CEDAR RAPIDS — The next great Iowa tight end.
Sam LaPorta isn’t there, yet. He’s the first one to tell you that.
But by the time you are able to say the names Marv Cook, Dallas Clark, Noah Fant, T.J. Hockenson and George Kittle, he might be there.
“My blocking game,” LaPorta said Tuesday, when asked what improvements he wants to make in his game. “I really need to work on my leverage on every play. To have consistent leverage on my backside knee, hitting my pad, running my routes. I think coverage recognition would really help me a lot. Just crisper routes, getting in and out of breaks. More work with (quarterback) Spencer (Petras). That’s always better.”
Jeez, is that it? It’s not like this kid is a schlump or anything.
LaPorta worked his way from unheralded high school wide receiver into a special teams role last season as a true freshman, then into bona fide playing time with the Hawkeyes offense. He started twice, including Iowa’s Holiday Bowl win over USC, a game in which he had a career-high six receptions.
LaPorta led Iowa with five catches for 79 yards last week in the season opener at Purdue.
“Everybody has a different story,” said Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz. “George Kittle was a skinny guy when he got here, 200 pounds, 205, whatever he was, and found a groove and became a really good player for us. Then he just kept on growing. Noah got here and played as a freshman ... T.J. did redshirt, drove the defense crazy on scout team, made a lot of plays against the defense but never played as a freshman.
“But then Sam was kind of somewhere in between. He was with us last year doing good things on special teams, and with each week, we saw a little bit more and more confidence, and we got a little bit more and more trust in him. Then when we actually started playing him, (he) did some good things, and then he just kept getting better and better. I would venture to say by the end of the year he was a pretty good player for us, and now it’s just a continuation of that process.”
Iowa beat out Bowling Green for the under-recruited LaPorta, a 6-foot-4, 250-pounder from Highland, Ill., about a half-hour across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. He ranks second all-time in Illinois in career touchdown receptions (50) and third in receiving yards, so the hands part of being a tight end has never been an issue.
It’s the blocking and other intricacies of the position that LaPorta has had to bone up on in short order, and, obviously he has.
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“Just the pure physicality and speed of the game, the awareness you have to have at the college level is so significantly higher than high school,” he said. “It was really hard coming in, learning a new position after playing receiver in high school, coming to a Big Ten university and playing tight end. I had a lot of great guys help me last year in Nate Wieting, Drew Cook and Nate Stanley behind me, pushing me forward every day and trying to get me better.”
LaPorta said he has had conversations with some of Iowa’s tight end elite, especially Hockenson and Clark. They have told him not to try to emulate them or anyone else, just be himself and keep growing as a player.
“They always say to play the Iowa way: play physical, play tough and do everything right, the little things,” he said. “It’s awesome to have a lot of great mentors like that, to kind of lead you along the path you want to go down, if I want to pursue a career in the NFL. Those guys are a great support system for me.”
LaPorta reiterated he felt fortunate he got so much help last season from teammates, as he tried to learn the college football ropes. He laughed when asked the difference in himself as a player from a year ago.
“We were watching film from last year, and, I don’t know, it just looks like a completely different person out there to me, just how far I’ve come,” he said. “A full offseason of weight training and watching film, just (knowing) the offense better, more in depth with (offensive coordinator/tight ends coach) Brian (Ferentz) and the other tight ends. I see a significant difference in my game, the way that I process faster. I think I’ve come a long way. I’m proud of myself for that. I needed to come a long way.”
“He loves playing football,” Kirk Ferentz said. “He loves being out there on the field, enjoys getting his ankles taped. He kind of likes everything about this, and he’s got a real good energy, a good vibe, and in that way, a little bit Dallas Clark-ish almost. Dallas made you feel good when you stand in the same room as him. There’s something about him; the guy just really enjoys this environment and clearly likes playing. We’d all like to take credit for teaching him this or teaching him that, but a lot of that stuff just guys have it or they don’t sometimes.”
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