IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa has become the Big Ten’s leading developer of tight ends since 2000, with nine selected in the NFL draft.
Only Penn State (seven) and Wisconsin (six) approach Iowa overall, but the Hawkeyes are at a different level. Six tight ends under coach Kirk Ferentz have become their NFL team’s primary starter and boasted a season of at least 43 catches. All of them learned the position at Iowa.
The Hawkeyes’ current crop of tight ends entered 2017 inexperienced, with barely any starts or receptions among them. By season’s end, the Hawkeyes may have cultivated the greatest collection of tight ends in school history.
|Iowa TE drafted||Year||Round||Team|
|Austin Wheatley||2000||5||New Orleans|
|Erik Jensen||2004||7||St. Louis|
|Tony Moeaki||2010||3||Kansas City|
|George Kittle||2017||5||San Francisco|
Iowa’s top two tight ends — Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson — combined for 54 catches, 814 yards and 14 touchdowns last year. Among the greatest tight end tandems in school history, their touchdown numbers are the most by far. Their yardage ranks second to the 1987 duo of Marv Cook and Mike Flagg (1,135 yards).
Fant (6-foot-5, 241 pounds), a junior, set the school mark with 11 touchdown receptions to tie for the national lead. His average of 16.5 yards per catch easily led the tight end category nationally and was third in the Big Ten, regardless of position. He finished with 30 catches for 494 yards.
Hockenson (6-5, 250), a sophomore, caught 24 passes for 320 yards and 3 touchdowns last year as a freshman. At 13.3 yards per catch, he ranked fourth among Big Ten tight ends.
But they’re not the only ones who make this unit perhaps the nation’s best. Nate Wieting (6-5, 250), who will be a junior, started three games in 2016 as a designated blocker. Shaun Beyer (6-5, 240), a sophomore, carries an athletic profile similar to Fant. Drew Cook (6-5, 250), son of Marv Cook, continues to flash as a junior after shifting from quarterback.
“We have some crazy-good guys, athletic, humble,” Hockenson said. “This tight end group is, the coaches have said, one of the best we’ve had. It’s a solid group. You can put anyone in there, and we wouldn’t be worried.”
Fant’s athletic marvels are rare even among top-flight tight ends. Even as he gained 12 pounds this offseason, Fant set the school record for tight ends in the vertical jump at 42 inches, according to L.J. Chaney of Pacific Scouting. Iowa officials chose neither to confirm nor deny the number. If accurate, only two other tight ends in NFL combine history have jumped higher. Nobody at any position jumped higher than 41.5 inches at the NFL combine this year.
No matter the route, Fant is a mismatch for defenders. He can beat cornerbacks for a touchdown on a fade route, like he did for 25 yards against Ohio State. He can run a deep crossing route and blow past safeties for a score, as he did for 45 yards against Minnesota. He can run a seam for a touchdown, like he did for 27 yards against Wyoming. Or he can catch a short out pass and sprint past the rest of the defense, which he did for 68 yards at Nebraska.
“Noah is a great player,” Hockenson said. “I think we all know that. He’s fast. It creates open spaces for everyone; they’re all trying to make sure he doesn’t go deep, so lets you have open spaces up front. There’s a lot of things that Noah does that is remarkable. He opens other people up, and that’s what you need in a player, especially at the tight end position.”
“He seems to be really confident right now,” Ferentz said. “I think you can just see players with experience, they’re a little bit more confident.”
Fant set goals this offseason to gain strength and weight but not lose speed. Through spring practice, Fant wants to improve fundamentally as a blocker and pass receiver.
“I feel like I can definitely get better in the run game,” Fant said. “I can always improve my run blocking. That’s something I try to focus on, that finer techniques and the different ways that you can block.
“As far as route running, I want to get my routes more crisp than they were last season. I feel there’s definitely still room to improve on those.”
Hockenson might end up as one of the Big Ten’s best tight ends this year, too. Among returning tight ends, Hockenson has the fifth-most catches. He’s also a tenacious blocker and rarely loses a 1-on-1 matchup.
That’s unusual considering Hockenson was more of a wide receiver at Chariton (Iowa) High School. As a senior, Hockenson caught 85 passes for 1,219 yards and 17 touchdowns. He had to learn everything about blocking in his redshirt season. In his first year, Hockenson started 12 games and was one of the team’s best zone blockers.
“T.J. picked it up pretty quickly,” said Iowa special teams coach LeVar Woods, who coached tight ends last year. “First of all, he’s a tremendous kid with a great work ethic and works incredibly hard. He’s more aggressive and more physical than we thought in high school, than we saw in high school.”
Wieting didn’t start any games last year, but he came up with one of the biggest catches of the season. Late in the Pinstripe Bowl, quarterback Nate Stanley found Wieting on a modified post-corner route. Wieting ran 17 yards and angled for the end zone. Originally it was ruled a touchdown, but it was overturned on replay and the ball was brought to the half-yard line. Iowa scored on the next play to win the game.
Beyer saw more action at tight end in the Pinstripe Bowl than most of the season. He played wide receiver while redshirting, then switched to tight end. His tall frame and athletic ability give Iowa another weapon. Drew Cook is still learning the position but has enough talent to compete for playing time.
“Pretty big [strides],” Hockenson said of Cook. “Coming from quarterback and not getting hit much and then going to tight end and having a lot of physicality every day, he really stepped up. You can tell he loves the tight end position. His dad played tight end here. He’s taking it on and he’s done a really good job.”
The Hawkeyes adjusted to their strengths last year by running a two-tight end, two-receiver formation 28 percent of the time. In fact, at least two tight ends were on the field 49 percent of Iowa’s offensive plays.
“I feel like the coaches have some good confidence in me and other guys,” Fant said. “Especially a guy like Shaun Beyer, who has some good speed, has some athletic ability. I feel like taking advantage of stuff like that by putting him on different spots on the field.”
With Fant, Hockenson and take your pick from Beyer, Wieting and Cook, this group could match the best tight end trio in Iowa history. In 1987, Flagg, Marv Cook and Craig Clark combined for 74 catches, 1,269 yards and 5 touchdowns. Cook produced one of the iconic receptions in Iowa history with a 29-yard score in the final seconds at Ohio State and eventually became a consensus All-American. It’s not too difficult to imagine the current unit becoming just as productive.
|Iowa tight end tandem||Season||Catches||Yards||TDs|
|Noah Fant, T.J. Hockenson||2017||54||814||14|
|C.J. Fiedorowicz, Jake Duzey||2013||49||569||8|
|Tony Moeaki, Brandon Myers||2008||47||585||5|
|Scott Chandler, Tony Moeaki||2006||57||731||9|
|Dallas Clark, Erik Jensen||2002||43||775||5|
|Alan Cross, Matt Whitaker||1992||65||668||5|
|Marv Cook, Mike Flagg||1987||65||1,135||3|
|Jonathan Hayes, Mike Flagg||1984||53||691||8|