IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa’s spring game two weeks ago provided a glimpse of how the team’s tight end corps will shape up this fall and beyond: inexperienced, talented and likely to see a ton of action.
Sophomore Noah Fant and redshirt freshman T.J. Hockenson were thrust into action as the primary tight ends with the first unit. Unofficially, Hockenson recorded the most catches of any player with 4. Fant had the most receiving yards with 25. Neither number was spectacular, but both players demonstrated enough ability to help the Hawkeyes this fall.
Three other tight ends saw significant playing time. Redshirt freshman Shaun Beyer caught 2 passes for 11 yards, while senior Jon Wisnieski caught 1 for 16 yards. Then there’s sophomore Drew Cook, who shifted from quarterback to tight end late in camp.
Sitting out the game with minor injuries were senior Peter Pekar, who started 8 games last year, and sophomore Nate Wieting, who opened 3. Both of them primarily were blocking tight ends with Pekar catching 1 pass for 5 yards last season.
Fant (6-foot-5, 232 pounds) has gained 12 pounds since last season. He played in 10 games as a true freshman and caught 9 passes for 70 yards and a score. He’s the most likely from the young group to replace George Kittle — a fifth-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers — as the go-to tight end in the passing game.
“He’s a talented guy and has a good attitude,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Every snap he takes is really still a learning experience, and it’s really beneficial for him. He’s got a good skill set. He works hard, did some good things last year, and he’s practiced really pretty well for 15 practices, and I can really foresee that position being a position on our team that’s going to be critical to our success.
“We’re pretty young at that position, so hopefully he’ll keep pushing for it. I’m confident that he will.”
Fant, an Omaha, Neb., native, said the extra weight has been helpful in his improvement as a blocker.
“Coming in as a freshman I was a little bit on the light side,” Fant said. “Putting those pounds on, I feel like it helped me quite a bit. I’m hoping to keep adding some more pounds.”
Hockenson, who stands 6-5, added 13 pounds (243) this offseason. He was impressive at Chariton (Iowa) High School, catching 87 passes for 1,219 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior in 2015. He nearly played last year, but Ferentz opted for Fant.
Beyer (6-5, 222) came to Iowa without a position after excelling at Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Kennedy. He worked at wide receiver on the scout team last season but shifted to tight end in December.
“Across the board, we’re all young. Inexperienced, I guess, is probably a better way to put it at the tight end position,” tight ends coach LeVar Woods said. “But Fant played some last year, had a couple of big catches.
“A couple things that you guys have seen already from last year, you’ve seen Noah be able to stretch the field. The guy can run, flat-out run, and I think he’s developing. He’s underrated a little bit as a blocker. He needs to refine his technique, but he has the ability to stretch the field a little bit.
“T.J. is kind of unknown because he spent the year on the scout team. I think when you watch, you’ll notice he plays with a little bit of an edge, a little bit nasty, which I like, and I think he’s a very capable receiver as well.”
Cook (6-5, 235) is behind the others in the tight end room after changing positions with six spring practices remaining. His father, Marv, was an All-America tight end at Iowa and was an All-Pro with the New England Patriots. Cook worked as the No. 3 quarterback behind sophomore Nathan Stanley and junior Tyler Wiegers, but Ferentz recommended Cook switch positions. Cook said he took a few days to discuss the move with his family before committing.
Cook was an all-state basketball player and guided Iowa City Regina to four straight football state titles.
“I’m a big guy and I can run and all that,” Cook said. “That’s helpful. So when you put your hand in the dirt there’s a little confidence there. But there’s still a big learning curve for me.”
Ferentz was impressed with Cook’s work ethic throughout spring practice.
“He jumped in with both feet,” Ferentz said. “The hardest adjustment is the blocking part for him, but there’s no lack of want-to there. To me, with a summer of training and learning, he’s got a little feel for what it takes now technique-wise. I think he’ll really do a good job in camp and we’ll see where it goes.”
Wisnieski has suffered several injuries during his time at Iowa, but Woods said he provides veteran leadership. Pekar has the same intangibles. The younger players are growing their leadership skills organically.
“I feel like as a group we try to lead each other,” Fant said. “We try to keep everybody in line and we take more of a group leadership kind of thing. If we see anything that needs to be addressed, we’ll address it.
“I feel like everybody tries to hold themselves to a high standard. It makes it pretty easy to lead when everybody is trying to stay on the same track and try to improve themselves as much as possible.”