Iowa football notebook: T.J. Hockenson feeling more comfortable in the offense; Hooker may play in nickel packages

T.J. Hockenson signals a first down against Ohio State last season. Photo by Jeff Yoder.

By Tyler Devine

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Brian Ferentz’s offense was at times a force to be reckoned with during his first season as the Iowa offensive coordinator, while other times it sputtered like an old jalopy.

Sophomore tight end T.J. Hockenson played a key role when the offense was rocking, accounting for 320 yards and three touchdowns on 24 catches, the majority of which resulted in first downs.

The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Hockenson now looks to turn his familiarity with the system into consistent production.

“It’s gotten a lot better,” Hockenson said Tuesday. “It’s more I know my assignment now I just need to figure out how to do it, if that makes sense. Having coach (LeVar) Woods last year, he really helped with that and now having Brian there’s a whole new aspect to seeing everything, seeing the defense, taking everything into account and not just your assignment.”

Becoming more consistent for Hockenson involves being sound fundamentally, particularly when it comes to running routes and blocking.

“I would say more my route running and my blocking,” Hockenson said. “All of it needs works obviously, last year was my freshman year and I’m going into my redshirt sophomore year. I’m just trying to see the defense as it is and what’s ahead of me and try and play it by that.”

A big reason for Hockenson’s ability to get open last season was the attention opposing defenses paid to junior tight end Noah Fant.

The 6-foot-5, 241-pound Fant amassed 494 yards on 30 catches and set an Iowa single-season record for tight ends with 11 touchdown catches.

Fant’s status as a vertical threat often left Hockenson wide open on underneath routes, which provided a valuable safety blanket for first-year starting quarterback Nate Stanley.

“Noah’s a great player, we all know that,” Hockenson said. “He’s fast and it creates open spaces for everyone. They’re all trying to make sure he doesn’t go deep so it lets you have open spaces up front. There’s a lot of things that Noah does that are remarkable. 

“He opens defenses, he does a lot of stuff, so he opens a lot of people up. That’s what you need in a player, especially at the tight end position it’s really nice to have.”

While Fant could be compared to a Dodge Charger, Hockenson is more like an F-150.

But the two share a common denominator: they create mismatches that will go a long way in determining Iowa’s offensive success this fall.

“The whole offense is trying to get mismatches and the tight ends, as a group, were a big part of mismatches last year and hopefully it will be this year again,” Hockenson said. “We can block, we can run routes, we’re doing all of that. We’re just trying to get the mismatches.”

Drew Cook making progress: Hockenson was asked on Tuesday what strides Drew Cook has made this spring at tight end. Cook switched from quarterback to tight end last spring, but didn't see any game action during the 2017 season..

"Pretty big ones," Hockenson said. "Drew, he’s a good guy, and he knows what’s expected from him. Coming from a quarterback and not getting hit much and going to tight end and having a lot of physicality every day, he’s really stepped up. You can tell he loves the tight end position.”

The 6-5, 250-pound Cook has the bloodlines to play tight end as the son of former Iowa All-America tight end Marv Cook. Drew played football for his father at Iowa City Regina where he was an all-state quarterback. He was also a four-year letterman for a team that won four consecutive state titles. 

Injury report: Second-year offensive line coach Tim Polasek said Tuesday that junior offensive lineman Levi Paulsen suffered an undisclosed injury.

The 6-foot-5, 305-pound Paulsen was listed as the starting right guard ahead of his twin brother, Landan Paulsen, at the beginning of spring practice.

Polasek said that more information on the injury will come to light soon, but there is no reason to panic about Iowa’s depth on the offensive line.

“Cole Banwart will get some work, Ross Reynolds will flip over there,” Polasek said. “We’ll make things happen. We’re not too concerned about who those people are right now. It’s still about providing them enough opportunity and repetitions where you get a look at enough guys.”

Brincks scholarship security: Senior defensive end Sam Brincks became a former walk-on during Iowa’s preparation for the Pinstripe Bowl in December.

The 6-foot-5, 275-pound Brincks was awarded a scholarship after seeing action in all 13 of Iowa’s games last season, accumulating 19 tackles along the way.

Brincks said that he thinks his team-first attitude led to him being awarded the scholarship.

“It was very rewarding,” Brincks said. “It was awesome. It’s been a goal as a walk-on since I’ve come here so it felt good. Everybody kind of prioritizes it or thinks about how can I get the scholarship but I’ve always taken the approach of how can I get on the field and contribute. I think that lead to the scholarship eventually.”

As is the Iowa way, there was no pomp and circumstance surrounding the announcement, just business as usual.

“Coach (Kirk) Ferentz kind of just pulled me to the side after a practice during bowl prep and told me that I would be (on scholarship) in January, so kind of nonchalant,” Brincks said.

“I ran over and told some of my buddies, some of the defensive line guys and they were pretty excited but we were focused on the bowl.”

Hooker helping out: Defensive coordinator Phil Parker hinted during a recent press conference that junior strong safety Amani Hooker might have a new role this season.

Parker said that the Iowa coaching staff had considered playing the 6-foot, 210-pound Hooker closer the line of scrimmage in certain situations.

Hooker, a native of Minneapolis, Minn., downplayed speculation during Tuesday’s press conference, saying that he will likely end up as the nickelback covering a slot receiver.

Hooker did say, however, that he had been working at both safety positions during spring practice.

“I’ve been working strong but we’ve been working left and right safeties as well,” Hooker said. “I’m kind of converted right now. The first couple practices it was more left, right but now it’s strong safety, free safety.”

Duwa-ing well so far: If not for an injury during bowl preparation, redshirt freshman Levi Duwa may have found himself on the two-deeps at center during spring practice.

Duwa, a native of Kalona, Iowa, switched from defensive line to center during practice for the Pinstripe Bowl, but missed time due to an ankle injury.

Polasek said that Duwa has impressed him so far in his limited amount of time at center.

“Levi Duwa has been really good the last couple of days, knowing where he started,” Polasek said. He’s only played center about 12 days or so because during bowl prep he went down with the ankle. 

“What I see him doing now, I really wonder if he had had all the bowl prep how far ahead he’d be. He’s doing great. He’ll fight you, he’s competitive, he’s up to 270 pounds. Really smart football kid, just dealing with the basics.”