Iowa Football

In just 2 seasons, Iowa's T.J. Hockenson went from 'work in progress' to Mackey winner

Chariton native named the nation's top tight end

Iowa Hawkeyes tight end T.J. Hockenson (38) celebrates a touchdown on a pass set up by a faked field goal in the third q
Iowa Hawkeyes tight end T.J. Hockenson (38) celebrates a touchdown on a pass set up by a faked field goal in the third quarter of their game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017. Iowa won 55-24. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Iowa tight end 2017 looked pretty good.

You had sophomore Noah Fant, who got on the field as a true freshman in 2016 and made some noise. Senior Peter Pekar was an established inline-blocker tight end with some experience and trust. Senior Jon Wisnieski was healthy and ready to throw his 6-5, 250 pounds around.

There also was a pair of redshirt freshmen in Shaun Beyer and T.J. Hockenson. Maybe one of those guys could carve out some sort of niche?

Iowa TE TJ Hockenson from 2017

During the spring game, on an April night, Hockenson led everyone with four catches. That was something, a start at least.

Hockenson didn’t come up during head coach Kirk Ferentz’s news conference following the 2017 spring game.

And, then, on the game notes going into the 2017 opener against Wyoming, there was Hockenson, listed as a starter ahead of Pekar.

And now here is Hockenson.

On Wednesday, the third-year sophomore from Chariton was named the winner of the 2018 John Mackey Award, presented annually to the nation’s top tight end.

Hockenson is the second Iowa tight end to earn the award, joining Dallas Clark (2002). Tony Moeaki (2009), Allen Reisner (2010) and Fant (2018) have been semifinalists for the award.


Hockenson is the first sophomore to win the award, and Iowa is one of two schools (Arkansas) to have multiple winners. Hockenson is the fifth Big Ten player to be recognized.

How did this happen so quickly? Hockenson was a relative unknown at the beginning of the 2017 season and now is the Mackey Award winner at the end of 2018.

Iowa people know a pretty big slice of the answer. Hockenson hadn’t been asked to block much as a prep at Chariton. He was busy becoming the most productive receiver in Iowa high school football history.

As a senior, Hockenson finished with 85 catches for 1,228 yards and 17 touchdowns. During his high school career, he finished with a state record 238 receptions for 3,560 yards and 49 touchdowns (also a state record).

Hockenson hooping

Hockenson was always the tall kid. He moved from Cherokee to Chariton around sixth grade and that’s when he kind of became all-time tight end. His athleticism made him a headache for linebackers. His size made him a mismatch for cornerbacks.

On the college level, he knew the blocking question was coming. He had offers from Iowa and Iowa State. He picked the Hawkeyes the June before his senior year and shut down recruiting.

So, as an Iowa tight end, he knew the blocking thing was going to be more than a question. It was going to be the determining factor on whether or not he saw the field.

“I know I need to improve myself as a blocker, that’s the big thing for me,” Hockenson said at the time. “I’ve never really done it. I wanted to show (during a camp in Iowa City, summer of 2015) that I was willing to block. I got an offer and I think they saw what they needed to.”

Yep, that.


Then, after taking a redshirt season, Hockenson showed up right away. You could tell learning how to block meant a lot to him. After the North Texas game last season, Hockenson responded to a compliment on his blocking with a genuine, “Thank you, that means a lot.” He also added, “I’m a work in progress.”

Not anymore.

Here’s linebackers coach Seth Wallace, who was Iowa’s recruiting coordinator back in 2016 when Hockenson signed with the Hawkeyes: “Extremely versatile, very athletic. We heard from numerous people across the state of Iowa well, well in advance of making any decisions that he was the one we needed to look at. We were on it early. We had a chance to be around he and his family multiple times. He broke receiving records in the state of Iowa, which was an indication that his ball skills are through the roof.

“The biggest thing is we’re getting another athlete with outstanding size who we mold into the best fit offensively, whether that’s a move guy or a ‘line of scrimmage’ guy, he’s going to be a good one.”

Going into the Outback Bowl, Hockenson leads Iowa with 46 receptions for 717 yards and has six receiving touchdowns. He also has one rushing touchdown, off a fake field goal at Minnesota.

Hockenson averages 15.6 yards per catch. His career totals include 70 receptions for 1,037 yards. He’s seventh among Iowa tight ends career-wise with nine touchdown receptions. Hockenson has surpassed 100 receiving yards twice in 2018, with 125 yards on three receptions versus Wisconsin and four catches for 107 yards at Indiana.

Hockenson is contemplating an early jump to the NFL, which would leave two seasons on the board as a third-year sophomore. Big Ten tight end of the year, first-team all-Big Ten and now the Mackey Award, it’d be awfully shortsighted not to look into it.

“I’m trying to take in as much information as I can and then make a decision from there,” Hockenson said.

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