IOWA CITY, Iowa — Tight ends at Iowa tend to stay on the field, prosper and play in the NFL.
It’s a premium position for the Hawkeyes, and their depth chart reflects it. Two position changes plus incoming recruit Jacob Coons gives the team 8 scholarship tight ends for the coming fall. Each player has diverse skill sets, ranging from blocker types to pass catchers. But that’s plenty of scholarship capital to spend at 1 position — probably a bit much — which is something offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz acknowledges.
“If we had 8 guys but we didn’t feel good about them, I think it would be concerning,” Ferentz said. “But right now we have 8 guys that we feel pretty good about it.”
The number sounds high but it’s reasonable when you peel back the layers. Former QB Drew Cook — son of former Iowa All-American and NFL Pro Bowl TE Marv Cook — shifted to tight end last week. Drew Cook, who stands 6 feet 5 and weighs 235 pounds, was 1 of the most accomplished high school football players in state history as a quarterback at Iowa City Regina. Playing for his father, Cook guided the Regals to 4 straight Class 1A state titles and was the MVP of the championship games as a junior and senior. He also was an all-state basketball player.
Cook gave quarterback a shot for 2 falls and most of 2 springs. But midway through this spring, head coach Kirk Ferentz described the quarterback race as 2-tiered, and Cook was in the second group. Four practices ago, Cook moved to tight end and has already made strides.
Brian Ferentz said Cook’s basketball pedigree showed he was capable of making the transition to tight end.
“We liked him as an athlete certainly as a football player and certainly as a quarterback,” Brian Ferentz said. “But seeing him move around — you get to see him move plenty in high school — and all those things, with that size, and that frame, that’s always something you’re keeping in the back of your mind for anyone you recruit at any position.”
“When we started looking at Drew, that was 1 thought we had,” Kirk Ferentz said of shifting Cook to tight end. “If he isn’t a quarterback, he could potentially play another position.”
But Cook’s not the only tight end checking different boxes during the spring. Senior Peter Pekar, who started 8 games last season as Iowa’s second tight end, earned a scholarship. Redshirt freshman Shaun Beyer from nearby Cedar Rapids Kennedy played wide receiver last fall before transitioning to tight end — a move that makes sense given his 6-5, 222-pound frame.
Iowa will need a couple of pass-catching tight ends to emerge this season. Sophomore Noah Fant, who stands 6-5 and gained 12 pounds this offseason to tip the scales at 232, will have the best shot. He caught 9 passes for 70 yards and a touchdown last season. Next on the list could be redshirt freshman T.J. Hockenson, who added 13 pounds (243) to his 6-5 frame. Hockenson snagged 87 balls for 1,219 yards and 17 touchdowns at Chariton (Iowa) High School in 2015.
There’s also oft-injured senior Jon Wisnieski (6-5, 250), sophomore Nate Vejvoda (6-5, 245) and sophomore walk-on Nate Wieting (6-4, 250), who started 3 games last year. It’s a competitive group.
“Tight ends are a good thing, and we feel like we have good guys at the position,” Brian Ferentz said.
Traditionally, Iowa’s tight ends have attracted prime-time interest from NFL scouts and produced on the field as professionals. Since 2003, 6 different Iowa tight ends have started at least 20 NFL games. NFL teams have drafted 8 different Iowa tight ends in the Kirk Ferentz era. That number will grow to 9 next week when a squad picks George Kittle.
Even the non-draftees such as Zeron Flemister (60 games), Allen Reisner (17) and Henry Krieger Coble (2 games last season) see time in the NFL. Former Iowa TE Jake Duzey, who was injured before the 2015 season but has recovered completely, will get a shot, as well.
It’s a premium position for the program, hence the resources. It’s the 1 offensive skill position Iowa routinely puts in the NFL. Only 2 running backs have been drafted in Kirk Ferentz’s tenure in Iowa City. The last Iowa wide receiver to catch a pass in the NFL was Tim Dwight in 2007. The last Iowa quarterback to throw a pass in the NFL was Mark Vlasic in 1991. But Ferentz-era tight ends have made a combined 313 NFL starts since 2003.
Iowa needs to be good at tight end to be both balanced and successful on offense. If throwing 8 scholarships at the position produces 3 or 4 NFL-caliber tight ends, so be it.