Iowa football's young tight ends' play vs. Minnesota inspires confidence now and for the future
One play after linebacker Jack Campbell's game-shifting interception set up Iowa for the go-ahead score over Minnesota last Saturday, the Hawkeye offense got a big play from its most consistent position group: tight end.
Sophomore Luke Lachey and quarterback Spencer Petras connected for a 33-yard pass that put the ball on Minnesota's 12-yard line. A few plays later, the game-winning field goal went through the uprights.
Usually senior Sam LaPorta would be in Lachey's place on that play, but LaPorta left the game in the first quarter after a leg injury. Prior to leaving, he had four catches for 95 yards in just half a quarter. But in his absence, Lachey responded with a career day: five catches for 77 yards including the key, late-game reception.
Sam LaPorta's injury changes the field for the Hawkeyes
"Sam's out, everyone's got to do a little more," Lachey said of the offense's mood after LaPorta's injury. "He's an amazing player and helped out all of us all year long and ever since I've been (at Iowa). He's been a good role model for me so I just tried to take after him and he helped me even on the sideline after he was out. So I think everyone just wanted to step up and make big plays."
Head coach Kirk Ferentz didn't have many details Saturday of LaPorta's status moving forward. Monday's depth chart didn't have LaPorta listed, indicating that he won't play Friday against Nebraska on a short week; the teams play Friday at 3 p.m. (Big Ten Network). It's undeniably a huge loss; the senior is an All-Big Ten candidate with 53 receptions for 601 yards. The silver lining for Iowa's offense is that Lachey and true freshman Addison Ostrenga's performance give some confidence that the tight ends room can still produce.
"We all knew what kind of player Luke was," Petras said. "It's just obviously Sam is going to get the majority of the reps if we're with one-tight end sets, but obviously Luke didn't flinch. He stepped up, made a lot of really nice plays. Addison stepped up, too, when we wanted to get into our two-tight end stuff and made some nice plays as well. That was that was really cool to see."
Lachey's performance against Minnesota moved him to the third-leading pass catcher on the team with 18 receptions for 273 yards and two touchdowns. His rise through the program hasn't been surprising if you ask coaches or his teammates. Last season he was a rotational player, appearing in seven games, but has become a consistent piece this season largely due to his improved run blocking that's made him an every-down tight end.
"He's getting better at a really fast pace," tight ends coach Abdul Hodge said of Lachey in October. "He doesn't flinch whether he makes a bad play or a good play. He wants to get better. Obviously he was raised well with his dad (Ohio State football legend Jim Lachey) and his mom and his family. He's improving in a run game, he's improving in the pass game and his best ball is ahead of him. I really look forward to him continuously developing and getting better."
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Addison Ostrenga played a significant role against Minnesota
Ostrenga is a more surprising development. Last spring, when Iowa signed transfer Steve Stilianos from FCS program Lafayette because of his experience and accolades (two-time All-Patriot League selection), it was assumed that he'd assume the No. 3 tight end duties this season. But Ostrenga (who was originally an Iowa baseball commit) quickly ascended after he got to Iowa City in June.
Hodge noted that he arrived on campus both physically mature (listed at 6-foot-4 and 234 pounds) and mentally mature, a rare combination for a freshman. He's been traveling with the team for several weeks and playing on special teams, then played significant offensive snaps for the first time against Minnesota. He recorded one catch for five yards but did enough in run blocking to allow Iowa to continue running consistent two-tight end sets. With what was at stake in that game, Ferentz came away impressed with how he handled the moment.
"You never know until you get into a tough Big Ten football game in November," Ferentz said. "He went out there and really performed like he's been doing and like he's done in practice ... everything he's done since (fall camp) has just been really positive, kind of like (freshman running back Kaleb Johnson), like this guy really gets it. The tempo doesn't seem to affect them and we've been seeing him but you still anxious when he goes into big-time, conference play in tough circumstances. He did a great job."
Hawkeyes' first-year tight ends coach shows promise
Lachey and Ostrenga's development is also a testament to Hodge, the first-year tight ends coach. He played linebacker at Iowa and up until this year his college coaching experience came on defense. Ferentz credited Hodge postgame for his work ethic and in some ways using his defensive expertise to help the tight ends get an edge. This year's tight ends room entered the season with established commodities in LaPorta and Lachey, incoming true freshmen and a transfer. The group has performed well and did so again in the season's biggest game.
"Even better than I thought, and I had high expectations," Ferentz said. "First of all, he's just a quality human being and secondly he's a coach. Like he's really serious about this, he's invested and works hard ... Abdul is just a guy who wants to learn, has great relationships with his players, and he's respected. It looks like they're having fun together."
With LaPorta's status doubtful, Saturday's performance needs to be replicated by the young tight ends , but it was also a glimpse into next year. In both cases, it served as proof that the room is progressing well.
"It was a great confidence booster," Lachey said. "Everyone needed to step up and I felt like I did. So just moving forward I want to try and continue that."