Iowa’s two talented TEs are ‘definitely NFL guys,’ so how to do the Huskers slow them down?
Take a look at Iowa’s passing statistics this fall, and it all looks relatively normal.
Junior quarterback Nathan Stanley has thrown for 2,468 yards on 59 percent completions for 22 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. It’s just the kind of solid numbers one might expect from a veteran Big Ten signal-caller.
The way the Hawkeyes go about throwing the ball, though, is quite a bit different from many teams in the league and the country. Mainly, it’s the extent to which Iowa uses its two standout tight ends, T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant.
That makes for an intriguing challenge on Friday in Iowa City for the Nebraska defense.
“They’re really good players,” Husker outside linebackers coach Jovan Dewitt said simply. “Really, really good players. We’re going to have to play extremely well to give ourselves a chance to have success.”
And they account for a big portion of Iowa’s passing numbers.
Hockenson, a sophomore, leads the team with 41 catches and 663 receiving yards, and has six touchdowns. Fant, a junior from Omaha, is close behind with 38 for 507 and a team-best seven scores even though he’s had outings of one catch for no yards and three for 14 in the past month.
That pair combines for more than 45 percent of the Hawkeyes’ passing yards. For perspective, tally up Iowa’s three leading wide receivers — Nick Easley, Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette — and you get 81 catches for 977 and six touchdowns, compared with the tight ends’ 79 for 1,170 and 13.
“Definitely NFL guys,” senior safety Tre Neal said of Hockenson and Fant. “A lot of the hype is on (Fant). He’s from here, so he’s going to be ready to play this game. And (Hockenson) is a good tight end, too. We’ve been focusing on them. They try to get the ball to those guys a lot and just let them use their bodies and make plays. They’re really good players.”
They’re not just receiving threats, either. Hockenson, in particular, is known as a tenacious blocker. According to Husker defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, Fant, when he splits out, is “just as good a receiver (as there is) in the Big Ten.”
So Nebraska must decide how it’s going to match up against the pair. Typically, a coordinator would use his base personnel against two tight ends. With these guys, it’s not that simple.
“What you kind of have to do is break down who’s in what and who maybe does what better,” Dewitt said. “There are some instances where they’ll go out in 12 (one back, two tight ends) personnel and end up in 11 personnel looks, break the formation a little bit with one guy or the other.
“So you just try to match it up based on down and distance and which one of the tight ends is in the game.”
For Nebraska, Luke Gifford rarely comes off the field at one outside linebacker spot. Tyrin Ferguson played probably his best game of the season against Michigan State, but JoJo Domann’s been used more the past month in passing situations. The Huskers aren’t afraid to play three safeties with Neal and fellow seniors Aaron Williams and Antonio Reed.
NU has faced several good tight ends this year and hasn’t been immune to issues, but only Purdue’s Brycen Hopkins really put up big numbers with five catches for 103 yards and a touchdown in late September.
It’s safe to say the Huskers will try to mix and match personnel against Iowa, and of course they can’t focus solely on two players.
“We are going to have to be very clean with our run-pass keys because they are really versatile,” Gifford said. “They both can block well and also run really well, too. They run good routes and it is basically like having a couple more receivers out there. We are going to have to be really keyed into that, looking into formations and kind of see what they do in certain sets.
“That will be big for us.”