By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - Ever since Hayden Fry had them stand up 40 years ago, the tight end has been a key piece to the Iowa offense.
From Jim Swift to Mike Hufford to Mike Flagg to Marv Cook to Michael Titley to Alan Cross to Scott Slutzker to Dallas Clark to Brandon Meyers to Tony Moeaki to C.J Fiedorowicz to George Kittle to T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, the list of tight ends who have excelled at Iowa is long and impressive, and it just keeps growing.
Hockenson and Fant are the latest tight ends to have thrived at Iowa, and they now rank as two of the best tight ends in program history, which is saying a lot, and they’re both about to become rich as potential NFL first-round draft picks.
Hockenson was asked recently if he ever has given serious thought about how far he has come in a short time.
“There have been so many things in my life that have gotten me to this point,” Hockenson said. “There’s been hard work and there’s been so many people that have gotten me here. This university has gotten me so far. You’ve just got to remember that and go back to that.”
Hockenson and Fant have brought even more attention and fame to a position that has long been respected and celebrated at Iowa for its dual role of blocking and receiving.
No position has to rely on the rare combination of brute force and finesse more than an Iowa tight end does.
It was that way under Fry and little has changed under current Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz.
Show that you can play with force and finesse at Iowa and your future suddenly changes as evidenced by the number of Iowa tight ends who have gone on to play in the NFL.
Hockenson went from being redshirted in 2016 to winning the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top collegiate tight end this past season as a third-year sophomore, while Fant combined for 18 touchdown catches as a sophomore and junior.
Their rise to stardom made a huge impression on three-star tight end and Texas native Elijah Yelverton, who committed to Iowa’s 2020 recruiting class on Friday.
Yelverton reportedly had at least 36 scholarship offers, and yet, still picked Iowa, thanks partly to what Hockenson and Fant accomplished.
“It’s definitely something I saw,” Yelverton said. “It definitely caught my eye, how well they were performing. I just thought I could go in and do the same thing and be the next first round pick.”
Hayden Fry’s influence
Nobody had more to do with ending the Big Ten’s three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust reputation than Hayden Fry.
He also helped to end Michigan and Ohio State’s stranglehold on the conference, and did so partly by bringing a wide-open passing attack to the run-dominated Big Ten.
Fry drew a lot of attention when he had high tight ends stand at the line of scrimmage for the snap. That was the first sign that Fry planned to use his tight ends as more than just blockers.
Swift and Hufford didn’t compile huge statistics or win any significant awards. But they were there at the beginning under Fry and were sort of like pioneers in that they helped carve a new role for the tight end position.
Cook was the first Iowa tight end under Fry to make first-team All-Big Ten in 1987. Cook was solid as a blocker, but catching passes is by far where he made his biggest impact.
Cook had 49 catches for 803 receiving yards as a junior in 1987 and 63 catches for 767 yards as a senior in 1988.
The 63 catches by Cook in 1988 still is the most by an Iowa tight end for a single season.
Cook’s son, Drew Cook, also plays tight end for Iowa and will be a senior this fall.
The younger Cook is part of a new wave of tight ends who are faced with the challenge of trying to fill the voids left by Hockenson and Fant.
Iowa also has three tight ends in its incoming recruiting class, so there will be plenty of options.
Senior Nate Stanley has combined to throw 52 touchdown passes over the past two season, which is the most by an Iowa quarterback in back-to-back seasons.
More than half of Stanley’s 52 touchdown passes were caught by Fant and Hockenson, who had 18 and nine touchdown catches, respectively, over the past two seasons.
The tight end position has stood tall at Iowa ever since Fry had them stand up.
Some are even going as far as to call Iowa Tight End U, and that kind of hype gets noticed by recruits.