By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - The Iowa football team had three tight ends in its 2016 recruiting class, but Shaun Beyer is all that remains.
T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant already have achieved stardom at Iowa in just three years and have since declared for the 2019 NFL Draft where they both project as possible first-round picks.
Beyer, meanwhile, is trying to bounce back from a sophomore season that included more than its share of heartache and disappointment.
His problems started when Beyer made a mistake on special teams that helped Wisconsin escape with a 28-17 victory in the Big Ten opener at Kinnick Stadium.
Beyer was blocking on a punt return in the third quarter when he inadvertently backed into a rolling football that scraped against the back of his leg. The Badgers recovered the fumble at Iowa’s 10-yard line and then scored a touchdown three players later, turning a 10-7 deficit into a 14-10 lead.
Beyer was devastated by his mistake and it wasn’t easy showing up for practice the next day because he felt responsible for the loss to a Big Ten border rival at home.
“It was hard to flush because I felt like I had let my teammates down,” Beyer said. “But everyone here in the building was super supportive. It was hard to come back and look everybody in the eyes. But everybody was super supportive and had nice things to say.
“I was eager to show what I can do.”
Beyer would go on to play mostly on special teams last season, although, he was starting see some action at tight end when he suffered a knee injury that caused him to miss the final four games.
Beyer is now eager to show what he can do as a fourth-year junior, but the circumstances have changed dramatically since last season with Hockenson and Fant now headed to the NFL.
Beyer, along with seniors Nate Wieting and Drew Cook, and sophomore Tommy Kujawa, fill that top four spots at tight end on Iowa’s spring depth chart, with Beyer and Wieting listed as the starters.
The tight ends are faced with the daunting task of trying to pick up where Hockenson and Fant left off, which is probably asking way too much, considering that Hockenson won the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top collegiate tight end last season, and that he and Fant also combined for 88 catches 1,279 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns last season.
Wieting, with three career receptions, is the only tight end on the spring roster who has caught a pass for Iowa.
“There’s pressure,” Beyer said. “But you’ve just got to attack and stick to your fundamentals and do your best. And that’s all you can give.”
In addition to trying to replace two of the best tight ends in program history, Beyer is also recovering from a serious knee injury.
Beyer participated in his first full spring practice on Tuesday, and he said it went well.
“It’s taken longer than I expected, but it’s getting better every day,” Beyer said.
It would make sense to think that without Hockenson and Fant on the roster there might be a drop in productivity at tight end. But that thinking also serves as motivation for Beyer, and for the other tight ends.
“It’s a big motivator,” Beyer said. “We definitely take things as a challenge and compete every day. It’s definitely something that is going to motivate us.”
A quiet confidence
Talk to Beyer long enough and you’ll notice a quiet, subtle confidence to him.
He isn’t cocky or arrogant, but he seems pretty sure of himself.
And he needs to be sure of himself because he plays the position on the Iowa football team that probably will be questioned and scrutinized more than any other position, given the highly unusual circumstances at tight end.
The situation at tight end will test Iowa’s ability to reload rather than rebuild.
Beyer and his cohorts wouldn’t have to match what Hockenson and Fant accomplished to be considered a success. But they will have to deliver at a position that plays a significant role in Iowa’s running game and passing attack.
Beyer considers his speed to be his greatest asset when healthy, but he also knows that his ability to block will go a long way in determining his role.
“I feel that is the biggest thing I need to keep working on,” Beyer said of his blocking. “And, obviously, there are other things that I can work on, too. But I’m coming along. It’s tougher with my knee right now. But it’s getting stronger and stronger and that’s just something that I’ve got to keep focusing on.”
Beyer was a multi-sport star at Cedar Rapids Kennedy High School, where he competed in football, basketball, wrestling and track and field.
He cleared 6-feet-7 in the high jump and was fast enough to where the Iowa coaches initially used him at receiver.
“I have an advantage with my speed,” said the 6-foot-5, 244-pound Beyer. “A lot of people have been comparing me to Noah. I don’t know if I’m that fast. But I’d say that’s one of my advantages.”
Attention to detail
Perhaps the only good thing about being injured last season is that it allowed Beyer to study the tight end position up close.
“It was frustrating, yes, but it was also a big learning experience because it gave me the opportunity to really hit the film and study stuff mentally,” Beyer said. “It gave me the opportunity to really watch how T.J. and Noah play. I wasn’t able to get the reps and be actually in there. But I took a lot of big mental notes. So I took a big step forward that way.”
Beyer watched countless hours of game film and he watched how Hockenson and Fant conducted themselves, especially Hockenson, because Beyer noticed something unique about Hockenson right away.
“Something that T.J. did really well is he paid attention to the details,” Beyer said. “He spent a lot of time in the film room. He watched George Kittle. T.J. to me is George Kittle to T.J., kind of.
“So I’m getting in the film room and really watching him. I think that’s part of why T.J. was so great. He paid great attention to detail.”
George Kittle played tight end for Iowa from 2013-16 and is now a star for the San Francisco 49ers.
A change of plans
Beyer was previously committed to North Dakota State for a few months, but with the understanding that he would switch to Iowa should he receive a scholarship offer from the Hawkeyes.
The offer finally came shortly after the end of Beyer’s senior season in football. He met with former Iowa assistant coach Reese Morgan, who explained the timing of Iowa's offer.
"He sat down and talked to me after the season and said we wanted you to really focus on your season," Beyer said of Morgan, who recently retired after having spent 19 seasons on the Iowa staff. "We know you guys are having a great season at Kennedy, so we wanted you to focus on that and not be worried about recruiting as much, so we wanted to wait.
"So I appreciated that and it was something that I took to heart."
Beyer was asked on Tuesday if he was convinced that the scholarship offer from Iowa would eventually come.
"I thought so," he said. "But you never know. There were already two tight ends that were already committed with Noah and T.J. So I didn't know if they wanted me to walk-on or what. So it still was surprising and very exciting."
Beyer said Nebraska tried to make a late push, but with no success.
“The harder call for me actually was calling Nebraska that week because I was supposed to go to Nebraska and be a recruit for them against Iowa,” Beyer said. “But I don’t know if I could have cheered for the red guys.
“They really wanted me to come take a visit and change my mind. But I didn’t want to do that. I knew I wanted to be at Iowa.”