IOWA CITY -- There were a couple of different reactions last Tuesday when the Hawkeyes' offense opened its playbook and found a whole next section on tight ends.
Before last weekend's defeat at No. 4 Ohio State, the three-tight end formation was a goal-line automatic for the Hawkeyes (4-3, 1-2 Big Ten). Quarterback Jake Rudock read the game plan and didn't know what to expect.
"I wouldn't say that it threw me as much as it was, 'hey, this is something else we're going to do,'" Rudock said.
Of course, the tight ends were ecstatic.
"We were all excited," sophomore Jake Duzey said. "We thought it would end up working well and it ended up that way."
After being billed as the one position group he didn't have to sweat, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz watched as the tight ends bloomed into the pass-catching, defensive end-blocking dynamos. Duzey led the way with six catches for 168 yards, which included an 85-yard TD. Senior C.J. Fiedorowicz added four catches for 29 yards, including a 2-yard TD that only his 6-7 body might've been able to reach. Redshirt freshman George Kittle added one catch for 24 yards.
The totals were 11 catches for 191 yards and two TDs. Duzey put up the best numbers for a tight end in a single game during Ferentz's 15 seasons, topping Dallas Clark's 116-yard effort against Purdue in 2002.
During the off week before the Ohio State game, offensive coordinator Greg Davis was asked about the tight ends, who, until Saturday, had five players combining for 23 catches for 263 yards and two TDs. So, yes, last week was a bit of a watershed moment for the entire group.
"I look at their roles to pick up as we go," Davis said, "but we're not having to depend on them quite as much as we did last year, quite honestly, because we're getting some more production out of the wide receivers."
Ferentz did not treat this as a "eureka" for his offense. It remains to be seen if it will even be in the plans for this week's game against Northwestern (4-3, 0-3). He didn't get X-and-O'y when asked what challenges the three-tight end set presented the defense.
"You know, it's like any personnel group, it just gives people one more thing to maybe prepare for," Ferentz said. "It doesn't make sense to do it unless it fits with your players. Right now, we happen to have a couple guys we're comfortable playing out there. It fit what we were doing. It doesn't alter us dramatically, but it gave us maybe just one more package without radically changing what we're doing."
There is no advertising strategy, but the brilliance of the three-tight end group is that it looks like a power running play. It's a standard for a lot of teams on the goal line or in short yardage. The defense has to ask itself what it wants to commit to when three tight ends line up. Match it up with a heavy defensive personnel group, and then you'll have tight ends outrunning linebackers or overpowering corners in coverage.
"It helps if you've got a guy who can run a little bit, and Duzey can," Ferentz said. "We saw that."
An offense can gain more of an advantage through motion. Move one of the tight ends from outside to the line of scrimmage, and all of the sudden a nickel or dime pass defense faces a "jumbo" run package. Iowa added another "suddenly" of its own against Ohio State. With three tight ends, the play-action passes that were well defended by Michigan State were wide open against the Buckeyes.
"It makes it hard for the defense to match," Rudock said. "If they're in nickel or dime, let's run the ball because you have that kind of size advantage."
For any of this to work, of course, the tight ends can't be specialists. They have to block, catch passes and mostly be able to block. Duzey, who never threw a block for Athens (Troy, Mich.) High School, said young tight ends have to earn the privilege of running routes by showing they have a handle on blocking.
"You've got to do everything," said Duzey, who was offered by Oregon out of high school. "When I first came here, they said to play tight end at Iowa, you have to block. In high school, I played a lot of receiver and a little bit of running back. I didn't really have to block. Just coming into camp that first year is a huge difference. It was just a huge process for me."
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It remains to be seen if this personnel package sees the light of day against the Wildcats. Remember, it showed up highlighted in the playbook just last Tuesday.
"Hopefully, we stick with it," Fiedorowicz said. "That's hard on defenses. You have to play physically, but you also have to be ready for the play-action. It's fun."Of course, the tight ends are going to call the three-tight end offense fun.