Iowa Football

T.J. Hockenson's greatest struggle this season is off-field decision

Iowa tight end may be NFL-bound in January - maybe

Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson (38) isn’t an easy tackle for Nebraska defensive back Tre Neal during the Hawkeyes’ 31-28 win at Kinnick Stadium on Nov. 23. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette
Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson (38) isn’t an easy tackle for Nebraska defensive back Tre Neal during the Hawkeyes’ 31-28 win at Kinnick Stadium on Nov. 23. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette

IOWA CITY — T.J. Hockenson is faced with a decision that is enviable, yet it isn’t.

You’re in a situation you really like, that gives you comfort and fulfillment. You’re surrounded by people you respect and enjoy. But there’s something out there calling for you, something that’s the ultimate goal in what you do, something you may not be able to delay for fear of what could happen if you do.

If the National Football League tells third-year sophomore tight end Hockenson to come get the big money of a high draftee, how does he stay in school for another season? It’s a brutal sport. Careers get derailed by injury every week, in college and the pros.

Fellow Hawkeye tight end Noah Fant didn’t wrestle with his decision. Shortly after the regular season ended, he bid his teammates farewell. The Hawkeyes aren’t playing for a national title, and Fant doesn’t need to play in another Outback Bowl to elevate the way he’s viewed by the pros.

In their most recent mock drafts — which will change over and over until April’s actual draft — Sports Illustrated and CBSsports.com each had Fant as a late first-rounder.

Players understand why Fant left when he did. John Mackey Award winner and second-team AP All-American Hockenson understands.

“I think Noah and I are completely different people,” Hockenson said last week. “He’s doing what he deems is best for him, and I’m on board with that.”

Since he hasn’t come to a decision about whether to turn pro after the Outback Bowl, Hockenson obviously never considered skipping the Outback Bowl. But he wouldn’t have even if he were sure of what his post-bowl move will be.

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“It’s not just another game,” he said. “You have these guys that, they lean on you, you lean on them.”

Plus, he said, “It’s a cool thing to be able to go somewhere and play someone out of your conference.”

Hockenson’s choice between the pros and one more year of the status quo as an enemy to Big Ten defenses will be made as logically as he thinks he can make it.

“I have a little notebook and I write things down after every conversation,” Hockenson said. “I’m going to go back after the bowl game and read what I have (written) down in that.

“I think writing something down is very helpful because then you don’t forget it and you have it to look back at it.

“I’m someone who, in order to make a decision as big as this one, I’m going to weigh and research and make sure I’m 100 percent sure on what decision I’m going to make.”

Hockenson has had several conversations with 2002 Mackey Award winner Dallas Clark, who left Iowa as a fourth-year junior. He was a first-round draftee of the Indianapolis Colts, and had a highly productive 11-year NFL career at tight end.

As far as resources go, Hockenson can’t do much better than Clark. He calls Clark “a great mentor. He’s a great person to talk to. He’s a great person in general. He’s not going to steer you wrong.”

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Yet, Hockenson said, “His situation was completely different. He was 23. He broke his collarbone before (his Hawkeye career ever began).”

But you know how this probably ends if the NFL tells him he’ll be drafted early. Someone who is giving a jump to the pros this much thought has ample reason to go. Someone with his size, blocking ability, receiving skills, and ability to rack up yards after contact would make many an NFL offensive coordinator happy.

Going pro early wasn’t an easy decision for Clark, either. The NFL advisory committee told him he was a probable second-rounder. He said he used that as motivation to work his way into the first round, and did.

If that same scenario turns out to be Hockenson’s, would anyone around here be the least bit surprised?

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

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