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Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson is a red-shirt sophomore who was recently named the Mackey Award winner. The Hawkeyes beat Mississippi State, 27-22. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

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The decision became an agonizing one for T.J. Hockenson. But after two terrific seasons at Iowa, the second capped by winning college football’s highest honor for tight ends, Hockenson is heading to the NFL.

The Mackey Award winner announced his decision Monday via social media.

"My dream has always been to play in the NFL," he wrote, "and I believe now is the right time."

It seemed like the NFL writing was on the wall for a while for Hockenson, whose name has appeared in the late first round of many early mock NFL drafts for 2019. But he still waited until Monday's deadline for draft-eligible underclassmen to announce his intentions, a sign that this was hardly a slam-dunk personal decision.

Hockenson loved being a Hawkeye, and the thought of playing another year with quarterback Nate Stanley (who announced he would return for his senior season) and chasing a Big Ten Conference title together had to be enticing.

Curt Smyser, Hockenson's coach at Chariton High School, texted his former player Monday morning after the decision circulated. He shared how Hockenson wrestled with what to do.

“He loves the coaches. He loves everything about college football. ... It was tough on him," Smyser said. "It’s a business decision now, and he made it. It does (stink) for Iowa and T.J. I think it’s really good for T.J. It’ll be fun to watch him on Sundays, because I think the same type of things are going to happen.”

In comments he made in early December, Hockenson pointed to the idea of pushing himself as a competitor, perhaps an indicator that he was intrigued to see how he would measure up against the best football players in the world.

Now he'll have his chance.

“I have two more years of eligibility but at the same time, money’s not an issue,” Hockenson said on Dec. 2. “It’s not something I’m chasing. It’s just more the talent level (of the NFL) and trying to push yourself to the limits. I think that’s what any competitor would tell you to do, is see what you can do as a player.”

His departure means that the Hawkeyes are down both first-team all-Big Ten tight ends off the 2018 team that finished 9-4. Third-year junior Noah Fant made his NFL decision shortly after Iowa’s regular season ended, and now Hockenson, who became the youngest winner of the Mackey as a redshirt sophomore, is joining him.

WHAT'S NEXT?5 questions for Iowa football entering 2019 after early departures

Hockenson had 49 catches for 760 yards this fall, becoming the first tight end to lead Iowa in receiving yards since Alan Cross in 1992. But Hockenson was equally impressive as a blocker. Despite being a wide receiver at Chariton High School, where he was never asked to block, Hockenson built himself into a rugged 6-foot-5, 250-pound every-down tight end at Iowa — even as a red-shirt freshman, following the footsteps of predecessor George Kittle.

Coaches relied on Hockenson in the run game as much as the pass game, and his departure (especially in conjunction with Fant’s) leaves a gaping hole in the 2019 Hawkeyes' roster.

His decision finally ends the bleeding of the Hawkeyes' NFL Draft early entries at a record four. Fant, defensive back Amani Hooker and defensive end Anthony Nelson already had announced they're turning pro. Those four plus James Daniels and Josh Jackson last year makes six Hawkeye early entries over the past two years — a significant roster blow for a developmental program.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz had previously commented on Fant's departure, but he hadn't made a statement until Monday about the other three.

“Amani, Anthony and T.J. have been outstanding members of our team, on the field and as leaders within the program,” Ferentz said. "While we are disappointed to see them leave, we recognize this is an important decision, and we wish them the very best as they pursue the draft."

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