Iowa Football

Iowa football math: 2 tight ends = looser defenses

Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson bulldozing norms - and opponents

Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson (38) evades Indiana defensive back Juwan Burgess (1) on his way to a 54-yard touchdown play in the third quarter of the Hawkeyes' 42-16 win over the Hoosiers Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington, Ind. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson (38) evades Indiana defensive back Juwan Burgess (1) on his way to a 54-yard touchdown play in the third quarter of the Hawkeyes' 42-16 win over the Hoosiers Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington, Ind. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Iowa has been Tight End Tech since the school’s logo was a TigerHawk cub.

Hayden Fry used one fine tight end after another during his 20 years as the Hawkeyes’ coach. Marv Cook was the gold standard, with 1,825 career receiving yards and one of the top plays in Iowa football history, a 28-yard touchdown catch on fourth-and-23 with six seconds left for a 29-27 win at Ohio State in 1987.

Cook had 803 receiving yards that season, the Iowa record for a tight end. His 767 the season before ranks second.

At No. 3 is Dallas Clark, who had 742 in Iowa’s Big Ten title season of 2002 and stenciled plays of his own in Iowa’s book of its all-time biggies. Clark and Cook both had NFL careers of distinction.

Kirk Ferentz’s program has extended that tight end tradition, and then some. He has sent several players at that position to the NFL. The most recent is George Kittle. The San Francisco 49ers got an absolute steal when they drafted Kittle in the fifth round last year. His 399 receiving yards ranked third among NFL tight ends entering this week’s play.

“I think Kittle’s got a pretty good feel of everything,” Niners Coach Kyle Shanahan said Saturday. “I think he’s got a chance to be a very well-rounded tight end, as everyone’s seeing. So, I don’t think there’s anything that George can’t do and can’t do at a high level if he’s given the opportunity and can do it consistently.”

So there’s all that from past Hawkeye standouts. But now there’s something quite different, something you haven’t seen at Iowa or maybe anywhere in college football, ever. You have two tight ends on one team putting up a star’s numbers.

There are 130 FBS teams. In receiving yards for tight ends this season, Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson is third with 394, and Noah Fant is 14th with 297. In touchdown catches by tight ends, Fant’s six is tied with Jace Sternberger of Texas A&M for first. Hockenson has three, plus a rushing TD.

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Through six games — halfway into the season — Iowa’s top two tight ends have 46 catches for 691 yards and have scored 10 touchdowns. That is not normal.

In Iowa’s 42-16 win at Indiana Saturday, Hockenson and Fant both topped 100 yards. That is not normal. That is about as far from normal as it gets.

Yes, the Hawkeyes’ offense is different. As Marc Morehouse detailed in Sunday’s Gazette, Iowa uses two tight ends about 40 percent of the time, while most teams do about one-third as often. But besides tight end-usage being part of the Hawkeyes’ identity, these two men are simply excellent.

They’re also freaks, in the best sense of the word. They’re large and fast, talented and tough.

“They just kept coming and coming and coming,” said Indiana linebacker Thomas Allen. “They were just big guys. It’s kind of hard to get a look off a type of guy like that (in practice) just because we don’t have any.”

Fant didn’t practice last week until Friday because he had been in concussion protocol. He was on the field for just 23 snaps Saturday. Yet, he got a hundy and a touchdown.

Hockenson is averaging 28.1 yards per catch over the last three games, covering 10 receptions. That is not normal.

He had two touchdowns Saturday, but what earned Hockenson as much praise from the ESPN2 broadcast crew and maybe more? It was his steamrolling block of Hoosier defensive end Michael Ziemba on Iowa’s sixth play of the day, an 11-yard run by Mekhi Sargent.

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“We know they’ll do the job,” Iowa center Keegan Render said about the blocking of Hockenson and Fant. “We don’t have to worry about that. We know in run-blocking they’re going to set the edge.

“We love Hock, we love Fant.”

Having two tight ends of this caliber is “a nice luxury to have,” said Render. “Obviously it makes defenses play us a lot differently, opens things up.”

If All-America and John Mackey Award (national tight end of the year) voting were held today, Fant and Hockenson might cancel each other out. As “problems” for a football team go, that’s one of the best ones you could cook up.

l Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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