116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
MINNEAPOLIS — Three weeks after being the signature piece of a deal in the final hours leading up to the NFL trade deadline, T.J. Hockenson still is getting familiar with his new home.
“I’ve been trying to get acclimated,” Hockenson said Sunday from his locker at U.S. Bank Stadium. “I’ve been in the hotel for three weeks, just was able to get out. So now really get to kind of explore the city a little bit.”
The former Iowa standout tight end has been a little busy being the new go-to receiver for a Minnesota Vikings team well-positioned to potentially make a deep postseason run.
“He's had a really nice impact on our offense,” Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell told The Gazette. “He’s made a lot of plays for us already. He’ll make a ton of plays for us moving forward.”
In Hockenson’s first game as a Viking — five days after being dealt — quarterback Kirk Cousins targeted him nine times. He caught all nine passes for 70 yards.
Then in his next game, he caught seven of Cousins’ 10 passes targeted for him and had 45 yards.
Cousins said Hockenson has “learned the system very quickly.”
“He's done a great job taking on that challenge in such a short amount of time,” Cousins said Sunday.
Picking up the playbook remains a work in progress, though.
“I’m still learning it,” Hockenson said. “It’s still not perfect for me by any means. There’s still a lot I need to learn. … I’m on my way, but I’m certainly not there by any means.”
Cousins also credited O’Connell with doing “a great job incorporating T.J. into the plan.”
“We’ll continue to build his comfort in our offense and all the different facets of how we play,” O’Connell said. “He’s learning on the fly right now.”
It has not always been smooth sailing for the Vikings since the Iowa alum’s arrival. Hockenson experienced his first loss in Minnesota Sunday as the Dallas Cowboys throttled the Vikings, 40-3.
“I wouldn’t say you ever want this feeling,” Hockenson said with some melancholy sentiment fresh off the loss and still wearing his No. 87 jersey.
Cousins targeted Hockenson twice in the red zone on what looked like a promising drive, but they could not connect for what would have been Hockenson’s first touchdown in purple and gold. Minnesota had to settle for a field goal.
“Those are two that I would definitely want to have back for sure,” Hockenson said.
Cousins set season-lows as he recorded 105 passing yards and completed 52.2 percent of his passes. He took seven sacks against the Cowboys — as many as in the Vikings’ first four games combined.
But even then, Hockenson’s five receptions for 34 yards were the best on the Vikings. It was the first game in almost two years in which a tight end led Minnesota in receiving yards.
Hockenson has given the Vikings a much-needed boost in tight end position.
Irv Smith Jr. began the season as the starting tight end, but the 2019 second-round pick is on the injured reserve with an ankle injury. Backup Johnny Mundt never caught more than four passes in a season until this year.
Now, the Vikings have a former Pro Bowler at tight end to complement standout wide receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen.
“In this offense and on this team we'll always be incorporating our Y, our tight ends, in the pass game, and there will always be production there to be had,” Cousins told The Gazette.
Meanwhile, Hockenson finally has the chance to be on an NFL team that still is competitive late in the season.
Hockenson’s first three-and-a-half seasons were with a Lions team that always was far from a contender. Detroit was a combined 12-39-2 during Hockenson’s time in silver and Honolulu blue.
The Lions’ best season while Hockenson was there ended with a 5-11 record. All three seasons were last-place finishes in the NFC North.
But now, Hockenson is on a team that could compete for a Super Bowl. The Vikings are 8-2 with a four-game lead in the NFC North.
“Every game is a big one,” Hockenson said. “It’s a great challenge for all of us, including myself, so it’s been a blast for sure.”
Before Sunday’s 40-3 loss to the Cowboys, Caesars Sportsbook gave Minnesota the fifth-highest odds of winning the Super Bowl. The only NFC teams with higher odds were the Eagles and 49ers.
“This team is capable of a lot,” Hockenson said. “This is one of the best groups I’ve been around, one of the closest-knit groups I’ve been around — coaches, to players, to staff, to everybody. So there’s no telling where this thing can go.”
Aside from wins and losses, Hockenson’s new home has some benefits for his family.
His parents were making the nine-plus-hour drive from Chariton to Detroit to catch his NFL games. The trip to Minneapolis is much shorter.
“Cut their drive time in half,” Hockenson said. “They were ecstatic.”
‘Everything’ at Iowa prepared Hockenson for NFL
Hockenson, in his fourth NFL season, will "always give credit“ to Iowa’s Kirk and Brian Ferentz.
“They’re definitely the reason I’m at where I’m at,” Hockenson said.
It is not just because of one aspect of Iowa’s system. “Everything” helped Hockenson prepare for the NFL, “from being a hard-nosed player to trying to be able to do everything that you can at the position — not just one-sided.”
Brian Ferentz “taught me a lot,” Hockenson said, whether it be about defensive coverages or “how the greats do it” at tight end. Ferentz previously was the tight ends coach for the New England Patriots when stars Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were there.
“He was around Gronk, and he was around some really good players,” Hockenson said. “There’s no doubt he helped me a lot.”
Hockenson has kept an eye on his alma mater — seeing the Hawkeyes keep the Floyd of Rosedale Trophy the day before brought him “definitely back to my roots” — and of course the tight end position.
As Hockenson acclimates to his new home, he sees plenty of potential for Iowa’s top tight end, Sam LaPorta, to find an NFL home, too, after his college career is over.
“I love watching him on Saturdays,” Hockenson said. “I’m sure it’s going to be a blast watching him on Sundays.”