Iowa Football

4 Downs with Iowa's receivers: Outback Bowl was a preview on post-NFL tight end life

The Hawkeyes hung out in a lot of two tight end sets in 2018, you know, when they had two first rounders

Wide receiver Brandon Smith (12) is photographed during Iowa Hawkeyes media day at the Outdoor Practice Facility in Iowa City on Friday, Aug. 9, 2019. Hawkeye players and coaches talked with journalists and posed for portraits on the practice field. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Wide receiver Brandon Smith (12) is photographed during Iowa Hawkeyes media day at the Outdoor Practice Facility in Iowa City on Friday, Aug. 9, 2019. Hawkeye players and coaches talked with journalists and posed for portraits on the practice field. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

A closer look at Iowa’s wide receivers and tight ends entering the 2019 season.

The X: Brandon Smith (6-2, 218, jr.), Calvin Lockett (6-2, 182, #fr.), Jackson Ritter (6-3, 195, fr.)

The Z: Ihmir Smith-Marsette (6-1, 183, jr.), Desmond Hutson (6-3, 200, fr.)

The F: Nico Ragaini (6-0, 192 #fr.), Tyrone Tracy Jr. (5-11, 200, #fr.)

Tight ends: Nate Wieting (6-4, 250, sr.), Shaun Beyer (6-5, 244, jr.), Drew Cook (6-5, 252, sr.), Sam LaPorta (6-4, 242, fr.), Josiah Miamen (6-4, 235, fr.)

First Down

When tight end Noah Fant made the decision to skip the Outback Bowl and enter the NFL draft, that did give a glimpse of what the 2019 passing offense might look like.

With Fant and T.J. Hockenson, Brian Ferentz’s offense leaned into the tight ends last season. Hockenson went No. 8 and Fant No. 20 in the NFL draft.

The Hawkeyes used 12 personnel (one back and two tight ends) 37 percent of the time (345 snaps) in 2018. They used 22 (two backs, two TEs) in 19 percent of their snaps (177). So, 57 percent of what you saw in 2018 came with Hockenson and Fant. As it should’ve.

Here’s how Fant’s absence in the Outback Bowl against Mississippi State affected the number of two-tight end formations: After 37 snaps in 12 personnel against Nebraska, Iowa used 12 just four times. Iowa used 22 vs. the Huskers 18 times and then just five against MSU.

You knew Iowa would look different without two NFL first rounders at tight end. The Outback was a sneak peek.

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“What I don’t think you’re going to see in two weeks is us out there trying to feature three tight ends in the game at the same time,” offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said. “I don’t know how many two tight end sets we ran in the bowl game. If I recall correctly, it was zero. Things change quickly when your personnel changes. ... We’ve made plans and I think we have things built accordingly.”

Shaun Beyer, one of the front-runners at the position right now, wasn’t available for the Outback, so that might’ve affected TE snaps.

Brian Ferentz believes the diverse skill sets at wide receiver should help cushion what Iowa lost at tight end, which, he said, was actually a tougher chore to create with tight ends skill sets being more limited.

“(The wide receivers) have versatile skill sets. That’s good because it creates a little bit of depth for you,” Ferentz said. “It allows you to have some things backed up without having plays for guys, which in some ways is easier than the tight end position, where not every guy is going to be a jack of all trades. When you’re a tight end-driven offense, you have some real specific things built for specific guys. If you don’t have that guy, you’re out of that for the game. That can change your game plan really fast.”

Second Down

We’ve been over how important the slot receiver position is for the Hawkeyes. The slot has led the team in receptions in each of the last four seasons.

After leading the Hawkeyes in receptions the last two years, Nick Easley is trying to make the Buffalo Bills. Redshirt freshmen Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy immediately fell into place at the position this spring and have held strong to it through fall camp.

“It’s kind of expected now that those guys make plays,” wide receiver coach Kelton Copeland said. “It’s kind of expected, at least in my mind. I expect them to make plays. When they don’t make those plays, it’s kind of like, ‘What happened?’ They’re so dependable and so trustworthy. Just really solid guys.”

The reviews have been positive.

Strong safety Geno Stone on guarding Ragaini: “He’s the hardest for us to guard. He’s making a lot of plays out there. He’s really fast, I’ll say that. ... He’s a quick person off the line of scrimmage and has good hands, too. He makes a lot of quick moves on you. He’s hard to guard, to be really honest. He’s harder to guard than Easley. Easley had good, quick steps, but Nico is harder to guard.”

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Here’s Copeland on Tracy: “This young man has magnetic ability. Anytime he has the ball in his hands, he has the ability to make plays. ... He’s obviously dynamic and can do a lot of things for us.”

So, now for the hard part.

Third Down

Brandon Smith had two ESPN Top 10 highlight catches last season. You remember Minnesota, when he caught a pass against a trailing defensive back’s back. And then there was a one-handed beauty for a TD against Maryland.

When it comes to wide receiver, it’s difficult to appreciate blocking. Everyone knows it’s important. It helps receivers see the field. Smith is 6-3, 218 and, in 2018, he was one of Iowa’s most dependable blocker as a receiver.

Nearly half of Smith’s 573 snaps last season were on running plays. He had more than 50 more run blocking snaps than the next wide receiver in that category. This kept Smith on the field and really helped him grow and mature last year.

Targets? Smith finished third on the team with 46 (behind Easley’s 78 and Ihmir Smith-Marsette’s 52). He caught 61 percent of his targets, second to Easley’s 68.

Fourth Down

Beyond the top three at tight end — Wieting, Beyer and Cook — the Hawkeyes are looking for depth. That could come from true freshmen Josiah Miamen and Sam LaPorta. With two 3-star tight ends committed to the 2020 recruiting class, it’s likely one of the freshmen burns a redshirt.

No way to know which one, but one giant differentiator for Iowa tight ends is blocking. If you can’t do it, you can’t play. Wieting is a fifth-year senior. He’s been through this break-in process. What advice does he have for the freshmen?

“At Iowa, we’re asked to be one-on-one with a defensive end and we’re expected to win that matchup,” Wieting said. “Coming out of high school, you can’t play tight end at Iowa at 210 pounds. It’s just not feasible. You’re not strong enough, you don’t have enough weight.

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“That’s where the strength and development comes in. That’s where the fundamentals come in. You can be 230, 240, 250 pounds and win a matchup against a 270-pound defensive end.”

Also, Wieting pointed out how many tight ends come in from spread offenses.

“Coming in, it might be a different storyline with your hand in the dirt,” Wieting said. “If you commit to the development and with the right attitude, young guys can still come in and see the field.”

For what it’s worth, Miamen is 235 and LaPorta is 242.

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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