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Iowa tight ends’ competition continues into NFL

April 9, 2019
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FILE - In this Saturday, March 2, 2019 file photo, Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson runs a drill at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis. Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson spent their three years at Iowa trying to one-up each other in a friendly but fierce competition. So, why should the NFL draft be any different? The latest members of the Hawkeyes' long pipeline to the pros are expected to become the first tight end duo from the same school ever selected in the first round of the draft.(AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File)

Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson spent their three years at Iowa trying to one-up each other in a friendly but fierce competition. So, why should the NFL draft be any different?

The latest members of the Hawkeyes’ long pipeline to the pros are expected to become the first tight end duo from the same school ever selected in the first round of the draft.

“That would be something special,” Hockenson said.

“It would be a special thing,” Fant agreed. “More than anything, I’m worried about being the first tight end taken.”

Not many people aside from Fant expect him to go ahead of Hockenson, who essentially trailed Fant for two years in Iowa City before blossoming last season into the John Mackey Award winner as the nation’s top tight end.

Although Fant’s career receiving stats — 78 catches for 1,083 yards and 19 touchdowns — are better than Hockenson’s (73 receptions for 1,080 yards and nine TDs in two seasons after redshirting his freshman year), Hockenson is viewed as the most versatile and polished tight end in this draft.

“Honestly, I love to block; I love to run routes,” Hockenson said at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis last month. “I really pride myself on being a complete tight end.”

Fant was eager to show he was the top tight end at the combine.

“We haven’t bet on it. It’s a friendly competition,” Fant said. “It always has been, always will be.”

NFL media analyst Daniel Jeremiah lists Hockenson as the fifth-best player in the draft overall and Fant as 23rd. He likes Hockenson’s receiving skills but says what separates him from Fant and anyone else, for that matter, is his blocking.

“He ragdolls defensive ends and linebackers,” Jeremiah said, calling Hockenson a “Day 1 impact player at the next level.”

Fant, he said, has exceptional explosiveness and is very versatile: “He moved around in the Iowa scheme, putting his hand in the dirt, splitting out wide or aligning in the wing. He explodes off the line of scrimmage and is a very fluid route runner. He creates a lot of separation and tracks the ball easily over his shoulder.”

But he’s not as polished underneath as Hockenson and certainly isn’t in his league as a run blocker. Still, “he’ll be a big-play producer right away.”

Although NFL scouts graded Hockenson as the best tight end at the scouting combine and even rated Alabama’s Irv Smith slightly ahead of Fant at No. 2., Fant delivered on his promise to put up big numbers at the combine.

Fant bested Hockenson in the 40-yard dash (4.5 seconds to 4.7), the bench press (20 repetitions to 17), the vertical jump (39.5 inches to 37.5), the broad jump (127 inches to 123), the three-cone drill (6.81 seconds to 7.02) and the 60-yard shuttle (11.49 seconds to 11.55). The only measurement where Fant lost out to Hockenson was the 20-yard shuttle (4.18 seconds to 4.22).

On tape, however, Hockenson stands out as a superior in-line blocker and route runner.

Fant and Hockenson decided to leave school early and join the nine other Iowa tight ends drafted in this century, a list that includes George Kittle, who led all NFL tight ends with 1,377 receiving yards in his second season in San Francisco last year, and Dallas Clark, the only first-rounder among the bunch, selected 24th overall by the Colts in 2003.

“It was the hardest decision I’ve ever made ... but one thing that stuck in my mind was getting out of my comfort zone,” Hockenson said, nearly choking up as he spoke of leaving Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz and strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle.

“I could have stayed at the University of Iowa and I would have loved every second of it, just because I love those people. I love coach Ferentz, I love coach Doyle,” Hockenson said. “But on the same hand, I wanted to push myself to be a better player, to be a bigger person at the next level.”

Actually, both Hockenson (6-foot-5, 251 pounds) and Fant (6-4, 249) will have to pack on more pounds in the NFL.

Fant left the Hawkeyes before Hockenson, choosing not to play against Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl as he heeded the cautionary tale of Broncos tight end Jake Butt, who blew out a knee in the Orange Bowl a couple of years ago, dropping his draft stock significantly.

Fant called it “a hard decision,” but didn’t want to risk getting hurt.

“Also, with the way we handle bowl games, it’s like another spring ball for bowl prep that could be tough on the body,” Fant said.

No matter which one gets selected first, both Fant and Hockenson know their timing is impeccable.

“I would say now is the time, if any, to come into the NFL, with the way they’re using tight ends,” Fant said, “the way they’re using them more in the pass game, but also in the run game.”

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