Positional Awareness 2018: The Era of the Pass Catching Tight End is Upon Us

By Mike Jones on May 30, 2018 at 12:00 pm
Noah Fant scores touchdowns for a living.

© Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

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Positional Awareness is our annual rundown of the Iowa depth chart, from the position where we are most confident in what Kirk Ferentz intends to do to, well, running back.

Previously on Positional Awareness:

  1. Quarterback
Eligibility Remaining    
No. Player Year Ht/Wt. Position 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022
18 Drew Cook JR 6-5/250 Tight End          
39 Nate Wieting JR 6-4/250 Tight End          
85 Nate Vejvoda JR 6-5/250 Tight End          
87 Noah Fant JR 6-5/241 Tight End          
38 T.J. Hockenson SO 6-5/250 Tight End          
42 Shaun Beyer SO 6-5/240 Tight End          
46 Tommy Kujawa FR(RS) 6-3/230 Tight End          
48 Bryce Schulte FR(RS) 6-3/244 Tight End          
86 Noah Feldman FR(RS) 6-4/230 Tight End          
88 Jacob Coons FR(RS) 6-3/220 Tight End          
  Ben Subbert FR 6-3/235 Tight End          

When Iowa listed two starting tight ends in their 2017 Media Guide, it signaled a dramatic shift in their offensive philosophy. Under Greg Davis, there were only three wide receivers and one tight end listed on Iowa’s depth chart. This corresponded with Davis’s “horizontal offense,” which relied heavily on short passes, primarily to wide receivers. Consider that in 2016, tight ends accounted for only 389 yards and 5 total touchdowns. Under Brian Ferentz, who built his playbook in the vein of Ken O’Keefe, tight ends were prominently featured in 2017, accounting for 840 yards and 14 touchdowns. With continuing questions at wide receiver in 2018, you can expect another productive year from Iowa’s tight ends, a position unit that features one of the best duos in the Big Ten, if not the nation.

THE ORACLE OF OMAHA

TE1: NOAH FANT (#87, Junior, 6'5, 242 lbs., South HS, Omaha, NE)

I love it when a plan comes together. Put another way, I love it when a player lives up to their hype and plays to their potential. We knew something was up when Fant played in an impressive 11 games as a true freshman because Ferentz typically doesn’t like to play freshmen. As a sophomore, he exploded onto the scene, becoming Iowa’s premier pass-catcher (and not just among tight ends) and Nathan Stanley’s primary red-zone target. Let’s look at a few highlights from last season:

Here, he presents a nightmare for linebackers, as he’s simply faster than them.

Here, he presents a nightmare for defensive backs, as he’s simply bigger than them.

Here, he presents a nightmare for the entire state of Nebraska because they let him escape.

When 2017 was said and done, Fant recorded 30 receptions for 494 yards and 11 touchdowns. His 16.5 yards per catch and 11 touchdowns led the nation for tight ends. He was a matchup nightmare, with the speed to get past any linebacker and the size to overpower a defensive back. He has a 42 (!!!) inch vertical! Now, he’s a year older and ten pounds heavier.

Was it all roses? No, there were drops. The Northwestern game sticks out the most in that regard. But Fant was undoubtedly Iowa’s best receiver last season and one of the most impressive athletic specimens on offense. I’ve levied a fair amount of criticism in the past towards Fant's blocking skills but after last season I think it was unfounded, as I can’t think of a time when his blocking was called into question. Fant will once again serve as Nate Stanley’s first option in the red zone and Iowa’s best mismatch on offense. And if he has another season like he did in 2017, there’s a chance we might not see him as a senior.

THE CHARITON CHARIOT

TE2: T.J. HOCKENSON (#38, Sophomore, 6'5, 250 lbs., Chariton, Chariton, IA)

When Hockenson graduated from high school, he held Iowa records in career touchdown receptions (49) and pass receptions (238). He was a pass catcher, a legitimate blocker, and a solid player from small-town Iowa that didn’t see heavy recruitment. The biggest question was: would all of his high school success translate to collegiate football? The answer was a resounding yes. As a redshirt freshman, Hockenson amassed 24 receptions for 320 yards and three touchdowns. His 13.3 yards per catch put him only behind Fant and Vandenberg among players with more than 15 receptions.

