After emerging in shortened 2020 season, Sam LaPorta aims to be Iowa's 'next great tight end'
It’s hard to believe that Iowa’s third-year tight end, the one who will likely have an NFL Draft decision to make eight or nine months from now, is experiencing his first spring football practices at the college level.
Yet Sam LaPorta has taken full advantage of his developmental time at Iowa. That’s been evident on the field, as he was the Hawkeyes’ leader with 27 receptions in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. And it’s apparent when the small-town, southern Illinois product speaks about his 22 months on campus in Iowa City.
"The developmental program that Iowa is, it’s definitely a slow-build sort of process," LaPorta said Tuesday, in one of the more engaging Zoom sessions of the past year in Iowa football. “My freshman year I sort of look back now and (think), ‘Oh my goodness, how could I have done those things?’ Even with this past season, I look back and (realize) I’ve had that look three or four times now in spring ball. And I'm not messing that up anymore, the way that I messed that up in the season.
“Getting that experience and getting the reps is what makes the difference in the fall.”
LaPorta sounds (and looks) mature enough to handle being one of the most important factors in the Hawkeyes’ 2021 offense. With last year’s No. 2 tight end, Shaun Beyer, off to the NFL (with the potential to get drafted), the Hawkeyes are inexperienced behind LaPorta, who at age 20 in this young group qualifies as a seasoned veteran.
Freshman Luke Lachey was the second-teamer during Saturday’s open practice and made some nice catches, but as LaPorta knows from his rookie experience — it’s like “you're just kind of trying to doggy paddle and stay afloat” at that stage in development.
Given how heavily Brian Ferentz's offense leans on the tight end, LaPorta’s every-down presence is imperative. Before the spring began, the fifth-year offensive coordinator urged LaPorta to focus on gaining total command of Iowa's schemes, much like T.J. Hockenson did during his third season at Iowa in 2018. Hockenson, of course, would be drafted a few months later by the Detroit Lions as the No. 8 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Through the first 10 spring practices of his college career (after the 2020 spring was wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic), LaPorta is recognizing quality gains in Iowa's developmental system.
“Now that I've had two full years in the program. I really feel like I'm flourishing,” LaPorta said. “I feel like I understand our offense as a whole. I don't just know what route I'm running, I know the entire field now. And I know what everybody's supposed to be doing. Little details like that incorporate how fast you can play the game.”
LaPorta’s outgoing personality is reminiscent of George Kittle, and his on-field play — big catch radius, soft hands, tough to tackle — stirs memories of Hockenson. LaPorta’s size of 6-foot-4, 249 pounds is almost identical to what Kittle and Hockenson played at during their time at Iowa. Kittle has since slimmed down slightly as a megastar for the San Francisco 49ers, while Hockenson plays for the Lions at 250.
“I feel fast, I feel strong, I feel physical playing at this weight,” LaPorta said.
LaPorta embraces the idea that he could be the latest in a string of top tight ends at Iowa — Kittle, Hockenson and the Denver Broncos’ Noah Fant being the most recent examples.
“If I'm the next great tight end to come out of Iowa, that's awesome,” he said.
One area that LaPorta can improve compared to his predecessors? In touchdown catches. Fant accumulated 19 TDs — a school record at the tight end position — during his three seasons before turning pro early. LaPorta has 42 receptions for 459 yards at Iowa … but just one touchdown.
“You want to be on the cool highlight reels and see yourself scoring touchdowns and things like that,” LaPorta said. “But at the end of the day, the job of the offense is to move the ball down the field and punch it in. So, if I have 42 career catches … I think that's an impressive stat in itself.”
Unofficially, LaPorta hauled in five passes in Saturday’s open practice. One looked like it went for a long touchdown from Spencer Petras, but LaPorta was sad to report Tuesday that he was considered touched down before reaching the end zone.
Either way, he resonated again as a go-to target for Petras and the Hawkeyes. While Tyrone Tracy Jr. sped away as the day’s offensive MVP as Iowa’s No. 1 wide receiver, LaPorta is well-positioned for his own starring role this fall.
"I think it's awesome that Iowa can be quote-unquote Tight End U., and I think it’s cool to be the No. 1 tight end at the moment,” LaPorta said. “But you never know, things can change like that by the time the season rolls around. So I have to keep working hard."