With inexperienced TEs around him, Iowa's Sam LaPorta will be vital to Hawkeye offense

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa tight end Sam LaPorta has proven to be a reliable target over the past two seasons. After starting only two games in 2019, he emerged as a full-time starter last year. He led the team in catches (27) and was second in receiving yards yards (271).

With 20 career games and seven starts under his belt, LaPorta is a veteran on offense. His experience will be counted on heavily this year with several young, inexperienced tight ends behind him on the depth chart. 

In year three of Brian Ferentz's offense, LaPorta is more comfortable than ever in his role. He believes he can make an impact regardless of the game situation. 

"I think I see myself as a really versatile guy," LaPorta said. "I've been telling people that I can have a great game whether I have no catches or 10 catches. 

"Running is a huge part of our offense; we like to pound the rock. I think I've progressed as a blocker and a pass-catcher. I've gotten a lot of reps in spring ball and seen a lot of game action, so that's helping me." 

LaPorta's pass-catching abilities are not in question. The goal in 2021 is emerging as that all-around tight end that Iowa's grown accustomed to over head coach Kirk Ferentz's tenure. So far this offseason, LaPorta has stepped up as a leader and showcased the ability to impact the game in multiple ways. 

"He's definitely an all-around tight end," quarterback Spencer Petras said. "He knows how to block. He's extremely physical and really tough. I also think he's really good at running routes and, if he catches the ball, can make plays after the catch."

More:After emerging in shortened 2020 season, Sam LaPorta aims to be Iowa's 'next great tight end'

Spring practice was especially important to LaPorta, one of many players who hadn't yet experienced one. He was a summer enrollee in 2019, and then COVID-19 canceled 2020 spring ball. 

The extra preparation couldn't have come at a better time. Unlike past years, LaPorta is the only tight end on Iowa's roster with notable in-game experience. Given how much the Hawkeyes lean on their tight ends, his presence in every-down situations is needed more than ever. 

A full spring practice also allowed LaPorta to further his connection with presumed starting quarterback Spencer Petras. The trust is there dating back to last season, and Petras is looking forward to LaPorta becoming more valuable to the offensive scheme.

"Tight ends are featured in a lot of our plays," Petras said. "Having a guy that I know I can trust that physically and mentally is really good — physically, how he runs routes and how he catches the ball and mentally, how he understands what I'm thinking and how to beat coverages and defenders ... it's really important." 

Watch:Sam LaPorta's engaging Zoom interview about Iowa spring football practice, 'Tight End U.'

Iowa tight end Sam LaPorta speaks to reporters during a Hawkeyes football summer media availability, Wednesday, July 14, 2021, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

There's an expectation for the tight end position at Iowa. In recent years, names like Noah Fant, T.J. Hockenson and George Kittle became household because of their play. LaPorta hopes to follow in their footsteps as the next great tight end. 

Each tight end that came before him left a mark in their own way. LaPorta, who stands at 6-foot-4 and about 250 pounds, may not be exactly the same in play style. But he is embracing the pressure and is excited to put his own spin on the position. 

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"I don't know if I'm better or worse at something than a player who came before me," LaPorta said. "I'm sure there were more athletic guys or bigger or stronger. I'd like to say I'm a combination of all of them but I don't know if I'm selling myself short or putting that way over my head. 

"I think it's kind of a responsibility, but I also think it's really cool and kind of a chip on my shoulder to use to drive me and push me to be a better tight end." 

Kennington Smith is the new Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at ksmith@gannett.com