By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Three years ago at this time, T.J. Hockenson was leading his high school basketball team in scoring and preparing to play football for the University of Iowa.
The Chariton native is now one of the three finalists for the prestigious John Mackey Award, which goes to the top collegiate tight end in the country, and is also considering declaring for the 2019 NFL Draft.
“It is really crazy and it is surreal,” Hockenson said of his rapid ascent to stardom. “There is not a whole lot of words that I can say. It’s just been a lot of fun and I’m here for the ride.”
The question is, but for how long?
Hockenson still has two seasons of eligibility as a third-year sophomore, but he is also hot right now as Iowa’s leading receiver.
In addition to making first-team All-Big Ten, Hockenson was also the recipient of the Ozzie Newsome Award, which is named after the former Alabama All-America tight end and NFL All-Pro.
Hockenson loves being a Hawkeye and is grateful for everything the Iowa coaches have helped him achieve in such a short time.
But the chance to play in the NFL is an opportunity that so few get to experience.
That’s why Hockenson has no problem with Noah Fant’s recent decision to declare for the NFL Draft. Fant projects as a possible first-round pick at tight end after playing for three seasons at Iowa.
He and Hockenson formed one of the most productive tight end combinations in program history over the past two seasons.
Fant’s decision to leave early for the draft means he will not play against Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day in Tampa. Fla.
Hockenson said he was surprised a little bit by Fant’s decision, but doesn’t blame him for leaving early.
“He’s in a good situation and he’s done everything he can for this university,” Hockenson said. “As a friend and as a teammate, I’m going to support him in that decision.
“Obviously, would I love to have him for one more game, or even another year? That would be lot of fun. But at the same time, as a friend I’m still going to talk to him every day. He’s a good guy, so it doesn’t affect anything.”
Iowa has had several players leave early for the NFL Draft under head coach Kirk Ferentz, including former All-America tight end Dallas Clark in 2003. However, Clark was 23 years old at the time and had been out of high school since 1998, making him one of the oldest players on the team when he decided to skip his senior season.
Hockenson, on the other hand, turned just 21 in July.
Ferentz told reporters on Sunday that he recently met with a handful of his players to discuss the possibility of leaving early for the NFL.
Ferentz didn’t say which players he spoke to, but Hockenson was among them, along with All-Big Ten defensive back Amani Hooker and quarterback Nate Stanley, both of whom are third-year juniors.
Asked if he expects to lose any more players with eligibility remaining to the NFL Draft, Ferentz said it was too early to know.
“You know, it's really early in the game,” Ferentz said. “I sat down with a handful of the players that might be in that category and are interested in looking at what the Draft panel says. The NFL put a really good packet out this year, I think just a very good informational packet. I shared it with the players and their parents.
“It's an educational process for all to go through and gather good information, reliable information from people that really know the Draft and can project it and know the Draft board this year. But again, it just gets down to a personal decision for the players involved. We'll let the process play out and see where it all goes.”
Ferentz said in a release that he was disappointed that Fant chose not to play in the bowl game. Ferentz explained what he meant on Sunday.
“I'm disappointed any time someone doesn't get an opportunity to play, whether it's an ankle injury or whatever it may be; if somebody is not able to be with us, that's disappointing, but that's part of football, too, and that's certainly part of this process,” Ferentz said. “The only thing I talked to our players about all the time, you've heard me say it before, one thing about college football, we all choose to do this, as players and as coaches and then we're able to do this.
“Everybody's got to make a decision about how they want to handle their future, their course of action, and ultimately, you want guys on the bus and on the sideline that are fully invested in it. What we do is so hard and so competitive that if you're not fully into it, it's not good for anybody.
“I certainly respect Noah's decision. I think it's something he and his family felt was best for him and his interests, and I understand that and can appreciate that. We're just all very appreciative of what he's done for our team and for our program over the last couple years, and wish him nothing but the best. He'll have a great future.”
Hockenson said his decision will not be based on money.
He is more intrigued by the chance to play football at the highest level and against the best players in the NFL.
“Money is not an issue or something I’m chasing,” Hockenson said. “I think it’s more the talent level and just trying to push yourself to the limit. I think that’s what any competitor would do.”
The grade that Hockenson receives from the NFL Draft Advisory Board will be a huge factor in his decision.
He certainly has the statistics with over the 700 receiving yards this season, and the size at 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds.
Combine those two strengths with the possibility of receiving a high grade from the advisory board and it makes sense that Hockenson would be contemplating an early entry in the draft.
Hockenson is in a win-win situation in that he will either return to Iowa and build on his legacy or start getting paid handsomely to play football.
“I owe everything to this football program,” Hockenson said.