Hockenson isn’t as athletic as Fant but he’s considered to be the better blocker. He provides an excellent safety valve for Stanley and is most dangerous in route releases. With Fant serving as the deep threat, Hockenson is good for everything underneath and serves as another red zone threat. Expect an even more productive season in 2018 and if Fant does decide to make the jump to the next level, Hockenson will be Iowa’s starting tight end for the rest of his career. 

WHILE YOU WAIT FOR THE OTHERS

TE3: SHAUN BEYER (#42, Sophomore, 6'5, 240 lbs., CR Kennedy, Shellsburg, IA)

TE4: NATE WIETING (#39, Junior, 6'4, 250 lbs., Lutheran, Rockford, IL)

Beyer has been making moves his entire career at Iowa but most of them have come off the field. Originally a wide receiver recruit, he redshirted as a freshman and switched to tight end in spring of 2017. He saw action in seven games last season but his only career statistic is an assisted tackle. Despite his lack of credentials, he’s worked his way up to the #3 tight end spot and played with the second team during the Spring Game. Beyer has speed and is considered a pass-catching tight end but as we’ve seen exactly zero in-game experience, time will tell how he fits into the Iowa offense.

Now, if we’re talking true blocking tight ends, buddy, do I have a guy for you. Nate Wieting actually has four career starts to his name but as the entirety of his stats are one reception for 17 yards, that should tell you everything you need to know. Wieting is an athletic offensive lineman and quite simply, Iowa needs guys like that to be successful. 

DREW COOK (#18, Junior, 6'5, 250 lbs., Regina, Iowa City, IA)

NATE VEJVODA (#85, Junior, 6'5, 250 lbs., Providence Catholic, Homer Glen, IL)

We’re now two years into the Drew Cook As A Tight End experiment and while there hasn’t been any game action to show for it (literally none), at least we have this quote from T.J. Hockenson:

“Pretty big [strides],” Hockenson said of Cook. “Coming from quarterback and not getting hit much and then going to tight end and having a lot of physicality every day, he really stepped up. You can tell he loves the tight end position. His dad played tight end here. He’s taking it on and he’s done a really good job.”

Cook came to Iowa as a 6’5, 218 pound quarterback. Now, he’s a 6’5, 250 pound tight end. He’s got a lot of competition ahead of him but I can’t imagine you can keep the son of Marv Cook off the field for too much longer.

Vejvoda saw six games as a redshirt freshman but didn’t see any as a sophomore. I don’t think that bodes well for his playing time and if I had to guess, he’ll have to find his way on the field via special teams or as another one of Iowa’s blocking tight ends. 

THEY WERE ONLY FRESHMEN

TOMMY KUJAWA (#46, Freshman (RS), 6'3, 230 lbs., Greendale, Greendale, WI)

BRYCE SCHULTE (#48, Freshman (RS), 6'3, 244 lbs., Providence Catholic, Homer Glen, IL)

NOAH FELDMAN (#86, Freshman (RS), 6'4, 230 lbs., West Liberty, West Liberty, IA)

JACOB COONS (#88, Freshman (RS), 6'3, 240 lbs., Solon, Solon, IA)

BEN SUBBERT (Freshman, 6'3, 235 lbs., Williamsburg, Williamsburg, IA)

Hoo boy. So Kujawa, Schulte and Feldman all walked on and immediately redshirted. Coons was a scholarship player that chose Iowa over Iowa State but considering the mountain of players ahead of him, it will be years before we hear his name called. Subbert had offers from a number of FCS schools but walked on at Iowa and joined the team this spring. He'll probably redshirt in the fall.

With the absurd amount of depth at tight end this year, it wouldn't be surprising if a few of these guys made changes to different positions as it's unlikely that Ferentz wants 12 tight ends on his roster (Logan Lee is committed for 2019). It will be a while before this all shakes out.

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