Steve Alford once called Iowa a football school, but he needed to be more specific

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

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Steve Alford once referred to the University of Iowa as a football school, mostly out of convenience, but he was correct to a point.

If anything, Iowa is a tight end school and proof should come on Thursday when former Hawkeye tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant are both taken high in the 2019 NFL Draft.

There is a chance that Hockenson and Fant both could be selected in the first round, and if so, history would be made because no college team has ever had two tight ends taken in the first round of the NFL Draft.

In fact, only two tight ends were selected in the first round from 2011 to 2016.

So Hockenson and Fant have a chance to make history together, or on their own based on when they’re taken in the draft.

Dallas Clark is the only Iowa tight end to have been selected in the first round of the NFL Draft as the Indianapolis Colts took him with the 24th pick overall in 2003.

Hockenson and Fant both project as possible first-round picks with some mock drafts picking Hockenson to be among the first 10 players taken in the draft.

It is hard to know for sure where Hockenson and Fant stand because everybody seems to share their feelings about the NFL Draft, except for those who actually do the drafting.

Hockenson and Fant are widely regarded as the top two tight ends in this year’s draft, and that by itself is impressive.

The fact that they are from the same school, and that they left Iowa with eligibility remaining, makes their story even more impressive, and extremely rare.

Iowa has had nine tight ends selected in the NFL Draft during 20 seasons under head coach Kirk Ferentz. That averages out to one tight end being selected almost every other year.

That number will jump to 11 on Thursday and that would match the number of Iowa defensive linemen that have been selected in the NFL Draft under Ferentz.

A total of 17 offensive linemen have been selected under Ferentz followed by 13 defensive backs.

But no other position has come close to matching what Hockenson and Fant are poised to do on Thursday in Nashville, Tenn., if the projections hold true.

The draft will serve as sort of a commercial for the Iowa football program, and the nation will hear about how Hockenson went from being an unheralded recruit from Chariton who had just two power five scholarship offers to the 2018 John Mackey Award winner as the top collegiate tight end as a third-year sophomore.

“T.J, was a guy that had two offers when he committed to us, one was from us, one was from Iowa State and no one else was involved in it,” said Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, who also coaches the tight ends. “Wasn't heralded, wasn't heralded as recently at six months ago, and now is looking at fulfilling his dream of playing in the NFL. I think it's more about the person.

“Noah had a few more offers, but he wasn't a national recruit, either. He was more of a regional guy. I guess UCLA was involved at the end, but it wasn't like he had a million schools he was choosing from. It was pretty regional, and ultimately, he was the right person, too.

The nation will hear on Thursday that the speedy Fant combined to catch 18 touchdown passes over the past two seasons, including 11 as a sophomore, which is the most for an Iowa tight end in a single season.

Iowa already has one of the top tight ends in the NFL in George Kittle, who in his second season this past fall set the single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end with 1,377 yards, and earned his first Pro Bowl selection.

Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley has combined to throw 52 touchdown passes over the past two seasons, which is the most by an Iowa quarterback in back-to-back seasons.

And more than half of Stanley’s touchdown passes (27) were caught by Hockenson and Fant.

Hockenson and Fant are attractive to NFL teams because of their talent and productivity. But they also have benefitted from having played under Kirk Ferentz, whose pro-style offense is perfect in preparing a tight end for the NFL.

Iowa tight ends are expected to do just about everything, with run blocking a top priority.

The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Hockenson probably is a more complete tight end at this stage than the 6-5, 241-pound Fant, but Fant is more explosive and more dangerous in space.

Brian Ferentz isn’t sure if the exposure that Hockenson and Fant receive from the draft will help Iowa in recruiting, but there are signs that it's paying dividends in recruiting.

Iowa has three tight ends in its 2019 recruiting class and recently received a verbal commitment from 2020 tight end and Texas native Elijah Yelverton, who reportedly has over 35 scholarships offers.

“If you can find the right guy that has all those qualities, then, yeah, sure, you hope it works out,” Brian Ferentz said. “I guess I'm jaded or cynical. I just don't believe that that's going to make a lasting impact.

“I think that right now, if you don't recruit the right kid, the right things aren't going to impress him, anyway.”

With Hockenson and Fant, Iowa obviously recruited the right kid in both cases.

They were not only good fits, but also terrific players who are about to be handsomely rewarded for all of their hard work and success at Iowa.

So Alford was right to call Iowa a football school. He just needed to be more specific.