T.J. Hockenson is headed to the NFL. One redshirt year, two years on the field … and, poof, he’s no longer an Iowa Hawkeye.
The Mackey Award tight end made his intentions official Monday morning with a social-media post saying that he thought that “now is the right time” to turn pro.
His decision cemented the tough reality for developmental college football programs such as Iowa’s: They can no longer count on developing their most talented players into a fourth or fifth season.
The Hawkeyes have now lost six early entries to the NFL Draft in two seasons. Before then, the last Hawkeye to go early was Riley Reiff after the 2011 season. Through that lens, it’s a staggering number.
Offensive lineman James Daniels and cornerback Josh Jackson both left after their junior years of 2017 and became second-round picks; now, Hockenson has joined tight end Noah Fant, defensive back Amani Hooker and defensive end Anthony Nelson from the 2018 team.
Iowa must now find a way to restock its pantry … and take stock of the 2019 season.
With that in mind, here are five important questions surrounding the Hawkeyes, post-Hockenson (and others).
1. Where will Hockenson’s absence be felt the most?
Losing the best player at his position in college football is going to leave a mark. With Hockenson, Iowa enjoyed significant value in many areas. He was dependable as an every-down tight end, a fierce run-blocker and a model team leader.
The Chariton native bled black and gold.
But perhaps the toughest thing for Iowa to replace is Hockenson’s knack for coming through in the clutch. Even at 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, he had the best hands on the team. Quarterback Nate Stanley always knew where he would be. They trusted each other with the game on the line.
There’s no better example than the regular-season finale against Nebraska when, on fourth-and-8 with under a minute to go in a 28-all game, Stanley slung a 10-yard completion through the rain to his reliable tight end. (Two plays later, Iowa was a walk-off, 31-28 winner.)
Hockenson also made two memorable touchdown catches in the historic 2017 rout of Ohio State. His catch-and-run of 22 yards in the fourth quarter of the recent Outback Bowl, in which he broke tackles and bulldozed defenders, also helped put away Mississippi State.
Making clutch plays in big moments is imperative to a program that plays in a lot of close games. Now, Stanley must find a new security blanket.
2. What’s the immediate plan at tight end?
With Fant and Hockenson gone earlier than expected, the scramble is on. And although it’s not as dire as it could have been, there’s definitely no replacing a duo that combined for 142 catches for 2,093 yards and 28 touchdowns over the past two seasons.
Rosters can always be fluid — a peek as the NCAA’s transfer portal couldn’t hurt — but for now, Iowa looks like it’ll have six scholarship tight ends on its 2019 roster. Three of them, though, are true freshmen who don’t arrive until June.
Nate Wieting (6-4, 250) enters his redshirt senior season as the trusted program cog. The former walk-on had largely been a blocker in three seasons serving as a No. 3 or 4 tight end, often in goal-line packages. That Wieting’s meager two receptions in 2018 make him Iowa’s top returning receiver at tight end amplifies the vacancy we’re discussing.
There’s also Drew Cook (6-5, 250), a converted quarterback who gets one final chance to break through as a fifth-year senior. It wouldn’t be surprising if the son of Marv Cook, one of Iowa’s tight-end greats, takes a giant leap forward. Cook is a good athlete who is smart and works hard, and he’s a proven winner.
The most upside of the three returnees, though, belongs to junior-to-be Shaun Beyer (6-5, 240). He’s no Fant, but he does have the type of athleticism and speed that — if he can prove to have good hands in game situations — will have to be accounted for by defenses. A knee injury ended Beyer’s 2018 season early, but he’s been waiting his turn. The word is his knee should be good to go for spring practice.
3. Just how much departed production are we talking about?
Iowa averaged 31.2 points per game for the 2018 season, the highest in the program since — are you ready for this? — 2002. Of course, that juggernaut team that ran the Big Ten Conference table was on a different level than any Kirk Ferentz-era team, with an average of 37.2 points.
The 31.2 number, though, is remarkable, considering Iowa ranked 92nd out of 130 FBS teams in yardage. That combination underscores the efficiency Iowa executed once it was in scoring position, something that can be directly traced to the two outgoing tight ends — and departing senior wide receiver Nick Easley, the Outback Bowl MVP.
Of Stanley’s program-record 52 touchdown passes in 26 games over two seasons, 36 of them went to Fant (18), Hockenson (nine) and Easley (nine). That’s 69 percent of Iowa’s pass-game scoring punch, all gone.
All three players topped the 1,000-yard mark over two seasons, with Hockenson (1,080) edging Easley (1,024) and Fant (1,013).
And maybe even more notably, the trio combined for 25 red-zone touchdowns (including one on a fake field-goal run by Hockenson) over two seasons.
Now, new players will have to earn Stanley’s touchdown trust.
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4. How does the offense change from here?
After recruiting cools down, February becomes a time for Iowa’s coaches to take critical inventory of personnel and determine what major changes need to be made. Entering his third year as offensive coordinator, Brian Ferentz will have to do some of his best work to make sure his scheme maximizes his available personnel.
The strength of Iowa’s 2019 offense should be found in its offensive line (which allowed a Big Ten-low 16 sacks this past season and returns three starters) and its third-year, pro-prospect quarterback. So even without two talented tight ends, Iowa’s best path to moving the football should be through the air.
Ferentz provided clues how he might operate going forward in the Outback Bowl, when he was without Fant (who left to train for the NFL). Ferentz predominantly went with one tight end (Hockenson) instead of two and often deployed three-wide-receiver sets. Fifteen of Stanley’s 21 bowl-game completions went to wide receivers, a much higher proportion (71.4 percent) than in the regular season (44.3 percent).
Ferentz knows he has two experienced junior receivers as a starting point: Brandon Smith (28 catches, 361 yards last season) and Ihmir Smith-Marsette (23 catches, 361 yards). After that, the hunt is on to find at least two or three more. I’m guessing freshman Tyrone Tracy Jr. (6-0, 187), an Indianapolis product with athleticism this program rarely obtains, will be given every opportunity to serve as a playmaker for this offense in the spring.
5. How much do team expectations change?
This becomes the biggest source of deflation for Hawkeye fans. A lot of folks were pointing to the 2019 season as one that could be special, just because of how the roster appeared to be building. A senior quarterback. Two veteran, NFL-caliber tight ends. Two three-year starters at offensive tackle. An embarrassment of riches at defensive end.
It seems like there are a lot of holes to plug. Does Iowa find depth behind A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston at defensive end? Can defensive coordinator Phil Parker find anyone to mimic the versatility of Hooker, the Big Ten defensive back of the year? Forget two, can the Hawkeyes find one run-pass threat at tight end that can aid play-calling unpredictability? Do they have a No. 1 running back?
None of those questions have easy answers. And then there’s the schedule. It’s demanding. The five road games alone are going to be a headache: at Iowa State, at Michigan, at Northwestern, at Wisconsin and at Nebraska.
When the Vegas over/under win totals come out, I’m guessing it’ll be around 7.5 (the norm) for Iowa. This isn’t a collection of talent that’ll be trumpeted on a Sports Illustrated cover, as Wisconsin was entering 2018.
Of course, this speculation won’t change internal goals. The plan will still be winning a Big Ten championship. But obviously, with Hockenson’s decision official, the climb to the top just got a lot steeper.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.
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