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SportsPulse: Kyler Murray's height has been the talk of the combine. Our NFL insiders debate how Murray stacks up and if he's worth a top pick in April. USA TODAY

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INDIANAPOLIS — When George Kittle caught 88 passes on 136 targets for 1,377 yards and five touchdowns in just his second NFL season for the San Francisco 49ers in 2018, it brought renewed attention to an Iowa program that’s been renowned for developing tight ends since the days of Dallas Clark.

But there’s never been this much of a buzz around the ability of Kirk Ferentz and his staff to mold players at the position as there is in the run-up to the 2019 draft.

That’s because two Iowa tight ends, T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, could very well go in the first round of the upcoming draft. It’s rare enough for multiple tight ends to be selected in the first round, but for two from the same school? That’s a fascinating story.

Hockenson is generally the higher-rated tight end among analysts because of his blocking ability, but any NFL team looking for an elite pass-catcher will have to turn Fant’s way.

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He caught 78 passes for 1,083 yards and 19 touchdowns over three seasons in a program that wasn’t exactly known for its high-volume passing game, so there is a bit of projection involved, but even a cursory look at Fant’s tape tells you that the 6’4”, 249-pound Hawkeye has the look of a modern NFL tight end. He’s smooth in and out of his breaks, presents a matchup nightmare for defenders regardless of position, and has a particularly impressive knack of getting open in the red zone.

There was the matter of Fant’s frustration with not getting the ball more in 2018, which he addressed from the podium at the scouting combine on Friday.

“I grew as a man more than anything,” Fant said. “It was definitely frustration, and I had a lot of talks with the coaches. But I took every opportunity I was given, and I felt like I did that, I felt that I was still able to produce in those scenarios, and it went really well. Obviously, there’s no hard feelings — football’s a competitive game, and I wouldn’t take it back for anything.”

The obvious overall positive Fant got out of his time in Iowa was, of course, a Master’s degree in the tight end position, and I asked him why Ferentz and his staff have been able to develop players at the position at such a consistent level.

“They’re so good with tight ends because they develop them,” he said. “It’s not a program where you just run routes or just catch balls. You have to do both. You have to put your hand in the dirt, you have to split out [wide], and I pride myself on that. Where I fit into the offense is that I was able to be out wide, split out as an isolated receiver. They definitely develop their guys.”

This mirrored the thoughts of 49ers general manager John Lynch, who clearly got the golden ticket when he selected Kittle in the fifth round of the 2017 draft.

“The thing that we like and a lot of NFL teams like is that they do a lot of things that they’re going to be asked to do at the next level,” Lynch said earlier in the week about the pro-style tight ends coming out of the Iowa program. “George caught balls, but he also was an in-line blocker, and they were running from traditional formations. A lot of times you’re trying to project. With Iowa, you see the guys do, and Kirk has an NFL background, so they put them in a lot of situations that we see our guys in. They demand a lot out of their players. I think they have the type of guys that their profile, their vision statement for what an Iowa football player is all about. We’ve found, particularly at that position, they’re doing something right.”

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Clearly that’s the case, and Fant is about to benefit from that background at the next level. Interestingly enough, one of the teams he’s met with in Indianapolis is the New England Patriots, who have loved to feature exactly the kinds of athletic, multi-positional tight ends Fant has turned out to be.

Perhaps he’ll join Brady, Gronk, and Belichick at the next level, but wherever he goes, one thing’s for sure — Noah Fant is a big, productive part of an Iowa legacy with deep roots and an exciting future.

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