John Mackey Award Winner Hockenson A Perfect Fit at Iowa
By Joey Johnston
The University of Iowa football program could easily be renamed Tight End University.
And this season is a perfect example.
It seems like an embarrassment of riches.
When the Hawkeyes (8-4) face the Mississippi State Bulldogs (8-4) in the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium, it will be difficult to miss Iowa sophomore tight end T.J. Hockenson.
Hockenson won the John Mackey Award, presented to the nation's top tight end, on Dec. 6. Justifiably so. Hockenson (6-foot-5, 250 pounds) leads the Hawkeyes with 46 catches and 717 receiving yards (86 yards behind the program's single-season record for a tight end, set by Marv Cook in 1987).
But Hockenson was actually part of an amazing tight-end tandem this season with Noah Fant, who has elected to skip the Outback Bowl and concentrate on preparing for the NFL Draft.
Ordinarily, the absence of a player such as Fant won't represent a major crisis. Not at Iowa.
The "other'' tight end - Hockenson - is the Mackey Award winner.
"It's an unusual situation to have two guys of that caliber,'' said Ferentz, who has had nine different Iowa tight ends become NFL draft picks during his 20-season tenure with the Hawkeyes. "There were times I almost felt like our media was trying to push and tag and ask, 'Who do you like the best?' It's like your kids. You like them all. We just had two unusual tight ends.
"Noah came to us with an extraordinary skill set. He can run like a deer. T.J. had to climb the ladder a little more.''
But Hockenson made it to the top rung.
Ferentz said there's some irony in Hockenson being selected as the nation's top tight end.
"Initially, we were like this (lukewarm) on him in recruiting,'' Ferentz said. "Mainly, it was because he played wideout in high school. That was not uncommon on the coach's part. They just threw him a million balls (Hockenson had 238 high-school receptions) instead of wasting him away (at another position). Just get him the ball and let him win the game.
"T.J. is just a winner. Everything he does, he wins. He has unbelievable ball skills and he's a great teammate. Over time, there's something about players like that. The high-school coach usually makes sure the best guy has the ball in his hands. There's something to be said for production. When a guy is that productive, it's a good indicator that he's a winner and it means something to him.''
Playing in the shadow of Fant, it was natural for Hockenson to be a bit under appreciated by outsiders. But inside the Iowa football building, the Hawkeyes quickly surmised they had a special player.
Hockenson wasn't asked to block much as a high-school player, so there was natural skepticism about his development at the tight-end position.
But he has worked hard on the details, making himself into an excellent prospect at the position. Hockenson also has displayed enviable work ethic in games, on the practice field and in the film room.
He's now a standout tight end.
And at Iowa, that makes him a perfect fit.