Iowa Football

"Tight end" is Iowa's must-see reality show

Kittle, Fant, Hockenson: 1 program, 1 position, lots to unpack

San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle (85) runs with the ball against the Denver Broncos at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Dec. 9, 2018. (Stan Szeto/USA TODAY Sports)
San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle (85) runs with the ball against the Denver Broncos at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Dec. 9, 2018. (Stan Szeto/USA TODAY Sports)

Today’s tale is about tight ends.

On many college football teams, that would be a short story. When it comes to the Iowa Hawkeyes, though, it’s the equivalent of “War and Peace.”

What happened this year at Iowa defies logic. That Iowa would have the John Mackey Award winner at tight end isn’t at all bizarre. The Hawkeyes’ Dallas Clark got that honor in 2002, and seven Iowa tight ends have been NFL draft picks after him.

But the fact T.J. Hockenson would win the Mackey a few months after fellow Iowa tight end Noah Fant was everybody’s preseason All-America tight end is wild.

That Hockenson and Fant had big enough seasons for the former to become the Associated Press’ second-team All-America tight end and the latter to be the AP’s third-teamer is wacky, too. Especially since it’s a position in which teams typically use just one at a time.

Hockenson was voted the Big Ten’s Tight End of the Year. The conference’s coaches voted Fant to their first-team All-Big Ten squad. Logic defied.

Junior Fant announced he was bypassing Iowa’s bowl game to focus on preparing for the NFL Draft. No one was shocked. He’s a pro-in-waiting (the No. 1 tight end prospect of ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr.), and this is how the game is played now. Especially when the bypassed bowl is an Outback and not a Rose.

At least 13 players are skipping bowls this season. None play for a College Football Playoff team.

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Fant had 39 catches for 519 yards and 7 TDs this season. Hockenson is at 46-717-6 and counting as he proceeds to the Outback Bowl. He is a third-year sophomore, which means he can enter the 2019 NFL Draft if he desires.

If the NFL tells him he’ll be a high-round pick, he will have a decision that may not be difficult. It’s the one Iowa offensive lineman James Daniels faced a year ago. Daniels chose wisely. So did the Chicago Bears. Daniels’ play for the Bears last Sunday against Los Angeles Rams superstar defensive tackle Aaron Donald is proof.

Something that can only help the draft profiles of Fant and Hockenson is George Kittle. Iowa has had a multitude of tight end success stories in the NFL, with Clark at the top. But second-year pro Kittle is amazing people with the season he’s having with the San Francisco 49ers.

His seven-catch, 210-yard game last Sunday gave Kittle 13-game totals of 69 receptions and 1,103 yards. That’s on a team that has spent most of this season using a No. 2 and then a No. 3 quarterback, and with a wide receivers group far from the league’s elite.

Kittle had modest numbers at Iowa compared to Hockenson and Fant. One reason was he had a mid-season leg injury as a senior. He missed two games and wasn’t healthy in the second half of that season.

But while his yardage numbers were unremarkable, he made his catches count. He had 10 touchdowns over his final two seasons.

Then Kittle was the 146th pick in the 2017 NFL draft, a fifth-rounder. Players blossom at different times, physically and mentally. You didn’t hear anyone say the 49ers got the steal of the draft when they picked Kittle.

Which just makes his story so much better. Barring injustice, Kittle will go to the Pro Bowl in his second pro season. He has charisma to match his talent, which means it’s a matter of time until he becomes more to America than just a standout ballplayer.

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Tight end typically isn’t an interesting position. But when it involves Iowa, it’s a can’t-miss reality show with great exploits, fascinating characters, and an occasional controversy. Like when a player’s family members get tweet-happy.

You hate to see Fant or Hockenson leave early, since players of their ilk are rare birds here. However, you’ll enjoy watching how high they’ll soar in the NFL. Plus, it’s Iowa. Another great tight end or two will probably emerge in next year’s cast.

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

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