Dissecting Sam LaPorta's growth and how vital the Iowa tight end will be vs. Penn State

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — If you ask Sam LaPorta to contextualize his progression from another name on the roster to noteworthy name in the box score, Iowa's top tight end points to what unfolds right before the clutch catches are made.

"Whenever I see a look on film and then it shows up in practice — and then it shows up in the game — I just have one of those 'aha!' moments," LaPorta said this week. "I'm just like 'Oh my gosh, imagine if I didn't see that. Another outcome would've happened. Something bad would've happened.'

"Sometimes that pops into my head. I feel like I prepare a lot better than before, and I feel really good about how I prepare. When it shows up, I'm like, 'Yep, I've seen that before.' So I feel confident."

Turning heads as an Iowa tight end requires more effort than at most places, given who has come before. But LaPorta is doing precisely that in his second season seeing meaningful action, having ignited a Hawkeyes passing attack many deemed the weakest link on a team chugging toward elite status. If No. 3 Iowa (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten Conference) has needed a timely grab, it's usually been LaPorta snagging it. 

Entering Saturday's 3 p.m. showdown against No. 4 Penn State (5-0, 2-0), LaPorta tops the Hawkeyes in receptions (22) and receiving yards (263) by a substantial margin. No Iowa tight end has finished the season leading those two categories since Alan Cross in 1992 — a fact that pops on its own, but one that further accentuates LaPorta's value to this burgeoning Iowa offense. 

"From the day he walked in here, he's really been fun to coach," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "You visit with him, you just feel it, right? He likes life. He likes people. He's the same way as a football player. When he's on the practice field, in the weight room or just around the building, he's upbeat, really enjoys his teammates, enjoys the game, likes the competition."

MORE: Leistikow's Iowa vs. Penn State prediction: Will the offense do its part?

Additional reflection reveals more maturity, given the circumstances of this week. The last time a top-10 Penn State trekked into Kinnick Stadium — which also happened to be the sixth game of the season on October's second weekend — LaPorta was still a wide-eyed freshman soaking everything up in 2019. 

He barely cracked the participation report that evening, which finished as a crushing 17-12 Iowa loss, yet LaPorta still remembers getting sucked much deeper into the emotional build-up than he is this week.   

"This game two years ago in 2019, we had the alternate uniforms on and stuff," LaPorta recalled. "I didn't play as big of a role back then early in the season, but of course, I still felt going into the game like, 'Wow, this is a crazy opportunity we're about to walk into.' Now, I just have the confidence we're going to go out there and execute. 

Iowa tight end Sam LaPorta (84) looks up after running into the end zone for a touchdown during a NCAA non-conference football game against Colorado State, Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

"I feel like my confidence has always been there, and that's a testament to my hard work and my teammates lining up next to me. We have great confidence going out there on every single play."   

Iowa will need plenty of that confidence Saturday against a menacing Penn State defense that's almost as fierce as the one LaPorta faces each day in practice. No team has gotten past 20 points on the Nittany Lions. Three Power Five foes have combined for three touchdowns in 12 quarters. 

But if there's one detectable flaw in Penn State's defensive prowess, it's allowing tight ends to squirm loose for substantial showings. The Nittany Lions have surrendered 31 receptions and a 9.7 yards-per-catch average to opposing tight ends, with several standout performances.

Wisconsin's Jake Ferguson (nine catches, 52 yards), Ball State's Dylan Koch (two catches, 31 yards), Auburn's John Samuel Shenker (five catches, 62 yards), Villanova's Todd Summers (five catches, 45 yards) and Indiana's Peyton Hendershot (six catches, 95 yards) all found some room to work against Penn State. In those games, the last four names listed each had a reception of at least 23 yards. 

MORE: FOX's Big Noon Kickoff is coming to Iowa City. Here's what that entails.

Iowa Hawkeyes tight end Sam LaPorta (84) runs after a catch against the Maryland Terrapins during an NCAA college football game, Friday, Oct. 1, 2021, at Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium in College Park, Maryland.

Currently, only five tight ends nationally have more catches than LaPorta. He's as good a candidate as any to dig Iowa out of potential offensive futility that happens Saturday.    

"The smart defensive coaches I've been around, including in the NFL, if the other team had a good tight end, it seemed to really bother them — throw them out of kilter, out of whack," Ferentz said. "There's something about that if you have them in your arsenal. If you have a couple of them, it's even better. I think it just puts a little more pressure on a defensive team than not having one."

Iowa has certainly had plenty as the unofficial "Tight End U" of college football. George Kittle, Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson hold down the current NFL scene, while former greats like Dallas Clark, Brandon Myers, Scott Chandler, CJ Fiedorowicz and Marv Cook resurface ample memories each time their names are mentioned. It's an impressive pedigree LaPorta and any tight end who comes through Iowa City tries to join. 

LaPorta isn't at that level yet. But he's showcasing his importance to this Iowa unit more and more each week.  

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.