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IOWA CITY — The Hawkeyes are looking for new fullbacks and some tight ends. If you pay close attention to what Iowa does on offense, you know this is kind of a big deal.
According to research by Pro Football Focus, last season Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis used the 12 personnel group (running back, two tight ends) 201 times, just more than 20 percent of Iowa’s 993 offensive plays. Iowa used 21 (running back, fullback and one tight end) 163 times (16 percent of its offense). The Hawkeyes put the 22 group (running back, fullback, two tight ends) on the field 135 times (14 percent).
With tight ends George Kittle and Henry Krieger-Coble (who’s now fighting for a roster spot with the Denver Broncos), Iowa had two tight ends on the field 34 percent of the time last season. With fullbacks Adam Cox (who’s in the Atlanta Falcons camp) and Macon Plewa, Iowa had two backs on the field 30 percent.
In total, Iowa used the fullback and multiple tight ends 499 times last season, nearly 50 percent of its offensive snaps. According to Pro Football Focus, that’s almost double the FBS average for plays with fullbacks and multiple tight ends (the percentages add up to around 25 percent).
This has been Iowa’s long-standing philosophy under head coach Kirk Ferentz. The Hawkeyes prefer to fight it out up front with big bodies. The numbers shift depending on the talents of the personnel, and with two talented tight ends last season and two senior fullbacks that probably shaped the numbers.
“We lost two fullbacks,” offensive coordinator Greg Davis said. “We like to play 21 personnel. A lot of people don’t do that, we like to do it. But we don’t want to do it if we don’t feel comfortable with the guys we’re putting in there. Are they ready to go in there and be productive?”
Junior Drake Kulick and redshirt freshman Brady Ross are listed as co-starters at fullback, with sophomore Austin Kelly on the depth chart as the backup. All three are walk-ons. Kulick (Muscatine) and Ross (Humboldt) began their careers at Iowa as linebackers.
All three are built like Fort Fullback — Kulick 6-1, 236; Ross 6-1, 240; and Kelly 5-11, 245. Going into week 1 against Miami (Ohio), the trio is largely unknown outside of practice. They could have a say for as much as 30 percent of the offense (or maybe more if they excel).
“I’m very encouraged by the young guys we have,” offensive line coach/run game coordinator Brian Ferentz said. “Drake Kulick has done an excellent job. He’ll help us on special teams and he’ll help us at fullback. Austin Kelly has a chance to help us at fullback and I really think Brady Ross has an excellent chance to help us. As people, all three are phenomenal. I hope they can pick up the mantle that those guys (Cox and Plewa) left behind.”
Now, why does Iowa put a premium on the fullback position?
“They are critical to our offense. We are going to use fullbacks,” Brian Ferentz said. “The idea of having two guys in the backfield every snap really appeals to us because it gives us the ability to run the football either direction.
“The defense can’t tell us where to run the football. We can balance the numbers. You’ll see us in multiple formations with those two backs, but the idea is we can’t have the defense dictate to us what we are or aren’t going to do in the football game. When you can’t play fullbacks, at least in the run game, it limits your offensive philosophy. We don’t like being backed into that corner.”
After Kittle, who Pro Football Focus calls “the best all-around TE in college football,” Iowa is searching at tight end. Junior walk-on Peter Pekar (6-4, 250) is listed as the No. 2 tight end. Pekar, whose dad, Jim, played defensive line for the Hawkeyes in 1980-81, played 10 snaps last season.
Junior Jon Wisnieski, who missed most of fall camp with a sprained MCL in his left knee, could challenge for time when he’s healthy. There’s redshirt freshman Nate Vejvoda (6-5, 238) and true freshmen Noah Fant (6-5, 220) and T.J. Hockenson (6-5, 230). Walk-on redshirt freshman Nate Wieting (6-4, 245) also could have a say.
Iowa used two tight ends in 34 percent of its plays last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
“I’d say that’s wide open right now,” Kirk Ferentz said last week. “We’re learning about the guys each and every day. We had a couple of injuries mixed in there. Some of these things might go through September. We’ll just wait and see on that thing.”
Last year might be tough for this TE group to match. Krieger-Coble and Kittle, who happen to be cousins, combined for 55 catches and seven TDs (six of those were Kittle’s).
“(The 12 personnel) was a pretty comfortable group because we had two playmakers,” Davis said.
What two-tight end formations do for the Hawkeyes?
“The nice thing about that personnel group is you can be extremely multiple,” Brian Ferentz said. “If you play with two backs, you can’t be quite as multiple. You can give some different looks, but when you have two tight ends in the game, you can appear to be in a three-receiver set. You can appear to be in a two-back set. Or you can appear to be in sets that are indigenous to the two-tight end personnel.
“You can run your whole offense out of one personnel group. That’s what you really like about that. The multiple formations you can show a defense and just basically run your core stuff is really beneficial. On top of that, if you have a tight end you can put in space, who can be a mismatch on a defender ...
“One thing about playing two tight ends, you can get a pretty good indicator based on the formation on what kind of defense is playing against you. Then, you can use matchups. A lot of times, maybe your tight end isn’t going to run by anybody, but he’s a bigger body than the guys covering him and you play to that strength. And then if you feel like you have some receivers who can get open, then you can get people into man-to-man coverage and you can get people into down defenses. Then, you have opportunities.”
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