By Adam Hensley
“When I was getting recruited, I knew this was the ‘Tight End U.’ ”
Tight End U, as T.J. Hockenson and many other players and fans tab Iowa, doesn’t command the typical block-first personnel.
Kirk Ferentz’s squad possesses a one-two punch at tight end with a basketball background.
Hockenson and Noah Fant, two of quarterback Nate Stanley’s favorite targets this season, have quickly made names for themselves as one of the conference’s — and nation’s — top tight-end duos.
Iowa football is no stranger to tight ends, and it’s no secret Ferentz loves using them.
Over the past 10 seasons, Hawkeye quarterbacks have thrown 56 touchdown passes to tight ends — that’s roughly 30 percent of Iowa’s passing touchdowns during that span.
This season, though, the Hawkeyes tight ends have 10 bingos — no tight-end unit in the past 10 seasons has ever surpassed 8 touchdowns in a year — and there are still three games left in Iowa’s season (including a bowl game).
The 10 touchdowns — 7 by Fant, 3 by Hockenson — are the most by tight ends in a single season in the Ferentz era.
Iowa has had some stellar talent at tight ends over the years, Dallas Clark being one of them, but this year’s group isn’t like those from the early 2000s.
Fant and Hockenson bring speed, power, and showmanship to an often undervalued position outside of Iowa City and New England; this year’s tandem is a defensive coordinator’s worst nightmare.
“If you get a linebacker out there, it’s a lot of fun,” Fant said. “Linebackers aren’t as fast as safeties and corners.”
Just ask Ohio State’s linebackers — and head coach Urban Meyer, for that matter. The Buckeyes had no answer for Fant and Hockenson when then-No. 3 Ohio State traveled to Kinnick.
The game will go down as one of the biggest upsets in Hawkeye history; Iowa smacked Ohio State in the mouth, 55-24. Stanley put on a quarterback clinic for the ages, throwing for more than 200 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Four of the five scores zapped into the hands of the tight ends.
“It’s like our team, it’s week by week, and you just never know if they’re going to have a breakthrough moment or when they’re going to start,” Ferentz said. “Both those guys, they’ve got things they can get better at certainly, but I think they’re certainly helping us out a lot, and Nate seems to find them, too, when they get that chance. There’s no magic, nothing magic, I can tell you.
Fant and Hockenson each hauled in a pair of touchdowns in the win, and for the entire game, they kept the Buckeye defense guessing.
“The safety rolled over the top of him the first few throws, then he rolled on top of me, and we got a touchdown,” Hockenson said. “We complement each other.”
On one hand, Fant remains Iowa’s “speedy” tight end, although Hockenson isn’t far behind. On the other hand, Hockenson brings a little more power to his game, such as when he turned up field after catching a pass against Minnesota and sent a Gopher defender falling on his backside after lowering his shoulder.
“Looking back at the tape [from Ohio State], you can tell where they broke down in certain coverages,” Fant said. “Just simply, they didn’t have a guy to get there.”
This season has proved to be a roller coaster for the offense as a whole, but for a good portion of the year, Iowa’s tight ends have found their rhythm, and they chalk that success up to first-year offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz.
He noted earlier this season about the vast array of play calling and formations he can run based on when the tight ends are out on the field, especially with a guy such as Fant, who “lives in the hybrid world.”
“Sometimes, we have two tight ends on the field, but we just as easily could play with three receivers on the field and do the same kind of thing,” Brian said.
His new-look offense strives to incorporate Fant and Hockenson, and with two athletes who can block and run routes with wide-receiver ability, he can essentially mix and match the play calls with the same personnel on the field.
“We’re driven by our tight ends,” Brian said.
Both mismatch-creating players came from a multi-sport background, with basketball, in particular, being one both Fant and Hockenson excelled in.
“The coaches always said in recruiting, they look for multi-sport athletes,” Hockenson said. “Just because basketball is agility, you can show that you can move quick, moving in and out, and that helps you get in and out of your breaks and stance — just being athletic.”
Fant and Hockenson concluded their basketball careers as reliable post options, and each could throw down dunks during their heyday.
Fant said earlier this season that if he could play any sport besides football, it would be basketball.
“I think [my basketball background] helps a lot,” he said. “Being able to run route on safeties and corners is pretty helpful, not being limited to running routes on linebackers and stuff like that. I fell like it helps, especially in open space.”
Hockenson, even with the basketball background, had a different passion growing up: baseball.
A first baseman and pitcher, he said, one of the hardest things he’s done was breaking the news to his family that he’d rather play football as they traveled across the region for AAU baseball tournaments throughout middle school and high school.
But both Fant and Hockenson said they’re happy with the decisions they made, because now, at Tight End U, they’re quickly making a name for themselves.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, though.
On a fourth-down play against Northwestern in overtime, Stanley looked Fant’s way on a pass. The ball, placed right to the sophomore, bounced off his outstretched hands, ending the game, because Northwestern had already scored on its overtime possession.
“The most growth I got out of [this season] was Northwestern,” Fant said. “I grew a lot from it. I appreciate being in that point in time, because I feel like I can handle those situations.”
The Hawkeyes rebounded the following week against Minnesota, and Fant scored a touchdown in Iowa’s win. Looking up at the crowd, he pretended to row a boat — a play on Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck’s trademark motto — resulting in an eruption from the fans.
“You can’t have everything be so serious,” he said.
And that’s how both players are approaching the season. Fant and Hockenson are focused on the tasks that come with a different opponent each week, but they’re also blocking out the noise that comes with the added attention, because at the end of the day, there’s more than just the game of football.
“It’s a brotherhood with everyone,” Hockenson said. “But [the] tight ends are even closer.”