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IOWA CITY — George Kittle was touted as college football’s best returning tight end this summer by the metrics gurus at Pro Football Focus.
The website graded the Iowa senior among the top six as both a run blocker and pass receiver last season. They broke down three plays, two of which displayed Kittle’s blocking prowess. From an in-line position, the 6-foot-4, 250-pounder drove defenders so far backward their shoulders hit the turf before their bottoms. The other play showed Kittle’s dynamic, one-handed catch against Maryland.
In a program that normally eschews any kind of story as outside noise, it turns out there was no way Kittle could have missed this online post.
“My mom made sure to make me see that,” he said. “She’s sent it to me like four times.”
Kittle is the only experienced returnee of Iowa’s tight end group. While he saw action in about half of the offensive snaps, his 14.5 yard-per-reception average was the second-most among players catching double-digit passes. Kittle ranked fourth in receptions (20) and led the team with six touchdowns.
“Kittle can be as good as he wants to be,” Iowa tight ends coach LeVar Woods said. “I’ve been on record saying that before. I think he has the traits to be a really good player. We’re asking him to step up as a leader this year, and I think he has a good future ahead of him.
“What we need to have him do is help this team, help this room, develop some guys that are a little bit younger than him.”
The Hawkeyes have the same need from senior wide receiver Matt VandeBerg (6-1, 190). A year ago, VandeBerg hauled in 65 passes for 703 yards, by far the most among Iowa’s pass catchers. He ranked second in touchdown catches with four.
VandeBerg is the only returning wide receiver with more than six receptions. He has grown from role player to prime-time performer in his four seasons. Now, like Kittle, he needs to push his group do the same.
“The biggest piece of advice anyone can give, especially young players, is just do your job,” VandeBerg said. “Don’t go out there thinking, ‘I’ve got a play’ or ‘Don’t mess up.’ Do your job. If your job is to block the guy, then block the guy. If it’s run around and catch the ball, run around and catch the ball. You can’t make it any more difficult than what it is.”
Both Kittle and VandeBerg exceeded the expectations of those who observe Iowa football from outside the Kinnick complex. Collectively they’ve gained about 75 pounds and become among the better Big Ten players at their position.
VandeBerg originally was a two-star grayshirt candidate who wasn’t supposed to join the program until winter 2014. Then a few departures elevated him into a fall 2013 scholarship and training camp invite. He played right away as a true freshman and caught four passes for 36 yards against eventual Big Ten champion Michigan State.
Kittle was offered a scholarship on the 2012 signing day. He gained 50 pounds over five years and increased his speed. In his first two seasons at Iowa, he regularly lined up outside the right tackle and exclusively ran an out-and-up pass pattern that easily was identified by opponents.
“It’s ‘46 is in. He’s running a wheel route,’” Kittle recalled. “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.”
In many ways, their individual success in 2016 is tied to their positional progression. If Iowa struggles to develop receivers opposite VandeBerg, he’s going to see tighter coverage and his statistics will suffer. The Hawkeyes run out of a two-tight end formation between 30-40 percent of its plays. The lack of a full-fledged second tight end makes Kittle a target.
Of course, this season is not just about personal glory. They both want to win. But they understand doing their job entails doing more than just doing their job.
“If they see something out there that they didn’t quite understand, I’ll give my input,” VandeBerg said. “When it comes to coaching, I don’t need to be on them all the time. That’s what coach is for. As far as I’m concerned, just helping them out with looks that maybe they’re not used to.”
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