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Iowa tight end T. J. Hockenson was encouraged to study a pair of NFL stars this summer. And, yes, he does hear from former Hawkeye George Kittle often Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — T.J. Hockenson was taking a nap Monday when his older brother, Andy, called with some good news.

The Iowa sophomore was named a finalist for the Mackey Award given to the top tight end in college football.

Hockenson was happy, but hardly giddy. It's hard to tell with him.

“It’s really cool to be seen as that,” said Hockenson, the Chariton native who leads Iowa with 41 catches for 663 yards.

The other finalists are Missouri's Albert Okwuegbunam and Kaden Smith of Stanford. The winner will be announced Dec. 5.

Hawkeye junior Noah Fant had been one of eight semifinalists for the award.

The two tight ends stood 20 feet apart in the Iowa football complex Tuesday, talking to reporters ahead of Iowa’s regular-season finale against Nebraska (4-7, 3-5 Big Ten Conference) at 11 a.m. Friday on Fox. The Hawkeyes are 7-4 overall, 4-4 in conference play and looking for a fourth consecutive win over the Cornhuskers.

Fant and Hockenson could be making their final appearances at Kinnick Stadium. The NFL is a viable option for each.

“That’s something that you’ve got to think about at the end of the year. Obviously, I know the decision that needs to be made,” Hockenson said, echoing words spoken by Fant after Saturday’s victory in Illinois.

“I’m projected to have two years (left at Iowa), so that’s the plan.”

Fant has caught 38 passes for 507 yards with seven touchdowns. Hockenson has caught six scoring passes and run for another on a fake field goal. That’s 14 of Iowa’s 39 offensive touchdowns. That’s remarkable.

It’s a unique challenge for a college defense, and Nebraska coach Scott Frost certainly isn’t sleeping well thinking about it.

“You have to look out for a lot of people’s quarterbacks, running backs and receivers. But there’s not too many teams you face where you’re game-planning for and having to worry so much about tight ends,” Frost said of Iowa. “The two guys they’ve got are as good as I’ve seen.”

Fant is a Nebraska native and widely considered a potential first-round NFL Draft pick. He caught 11 touchdown passes a year ago and entered this season with a much higher profile than Hockenson.

Hockenson gets more playing time at Iowa. He’s seen as the better blocker. His receiving skills have opened a lot of eyes this season.

“I feel like I’m a totally different type of player. He does his thing. I do my thing. I’m happy for his successes as he’s happy for my successes,” Fant said of Hockenson.

“We have two different jobs in the offense.”

Hockenson spent the offseason studying NFL tight ends Travis Kelce and Rob Gronkowski. That work was at the urging of offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz.

Fant and Hockenson also met with former Hawkeye and NFL star tight end Dallas Clark. They continue to pick his brain frequently — about the gameplan for the week, how to get better releases off the line of scrimmage, different drills to use to improve their skills.

It’s all paying off for the Iowa offense.

“We’re just trying to get mismatches. Noah and I do that well,” Hockenson said.

Hockenson repeatedly downplayed any comparisons between him and the best tight ends in the NFL. He even demurred when it was pointed out that he is a star player.

“I don’t know about that,” Hockenson said.

He later added: “You’re not going to see me flying high too much.”

Being designated one of the three best tight ends in the country naturally makes him a star. It’s a notion Hockenson is going to need to learn to accept.

“You like to think so,” he said when asked if he considers himself a top-three player at his position. “I think if you asked any player, they’d want to think that they’re the best in the country.”

Two years ago, Hockenson was redshirting. Last year, he was primarily blocking, although he did catch 24 passes.

And now this.

Hockenson said he couldn’t have envisioned a Mackey Award when he arrived in Iowa City.

 “That wasn’t the goal. Three years ago, I was just trying to get on the field. Goals change every year,” Hockenson said.

“You can’t take a snap off. I think that’s something that I’ve really come to buy into. The play’s going to come either way, and whether you’re getting the ball or not, it’s still on film.”

What’s on film is Hockenson frequently making grown-man catches in traffic. He has started to hurdle defenders rather than be tackled in the open field, something Brian Ferentz pointed out to him after he was wrapped up around the knees in the Week 2 win over Iowa State.

Still, don’t ask Hockenson about his NFL role models.

“I’m nowhere near those guys. I’m not even close,” he said.

He’s closer than he thinks. The awards and the film don’t lie.

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