Hockenson showing star power of his own as Hawkeye tight end

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — T.J. Hockenson’s assignments on the Iowa football team include run-blocking, pass-catching and even a little light nagging when it’s required.

All three were on display last week.

While Hockenson prepared to tangle with Indiana's defense, he also found time to check in with the Hawkeyes’ other star tight end, Noah Fant. Fant was being treated for a possible concussion, and it was uncertain whether he’d be able to join Hockenson in hounding the Hoosiers.

“I was trying to text him all week, making sure he was going to be back, making sure he was taking a nap and making sure he was getting out of the light,” Hockenson said Tuesday.

Iowa Hawkeyes tight end T.J. Hockenson (38) catches a pass in the end zone for a touchdown against Indiana Hoosiers linebacker Dameon Willis Jr. (43) during the first quarter at Memorial Stadium.

You probably noticed that Fant did make it back to play 23 snaps in Iowa’s 42-16 victory. Indiana sure noticed him. He had four catches for 102 yards and a touchdown.

Hockenson was just a tad better, with 107 yards and a pair of scores to show for his four receptions.

“You’ve got to be (tough) to be a tight end here — you can’t be a soft guy coming in and playing tight end,” Hockenson noted with approval.

“There are none in our room.”

Fant leads the No. 22 Hawkeyes (5-1, 2-1 Big Ten Conference) with six touchdowns. Hockenson paces the team with 394 receiving yards.

Fant gets much of the national acclaim, consistently projected as a first-round NFL draft pick if he leaves after his junior season. That’s fine with Hockenson, who is quietly flashing an NFL skill-set of his own as a redshirt sophomore.

“I don’t need the credit,” Hockenson said. “There’s no reason for it. I just need to help the team. When my number’s called, be able to make the play.”

Not that he isn’t thinking of a pro career.

“The bar rises, especially as you go. From high school to here, there’s no comparison,” Hockenson said. “And from here to the next level, there’s going to be no comparison.”

Hockenson has 22 catches, averaging 17.9 yards on each. He also has a 4-yard rushing score off of a fake field goal. His four touchdowns have come in the past two games, with Maryland (4-2, 2-1) on deck at 11 a.m. Saturday at Kinnick Stadium (ESPN2).

Hockenson is just as proud of his blocking — and even had one pancake block on Indiana’s Michael Ziemba that went viral over the weekend. It was a sign of the power Hockenson packs into his 250-pound frame. He later had a 54-yard touchdown catch and run that showed off his deceptive speed.

Hockenson downplayed both.

“I thought (Ziemba) tripped on somebody. I knew I went to the ground. I didn’t really know what happened. I didn’t think anybody would notice,” Hockenson said.

“We watched the play and it was all fundamentals. It was no Herculean effort, anyway.”

Hockenson was more excited that a Hawkeye running game that has sputtered at times was able to produce 159 yards against Indiana.

“Blocking is equally as significant as a catch — it’s just a different guy is running the ball,” he said. “All 11 guys have to do something on the field. And if all 11 guys are doing the right thing, we’re going to have an explosive play.”

Fant is the more explosive athlete of the two, drawing national attention for his 42-inch vertical jump. Hockenson said his vertical measures at 39 inches. That’s not shabby, either.

What’s clear is that Iowa has a pair of once-in-a-generation athletes playing the same position at the same time — it’s just that Hockenson arrived with much less fanfare. He was lightly recruited out of Chariton High School. He spent his first year on campus redshirting while adding weight to his 220 pounds.

Hockenson played extensively last season, finishing with 24 catches for 320 yards and three touchdowns. Still, Hockenson said, “I was awful last year.”

He’s on pace to double his output from a season ago because of his expanded understanding of Iowa’s offense, Hockenson said. That means knowing what every player’s assignment is on every play.

Hockenson relishes the times when he’s been on the field at the same time as Fant. They are an unparalleled duo in Hawkeye history. Neither plays the sidekick role. It’s difficult to imagine either having the same success without the other drawing the attention of defenses.

“I love that dude. He helps me. I help him. I think we mesh well,” Hockenson said of Fant, who was unavailable to speak to reporters Tuesday because he had to make up a test he missed last week. “You’ll see us at the line talking every once in a while, making sure that he knows where to go, I know where to go. We see the same thing and figure out the coverages.

“It gives the defense something to think about. You can spread the ball out. They can’t double-cover everybody.”