IOWA CITY, Iowa — Three buses stroll west down Melrose Avenue, past thousands of fans and dozens of tailgating huts two hours before kickoff.
Iowa senior tight end George Kittle departs the offensive team bus, dressed in his best outfit with headphones covering his ears. Before he joins his teammates inside the roped entryway leading into Kinnick Stadium, Kittle drifts to his right, gives his mother, Jan, a kiss and embraces his father, Bruce, with a hug.
Then he kicks ass.
Kittle punishes defenders in Iowa’s zone-blocking scheme, in which he frequently battles the defensive end and sets the edge. It’s rare for a 250-pound tight end to beat defensive ends on a majority of running plays, but Kittle’s dominance, at times, appears routine.
“He blocks like an offensive lineman,” Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard said. “He does a great job in slant plays. He has tough tasks sometimes, but he’s able to out-leverage some defensive ends a lot of times and do a good job with that.”
Pro Football Focus named 6-foot-4 Kittle as college football’s best tight end entering the 2016 season. The online outfit featured video clips to support their analysis. On an outside sweep to the left, Kittle blasted the left Illinois State defensive end head-on, drove him eight yards off the line of scrimmage and straight to his back. On an outside zone run to the right against Northwestern, Kittle attacked the outside defender at the 4-yard line, sealed off the inside for running back Akrum Wadley, and powered his opponent to the ground at the 8-yard line.
In two games this season, Kittle has produced more blocking highlights against Miami of Ohio and Iowa State. Pro Football Focus correspondent Ryan M. Smith said Kittle ranks second overall at tight end because of two dropped passes. But Kittle rates No. 1 in run blocking “by a good margin, too.”
NFL teams have drafted eight different Iowa tight ends in coach Kirk Ferentz’s 18 seasons. Several others, including Kittle’s first cousin, Henry Krieger Coble, have landed on rosters as undrafted free agents. Blocking remains a premium, and Kittle has fit into the same category as Iowa’s other top tight ends. Considering Kittle arrived at Iowa as a 205-pound positional tweener, he’s come a long way as a tight end.
“Probably the biggest surprise maybe of the whole thing has been his ability to block,” Ferentz said. “He does a great job in practice. It’s been a couple years now where he’s really learned how to be aggressive in that regard. He works hard at it.”
As far as handling a defensive end, Ferentz said, “That’s a really hard job. That’s the hardest job I think a tight end has, is to try a block a down guy.”
Kittle’s diligence in practice has forced his defensive teammates to match his intensity — or get embarrassed.
“He’s just an extremely good athlete, so that’s the first challenge,” Iowa defensive end Anthony Nelson said. “He’s very quick and then he also uses good technique, and he’s a guy that’s consistent with his technique. He’s always inside, and he’s always low. He’s bringing his feet every time. Going against him is really difficult.”
“He’s a challenging guy to go against because with how fast he gets off the ball,” Iowa outside linebacker Ben Niemann said. “He’s such a good athlete. Last year, I went against Henry in practice. George, it’s almost harder to go against him sometimes just because of how fast he gets off, and he’s got good pad level, too.”
Kittle’s ascension as a blocker is somewhat ironic. With his speed and quickness, Kittle entered a few games almost like a bulked-up wide receiver during his red-shirt freshman season. Three times, he ran the same route for big plays, and quickly it became obvious why he was inserted.
“It’s, ’46 is in. He’s running a wheel route,'” Kittle said. “And I ran a wheel route every time. But now they don’t call it because I actually get to do other things, which is exciting and fun for me.”
Before his growth as a blocker, Kittle was known primarily as a pass receiver. That part of his game hasn’t waned. Last year Kittle caught 20 passes for 290 yards and six touchdowns, which tied for the most among Big Ten tight ends. Some showcased his speed, like a 43-yarder against North Texas and a 35-yard sprint that virtually clinched the Big Ten title against Purdue. He grabbed the only touchdown in a 10-6 win at Wisconsin and picked up the game’s first score at Nebraska. He jumped over the pile for the clinching touchdown at Indiana and juggled a pass against Illinois. He even appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Perhaps, his best overall play was a 26-yard catch against Maryland. Kittle fought through contact, ran up the seam and caught Beathard’s pass above his head with only his right hand.
“(Kittle is) not just your average tight end,” said Iowa cornerback Desmond King, last year’s Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s best defensive back. “He’s a guy that can move and have a little wiggle in him. He’s versatile. He can catch the ball and he’s fast as well. When he gets the ball, he’s dangerous.”
“He’s just a freak athlete for his size,” Niemann said.
Like most of Iowa’s previous tight ends, Kittle will have a chance at the next level. Dan Shonka, general manager and national scout for Ourlads Scouting Services, said depth at tight end might force Kittle down a bit in the 2017 NFL draft. But Kittle has plenty of qualities that NFL teams will seek.
“He’s in a pro scheme; that’s a plus for him,” Shonka said. “He can catch the ball. He understands the blocking schemes. He can reach and set the edge. I think he’s going to be a guy that teams look for.”
Kittle has three catches for 26 yards and a touchdown this year. When asked if Kittle fits the same profile as his other tight ends, Ferentz said, “Time will tell.”
“Three scouts at practice (Tuesday),” Ferentz said. “I pretty much tell them the same thing every year: We’ll know a lot more in November. That’s really the truth of it.”