It may not be what Hawkeye fans want but it’s probably what’s best for T.J. Hockenson.
You already know that T.J. Hockenson won the John Mackey Award, handed to collegiate football’s most outstanding tight end. Hop over to their website and you’ll see the entire page is dedicated to him. Most impressive is this bit:
Most Mackey Award recipient write-ups include extensive career histories of the recipient but this year is a rare case. T.J. Hockenson finds himself making history in 2018 becoming the first underclassman to win the John Mackey Award in the nineteen years that it has been presented. Hockenson, a sophomore, shined in 2018 as an outstanding leader and gifted student athlete. Reputed for his outstanding grit and determination, Hockenson really burst on the scene in 2018 and showed to be both an outstanding receiver and blocker.
That about sums it up. Hockenson was simply exceptional in 2018. He brought down 46 balls for 717 yards, an impressive 15.6 YPR and caught six touchdowns. He also rushed for a touchdown on a wacky trick play. Equally outstanding was Hockenson’s blocking ability, seen here:
TJ Hockenson - The Block....my favorite highlight all season pic.twitter.com/ZxTQwTQXmY
— Hawkeye Football Fan (@HawkeyeFanHQ) October 14, 2018
Hockenson isn’t as an tremendous athlete as Fant, but it was his blocking ability that made him the every-down tight end for the Hawkeyes. Oh, and PS: Hockenson is still a ridiculous athlete.
— Wes (@wesfrdrk) December 5, 2018
As a redshirt freshman, he was Academic All-Big Ten and honorable mention for the Big Ten Conference All-Freshman team. As a sophomore he once again was Academic All-Big Ten, named the Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year in the Big Ten and named First Team All-Big Ten by media. The hype has never been bigger for T.J. Hockenson.
And that’s why he should enter the NFL Draft.
Hockenson is a native Iowan. His parents attended Iowa State and the Cyclones were the first to offer him a scholarship. But when Ferentz came calling with an offer he described it as “one of the best feelings” he’s ever had. He committed to Iowa and the rest, as they say, is history.
As a native Iowan, there is a sense of pride in playing and staying committed to your in-state school. That’s understandable. Hockenson has that pride. It's not about the money for him and he seems like the type of kid that would have no qualms about staying until his senior season to graduate.
Alternatively, unpaid college athletes have no insurance policies when it comes to their futures as football players. I think back to Michael Bush, a star running back for Louisville during the glory years of Bobby Petrino. Despite being projected as a top 10 player in the 2007 NFL Draft, Bush decided to stay for his senior season. In the very first game, against Kentucky, Bush broke his leg and missed the remainder of the year. He slipped to the fourth round in the NFL Draft and due to his injury wasn’t able to play until 2008. That broken leg cost Bush his career.
On that same note, that’s why a lot of guys who are even considering the NFL are skipping bowl games. Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith was a potential top 10 2016 NFL Draft pick. But in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State prior to that draft, he tore up his knee and dropped to the second round. He wasn’t able to play until 2017. Michigan tight end Jake Butt is another example of the dangers in playing in a bowl game, though Butt had preexisting knee injuries prior to his ACL tear in the Orange Bowl.
There are things beyond catastrophic injuries that can negatively impact NFL draft stock, too. Iowa fans can think back to Desmond King, who was a potential first rounded in the 2016 NFL Draft. King decided to stay for his senior season for academic reasons and while he wasn’t injured, he didn’t replicate his junior year and dropped to the fifth round of the 2017 Draft. Now, he’s a Pro Bowl candidate and was just named AFC Defensive Player of the Week.
If Hockenson stays, he’ll suffer the same fate as King. He’ll be torn apart by NFL scouts who will make a mountain out of a molehill and magnify his flaws, despite said flaws being trivial. This is saying nothing of the injury risk.
Additionally, he won’t have a better season than he did his sophomore year. At least not statistically. With Fant gone, the attention that defensive players gave him will be turned to Hockenson. Iowa’s wide receivers should continue to improve, yes, but Hockenson will be the focal point of any defense. Another question: how good will Iowa actually be next year? Trips to Iowa State, Michigan, Northwestern and Wisconsin and Penn State at home? Is Iowa expecting a special season next year? That seems doubtful -- with or without Hockenson.
Hockenson will ask for feedback from the NFL’s College Advisory Committee — just like a lot of Hawkeye underclassmen like Amani Hooker, Anthony Nelson and Nate Stanley will. That information usually comes back in late December.
They can give you a first-round grade; a second-round grade; or a stay-in-school recommendation. Their recommendations are typically spot-on.
At 6’5, 250 pounds, Hockenson is already bigger than George Kittle. He has touchdown highlights. He has blocking highlights. Chances are, the Advisory Committee will tell him that he’s ready for the NFL. And when that recommendation comes, he should seize the opportunity. The University of Iowa will always be here if he decides to return to finish his degree. The chance to go to in the first couple rounds of the NFL Draft might not be.