Four Downs - The Tight ends (post-spring)

Iowa wants a vibrant passing game and will have mouths to feed

Iowa Hawkeyes tight end Jake Duzey (right) is congratulated for scoring a touchdown by Iowa Hawkeyes tight end Ray Hamilton (82) during the second half of their NCAA football game against Ohio State in Ohio Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, in Columbus, Ohio. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette-KCRG)
Iowa Hawkeyes tight end Jake Duzey (right) is congratulated for scoring a touchdown by Iowa Hawkeyes tight end Ray Hamilton (82) during the second half of their NCAA football game against Ohio State in Ohio Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, in Columbus, Ohio. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette-KCRG)

FOURTH DOWN — What we learned this spring

All four of Iowa’s returning tight ends played in games last season. Junior Jake Duzey showed he’s a serious target. He caught 19 passes for 270 yards and two TDs. Senior Ray Hamilton (eight receptions for 95 yards last year) is Iowa’s most physical TE with junior Henry Krieger-Coble just behind him in that department. George Kittle is the lightest of the four, but rivals Duzey in wheels. (After his 85-yard TD reception at Ohio State last season, teammates claimed Duzey had a 4.5 40-yard dash.)

TE Ray Hamilton interview

This spring, we learned that all four will have a role. Iowa ran quite a bit of the “13” package in its spring game at Kinnick. That’s one running back with three tight ends. That also happened to be a formation that offensive coordinator Greg Davis said he wished he would’ve used more of in ‘13.

“The good thing that we could do last year, we could put 13 personnel on the field, and be an empty formation,” Davis said, “and we felt like that was one of the things that we probably should have done more of quite honestly is to put that grouping on the field and play empty formation out of it. The more things that the tight ends can do and feel comfortable doing, the more that personnel grouping can be a part [of the offense].”

THIRD DOWN — How about that Jake Duzey?

The junior quite literally burst onto the scene last season with the play at Ohio State (six catches for 138 yards and a TD). It didn’t stop there, though. Duzey’s career went from zero to 60 mph last season. He caught passes in five of Iowa’s final six games and was arguably the Hawkeyes’ best offensive weapon in the Outback Bowl against LSU, catching three passes for 58 yards.

The brilliance of the three-tight end formation 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,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We saw that.”

SECOND DOWN — Who said what?

“Henry [Krieger-Coble] has done a really good job. Henry has great ball skills and is, you know, comfortable moving around in motion, inserting himself. George [Kittle] still lacks some strength. It’s an area that he has to improve on, but he can stretch the field more than most tight ends in the country. So, there’s a place for all of those guys to get in there.” — Offensive coordinator Greg Davis

“One thing about Iowa football, we’re going to count on the tight ends to help us win football games. They need to block. They need to run. They need to catch, and they need to do all those thing. I think we need to see improvement in all those areas from those guys, but I do think they’re capable, and they’ve shown improvement so far this spring, and I think that needs to continue. Obviously, their role is going to become much increased with the loss of C.J. [Fiedorowicz].” — Iowa OL coach Brian Ferentz

TE Jake Duzey interview

“We won’t have C.J. and he was an outstanding football player, and I think he’ll play a long time moving forward. We’ll have enough guys in that group. Somebody has to make those catches in the red zone and some of those things that C.J. did well, too. — Head coach Kirk Ferentz

FIRST DOWN — Summer cliffhanger

Graduate assistant coach DJ Hernandez has this group pointed forward. Last season, tight ends accounted for 62 receptions, the most for Iowa’s TE group in the last seven seasons.

The quantity over quality argument is valid. And as Davis said, where did the three TE set go? The tight ends will always have a few chapters in Ferentz gameplans, but Iowa also should have an improved wide receiver group that is more than willing to contribute (“contribute” here means catch passes, soak up targets).

Iowa’s passing game hasn’t been feared. It has a chance to move that direction this fall. The downside to all of that could be the number of mouths to feed. How much will three-TE formations be explored?

BONUS ROUND — The fullbacks

The fullback has a definite place in the NFL. Every team has at least one, especially if that team uses the I-formation, inverted wishbone, offset-I and other heavy formations that require a tough, tenacious lead blocker. (An average of 3.1 fullbacks have been selected per draft over the past five years, and the top player at the position usually comes off the board in the fourth round.)

So, the fullback still has a place in college football. Iowa ran a 22 (two running backs, two tight ends) or 21 (two running backs, one tight end) in maybe 10 to 12 percent of its plays last season.

The Iowa staff loves fullbacks Adam Cox and Macon Plewa (both juniors).

Cox is in the mold of running back Mark Weisman. He’s from Illinois. Too short to play linebacker, but too tough to keep off the field. Cox won’t get a lot of touches (he’s well aware of that, with three catches for 51 yards and four carries for 16 yards), but he’s valuable as a lead blocker. At 5-11, 230, Cox has quick feet and was terrific with his head placement in heavy use last season. Defenders couldn’t get under him and he had a knack at getting to the playside shoulder. He was especially terrific at Iowa State.

Plewa (one carry for 7 yards last season) is a former linebacker. He’s 6-2, 234 and craves contact.

Their rough-and-tumble natures seem to translate to the team and, perhaps, set a practice tone that any coaching staff would appreciate. When players are looking at 12 minutes of 9-on-7 inside running drill, they need to see some sparks to get into that grind.

“We have two fullbacks here that we are really pleased with in Adam Cox and Macon Plewa,” Davis said. “They both catch the ball out of the backfield and they both really enjoy the role. 21 personnel will continue to be a part, and a lot of people don’t play 21 anymore, even though I do see a little more of it coming back. So, you’d like to be able to play 21, 12, 11 — and then in the course of a ballgame, there’s a place for all of them.”

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