Inside T.J. Hockenson's quick rise to every-down tight end for the Iowa Hawkeyes

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — T.J. Hockenson is growing into his dual roles on the Iowa offense — as blocker and playmaker.

The redshirt freshman from Chariton is as surprised as anyone to find himself as an every-down tight end, taking the most snaps at a crowded position for the Hawkeyes, in his first year as a college player. That makes Hockenson perhaps the brightest spot on a struggling Iowa offense.

“I’m just happy I’m in the position I am. Coaches believe in me,” Hockenson said Tuesday, after leading Iowa with 46 receiving yards in Saturday’s 17-10 loss at Michigan State.

“I don’t know what they saw in me in the spring and summer, but they saw something.”

Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson celebrates his touchdown during the Hawkeyes' game against North Texas at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017.

What they saw was a player whose hard work matches his physical gifts. Hockenson arrived on campus a year ago after a four-year high school career that saw him amass a mind-boggling 238 catches for 3,460 yards and 49 touchdowns. He was a tight end in name, but stretched the definition of that term at Chariton, splitting out wide more often than being called on to be a traditional blocker.

So blocking is what Hockenson had to tackle first at Iowa, where tight ends are asked to do a lot of it. That meant adding weight to his 6-foot-5 frame, which is up to 243 pounds now. And that meant sitting out a year, playing on the scout team and picking the brain of senior tight end George Kittle all the while.

Fellow freshman Noah Fant, also a rare talent at 6-5, 232 pounds, became Kittle’s primary backup, catching nine passes and scoring one touchdown. That seemed to make him the heir apparent heading into 2017, with reliable senior Peter Pekar providing the blocking part of the tight end equation.

Hockenson was quietly inserting himself into the conversation.

“We started to notice him on the scout team last year,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “He did some really good things, made some good grabs and catches. He's got a good attitude, good enthusiasm.”

By the summer, Hockenson was listed as a starter alongside Fant, a dual-tight end look that forced defenses to account for both in the passing game. Hockenson has started four of five games, a testament to how much he embraced being a blocker. He said last year, he was outmuscled by his Hawkeye defensive teammates, and also struggled to get open in passing routes. He worked to rectify both problems in the offseason.

“When I’m blocking, I try to think of myself as a lineman and be part of that unit. We’re all working together,” Hockenson said. “So when a run play’s called, I’m trying to talk to the linemen and see what they’re doing and then be on the same page with them.”

Hawkeye tight ends T.J. Hockenson (38) and Noah Fant (87) pose for a portrait Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017, during Iowa football media day in Iowa City.

Hockenson made his first two catches in a Week 2 victory at Iowa State. He grabbed his first touchdown — on a fluky tipped pass that happened to flutter his way in the end zone — the following week in a win over North Texas.

By Saturday, Hockenson’s role in the passing game had expanded noticeably. He caught an 11-yarder from Nate Stanley that gave Iowa its initial first down. He plucked a third-quarter pass off his back hip for a 22-yard gain. His 13-yard grab in the fourth quarter gave the Hawkeyes their final first down and led to a 43-yard Miguel Recinos field goal.

There wasn’t much to like about Iowa’s performance, but consider this: Hockenson’s 46 receiving yards ended up being 20 percent of the total offensive output. The skinny pass-catching phenom who arrived a year ago is starting to arrive in a whole new way.

And it started with his willingness to become a blocker.

“Just a super hard worker. He comes to practice every day to work,” Stanley said of Hockenson. “Obviously, he’s got great hands. He’s made some big catches this year and he’s going to do what you ask him to do.”

Hockenson’s maturation can be important for Iowa (3-2, 0-2 Big Ten Conference) as it looks to end a two-game losing streak Saturday against Illinois (2-2, 0-1). He and Fant have supplanted the team’s other six tight ends. In doing so, they’ve eliminated any “tells” in Iowa’s play-calling. Opponents can’t assume a run or pass merely by who’s lined up at tight end, which would be the case if Hockenson hadn’t shown an ability to do both.

In that sense, he’s starting to resemble Kittle, now with the San Francisco 49ers.

“I constantly go back and remember what he told me last year and still what he tells me recently,” Hockenson said of his relationship with Kittle.

“Anyone that came through here, they’re not going to steer you wrong. So you take their point and put it in your pocket and make sure you go back to it.”

Hockenson has caught eight passes for 116 yards. One was the odd touchdown catch, but the other seven have all picked up first downs. You can sense he’s becoming a bigger option in an offense that needs all of those it can get.

For Hockenson, it’s the receiving part of his job that has always come easiest. He has a simple philosophy.

“The quarterback puts the ball wherever it needs to be and it’s my job to make the play,” he said. “He does a great job knowing where the defender is and where the ball needs to be. I put full trust in him and I just try to do my job and catch the ball.”

So far, so good.