One look at the Iowa stat sheets through three games of the 2018 season tells you one big thing about the Hawkeyes’ offense: it loves its tight ends.
Junior Noah Fant and redshirt sophomore T.J. Hockenson have recorded 12 receptions each, tied for the team lead heading into Saturday’s match-up against Wisconsin (7:30 p.m. CT, FOX).
When asked if he sees the two Hawkeyes presenting a similar set of problems like last year, defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard responded, “Yeah, big problems,” and praised both.
“They’re very talented,” Leonhard said on Wednesday. “Obviously, Fant is one of the best, if not the best tight end in the country, in my eyes. Extremely talented. What he can do in the pass game is pretty special. Then, Hockenson is kind of a utility guy. They use him a lot of different ways. They can do a lot of things with him, so they’re guys you have to know where they’re at.”
Redshirt freshman safety Scott Nelson elaborated on the differences between the two tight ends.
“‘87’ [Fant], from what we’ve seen, is more of a receiving tight end, more of a vertical threat,” Nelson said on Wednesday. “‘38’ [Hockenson] is a very consistent, comfortable pass catcher, so we’ll try to understand that those guys are not the same player. We can’t treat them as the same player, so it’s trying to get to know them and their personnel tendencies.”
Fant has received more national acclaim as a preseason All-American and a watch list nominee for the Walter Camp and John Mackey awards after recording 30 receptions for 494 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. This season, he has averaged 11.7 yards per reception with two of Iowa’s three touchdown receptions.
Hockenson, on the other hand, recorded 24 receptions for 320 yards and three touchdowns during the 2017 campaign. The Chariton, Ia., native—also a John Mackey Award watch list candidate—has not caught a reception for a score and has been averaging 9.4 yards per catch this season, though he has long of 24 yards.
“They do a great job in that offense of using them to the best of their abilities and giving them a chance to succeed,” Leonhard said. “They’re definitely a big issue for us.”
Last season, the duo barely made a sniff in Wisconsin’s 38–14 win inside Camp Randall Stadium. Fant did not record a reception in the loss, while Hockenson reeled in just one catch for six yards—a major win for the Badgers’ defense in holding the Hawkeyes to just 66 total yards in one of the most dominant performances by the unit in recent memory.
This season, Leonhard has seen Iowa’s offense utilize Fant and Hockenson in similar fashion but doing “a little bit more with them, which is smart.”
“They’re using the talent that they have, and they have versatile guys, so they’re using them that way, which as a coordinator, is not fun.”
Through three games, the duo has caught over 44 percent (24 of 54) of Iowa’s receptions. Redshirt senior inside linebacker Ryan Connelly knows he has to keep track of them on the field with potential match-up problems.
“They’re both, tall, lanky, athletic guys and so like I said, you got to make sure you account for them and know where they are on the field,” Connelly said on Wednesday, “Have our calls, be ready to acknowledge where they are, I’d say is the biggest thing.”
Who actually defends the two players will be one of the battles to watch on Saturday night inside Kinnick Stadium. Nelson feels he will at some point cover them depending upon situation, and will have to be “locked in” and understand the best techniques they can use.
“Yeah, that’s just the way that our defense is ran where we’re going to have to be in man-to-man situations and we’re going to have to make plays,” Nelson said. “So kind of taking that challenge, taking that upon ourselves to take pride in that and to make the most of it.”