Iowa's reputation for developing NFL tight ends receives a major boost at the NFL Combine

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Noah Fant (87) and T.J. Hockenson (38) listen to the play call in the Iowa huddle. Photo by Jeff Yoder

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Unless you absolutely despise cold weather or are hell-bent on playing for a blue blood program, how could a tight end recruit not at least be interested in getting a closer look at the Iowa football program?

That was my feeling before the start of the 2019 NFL Combine, but even more so now that Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson have helped to promote Iowa’s cause by promoting their own cause.

Fant has been especially impressive as expected because the combine is tailor-made for a freakish athlete like him.

The Omaha, Neb., native ran the 40-yard dash in 4.51 seconds, which is the fastest time for a tight end at this year’s combine.

Hockenson was clocked in 4.71 seconds, which is more than respectable when combined with all of his other skills.

There is a very realistic chance that Fant and Hockenson could be the first two tight ends selected in the 2019 NFL Draft, and both could be taken in the first round.

That is incredible when you really think about it; two players from the same school who play the same position are both poised to be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. That never has happened before.

A cynic in order to minimize Iowa’s influence would mention the bizarre way in which Fant was utilized this past season in the Iowa offense, but Fant still combined for 18 touchdown receptions over the past two seasons.

He also went from being a 3-star prospect that some colleges wanted as a defensive end to an NFL-ready tight end in just three seasons as Iowa.

So while there were some issues with his playing time this past season, the good still outweighs the bad with regard to Fant’s career at Iowa.

Hockenson also spent just three years at Iowa, but unlike Fant, he was redshirted as a true freshman in 2016.

So Hockenson only played for two seasons, and yet, here he is knocking on the door of NFL riches and fame.

The Chariton native went from being a solid contributor as redshirt freshman in 2017 to the 2018 John Mackey Award winner, which goes to the nation’s top collegiate tight end.

That is some serious player development that doesn’t just happen by accident. It takes the right environment and the right people to help make it happen.

Hockenson gets emotional whenever he talks about the impact of the Iowa coaches, particularly offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, who also coaches the tight ends, and head coach Kirk Ferentz.

“I can’t say enough good things about the Ferentzes,” Hockenson said Friday during his interview session in front of the national media. “They put me in this position. I love them to death. Coach Ferentz is a mentor of mine. Just being a part of that program was really special to me.”

Being a Hawkeye was also extremely beneficial, considering Hockenson and Fant are both on the verge of changing their lives for the better because of football.

They both took advantage of their opportunity at Iowa and will soon be rewarded handsomely for their hard work and commitment.

Fant said his goal is to be first tight end taken in the draft, and he described his relationship with Hockenson as friendly competition. It was that way at Iowa, and nothing has changed with the combine as they both push each other to get better.

“Obviously, I want both me and T.J. to go in the first round,” Fant said. “He’s a great player and it’s going to be fun to compete on the field.”

Fant was asked to explain why he decided to the skip the Outback Bowl, and it basically came down to not wanting to risk getting injured in the game, but also in the practices leading up to the game because Fant said Iowa’s practices during bowl preparation are like spring football in that they're tough and physical.

Fant was also asked to explain Iowa’s success with developing tight ends, and his answer was very complimentary of the system under Kirk Ferentz.

“I think they’re so good with tight ends because they develop them,” Fant said of the Iowa coaches. “It’s not just a program where you just run routes or you just catch balls. You have to do both. You have to put your hand in the dirt, you have to spread out.

“And that’s kind of where I pride myself on and where I fit into the offense is I was able to be in-line. I was able to be flexed out. I was able to be an isolated receiver. So definitely a versatile place and they definitely develop their guys.”

Fant told the media on Saturday in Indianapolis that he will participate in Iowa's Pro Day on March 25 in Iowa City, another sign that he still has a relationship with the Iowa coaches. 

Fant also gave credit to former Iowa tight end and current NFL All-Pro George Kittle for being a mentor and an inspiration.

“He’s a great guy and I look up to him,” Fant said. “He’s done a lot for me, keeping in touch with me and giving me advice. And it inspires me to get the opportunity to get into the NFL and do the same thing, hopefully.”

So, yeah, maybe I’m a little bias after having covered the Iowa football team for nearly 30 years, but how could you not being impressed with the player development at tight end?

Iowa has three tight ends as part of its incoming recruiting class, all of whom are from the state of Illinois.

But it’s most likely the veterans on the current roster who will be handed the torch at tight end.

Seniors Nate Wieting and Drew Cook and junior Shaun Beyer will all have the opportunity to flourish in Iowa’s pro-style offense.

Wieting is the only one of among the three who has caught a pass in college, so Iowa’s ability to reload will be tested, just like it was tested when Fant and Hockenson started playing.

And now, look where they are.