iowa’s second tight end starter is redshirt freshman T.J. Hockenson, a record-breaking high school player at Chariton. Hockenson and Fant respect each other’s skills while still nodding to the upperclassmen they have jumped in the summer ranks.
“Coach Brian (Ferentz) has done a great job specifically pointing out the tight ends and our opportunity in this offense and showing us what we can do,” Hockenson said. “There are a lot of guys out here that can do a lot.”
Hockenson took his lumps while learning to block at an appropriate level. Training with strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle helped, along with building 20 extra pounds of muscle. And now the 6-5, 243-pound athlete is expected to start in Week 1 without previously playing a single collegiate snap.
“My freshman year, I got hit around a few times,” Hockenson said. “Even the first day, I wasn’t sure I could do this, honestly. But I’ve come a long way from then.”
With Ferentz expected to trot out formations featuring multiple tight ends lining up in various spots on the field, and given Iowa’s dearth of experience at wide receiver, a pass-catching option like Hockenson has risen in the lineup. He entered August above seniors Peter Pekar (eight starts), Nate Wieting (three starts) and Jon Wisnieski on the depth chart.
Woods still thinks that senior trio will have a major part to play this season.
“Watching (Hockenson) in high school, he was certainly a good receiver,” Woods said. “I asked him to come to camp to show us that he could block. He came, and he was awesome. He’s still far from his potential, which makes coaching him, and all the other guys in the room, extremely fun.”
Joining the clique have been former in-state stars Shaun Beyer and Drew Cook, who played receiver and quarterback in 2016, respectively. Jacob Coons and Tommy Kujawa arrived as freshman recruits. Nate Vejvoda saw limited snaps as a redshirt freshman last season.
Woods wouldn’t rule any of them out as contributors. Iowa’s offense needs all the stability and skill it can get, and the tight end position appears to be loaded with it.
“Even though the offense is changing, we bring the same approach,” Fant said. “Whatever Coach calls, that’s what we’re going to run to the best of our ability. We all love what’s going on, we love the offense. We’re looking forward to good things.
“We have a lot of guys in a lot of different places. It’s great stuff.”