INDIANAPOLIS — The Hawkeyes have four players here at the NFL combine and they’re all early entries into the draft.
Tight end Noah Fant took questions at the lectern Friday. Defensive end Anthony Nelson is up tomorrow. Safety Amani Hooker will get his turn Sunday.
When they announced their intentions to leave Iowa early, it was joyful social media messages to the world. The decision cut into tight end T.J. Hockenson a little more deeply.
He teared up a few times during interviews in December. The question hung out there for the Chariton native long after Iowa’s bowl game. On Jan. 14, the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the draft, Hockenson finally let the world know.
The 6-5, 251-pounder was straight ahead with his decision when he met with reporters on Friday. The decision has been made, and Hockenson is ready to run, jump and lift here this week.
Hockenson almost made it through without a catch in his voice or red eyes. The emotion of the decision still gets him.
“Oh, I can’t say enough good things about the Ferentzes,” said Hockenson, who caught 49 passes for 760 yards and six TDs this season en route to the Mackey Award, given to the nation’s top tight end. “They’ve put me in this position. I love them to death. Coach Brian Ferentz has taught me a lot. Coach Kirk Ferentz is a mentor of mine. He’s a person I’ve tried to be. And just being a part of that program was really special to me.”
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The voice quivered and eyes welled at “part of the program.” It was hard not to notice. Hockenson wasn’t hiding it. The decision cut into him.
“They’re family,” Hockenson said. “They’ve done everything for me as a player, and they’re going to hold a special place in my heart.
“They’ve helped me in three years there. They pushed me to be the player I am and they’re going to continue to have my best interest in the NFL.”
As far as the decision went, Hockenson was methodical, taking vigorous notes in every meeting on the topic with the Iowa staff. He took advice that Iowa strength and conditioning coordinator Chris Doyle gives the team every day.
“One thing that stuck in the back of my mind was getting out of my comfort zone,” Hockenson said. “Coach Doyle talks about getting out of your comfort zone all the time lifting, and I didn’t just apply that to lifting. I applied that to life.
“I could’ve stayed at the University of Iowa and I would have loved every second of it, just because I love those people. I love coach Ferentz, I love coach Doyle, but on the same hand, I wanted to push myself to be a better player, to be a bigger person at the next level. So that’s what I’m here to do.”
He might’ve already done it. Hockenson earned the “safest pick” tag from NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah. Several mock drafts have Hockenson in the top 10. If he goes eighth or ninth, that’s going to be a signing bonus in the $12 million range, according to spotrac.com.
“I love Hockenson,” Jeremiah said. “Part of the benefit for him in terms of what I gave him and where I ranked him, I did him the day after watching Rob Gronkowski live in person in the playoff game against the Chargers, and I saw Gronk completely dominate a football game without really having to catch the ball. He was just so dominant in the run game.
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“And then I flip on this kid, and he’s not as tall as Gronk, and I don’t compare anybody to Gronk, he’s on a whole different level in terms of what he can do, but I saw this kid with that same temperament and nastiness in the run game and controlling the run game, and then on top of that, he does nothing but get open and catch everything they throw to him.”
Hockenson was asked what he enjoys more, making a highlight catch or throwing a block that people make GIFs out of and circulate on social media (Hockenson might lead all draftees in this).
“I mean, they’re both pretty fun,” Hockenson said. “I mean, honestly, I love to block. I love to run routes. I just really pride myself on doing both. That I can do everything that the job requires as a tight end. That’s what I try to do.”
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