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Leistikow: Reloaded at tight end, Hawkeyes aim to rekindle Hockenson-Fant mojo


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The 2018 Iowa football season solicits some interesting memories. The Hawkeyes’ path to 9-4 that year was often more frustrating than exhilarating.

All four losses were coulda-woulda-shoulda outcomes for that team.

A final-minute home loss to Wisconsin after dominating much of the game. Letting a big early advantage slip away in the final moments at Penn State. A two-point deflater at Purdue after two controversial late penalties against the Hawkeyes. And, most infamously, a four-point home loss to Northwestern in which Noah Fant’s reduced usage came under fire.

Overall, though, that team was really good … and oh-so-close to much more. The Hawkeyes went to Minnesota that year and racked up 48 points. A week later, Nate Stanley put up six touchdown passes and 42 points at Indiana. Even in losses, Iowa routinely moved the ball against Big Ten opponents. That included 36 points at Purdue and a 63-0 stomping at Illinois.

That 2018 team’s ability to move the chains centered around two would-be first-round NFL Draft picks at tight end in Fant (No. 20 overall in 2019) and T.J. Hockenson (No. 8 overall in the same draft).

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Iowa had at least two tight ends on the field for 63% of its 2018 snaps, and that percentage should’ve been higher.

Four years later, Iowa is fixing to rely heavily on multiple tight ends yet again.

Important caveat: This column isn’t meant to compare senior Sam LaPorta and redshirt sophomore Luke Lachey to Hockenson and Fant in ability. But it's not far-fetched to think LaPorta and Lachey could be two of Iowa's best offensive players and primary chain-movers through the air in 2022.

“When you think about the tight end position, it's so versatile,” LaPorta said recently at Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis. “(Defenses don’t know) whether we're going to get seven guys up on the line of scrimmage and pound the rock or split out a 250-pound guy in a matchup that might be difficult to guard in the receiving aspect.”

Also speaking in Indianapolis, head coach Kirk Ferentz was leaning into the Hawkeyes’ intended reliance on tight ends in 2022. Iowa lacks proven depth at wide receiver, with true sophomores Keagan Johnson and Arland Bruce IV and senior Nico Ragaini the only three available with game experience. Iowa might not need to use more than three receivers in a game, if two-tight end sets are a regularity.

“If we’re a little thin at receiver, maybe we can supplement it with strength at that position,” Ferentz said.

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15 minutes with Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz at Big Ten Media Days
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz talks depth chart, injuries, the offense, newcomers and more Tuesday inside Lucas Oil Stadium.
Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

In LaPorta (6-foot-4, 249 pounds), Iowa has one of the top tight ends in the country. He is a third-team preseason all-American by Phil Steele, only trailing Georgia’s Brock Bowers and Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer. Think of him like Hockenson, in that he’s a reliable pass-catcher who can move 275-pound defensive ends off the ball.

“Sam is not the biggest tight end in the world, but technically he’s so sound. That makes up for (the lack of size),” new Iowa tight ends coach Abdul Hodge, a former all-Big Ten linebacker at Iowa, told the Des Moines Register. “When you see him on the football field running routes, he’s one of the smoothest guys I’ve seen … just looking at it from a defensive perspective.

"To me, that’s why he’s the weapon. At any time, you can put him at slot receiver, split him out wide, and he can (outrun) linebackers."

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And in Lachey (6-6, 252), Iowa can dispatch a more athletic tight end with a bigger catch radius than LaPorta. Think of him as having Fant-like potential, for now.

LaPorta (team-high 53 catches and 670 receiving yards last fall) joked at Big Ten Media Days that he calls himself “Big Bro” around Lachey despite being two inches shorter. He reported that Lachey’s body-mass index dropped and his knowledge of the offense ramped up considerably.

"The sky’s really the limit for that kid,” LaPorta said. “He’s got all of the physical attributes."

While Lachey’s production was limited to eight catches for 133 yards last fall, he made some splash plays — including a tough 17-yard grab at Iowa State and a 22-yard catch-and-run early in the Big Ten Championship Game vs. Michigan. 

A third tight end should factor in the Hawkeyes’ plans this fall. Steve Stilianos, a graduate transfer from FCS Lafayette with two years' eligibility, brings size (6-5, 264) and experience. Think of him as a blocking tight end, a role played on that 2018 team by Nate Wieting, for now.

“He asks a ton of questions,” Hodge said. “He’s a student of the game, and he wants to progress as fast as possible. His goal is to play at Iowa."

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And then there’s a wild-card tight-end option: Fullback Monte Pottebaum.

That’s right, the Hawkeyes can really take a shot at confusing defenses when Pottebaum is on the field. The fifth-year senior (6-1, 244) is considered one of the top fullbacks of the Ferentz era. He’s capable of flexing to tight end at any time. The key for that to be effective is for Pottebaum to become a threat in the passing game. Iowa tried to hit Pottebaum for a trick-play touchdown in the Big Ten title game but missed.

“He gives us a lot of versatility. You can see him run routes, he’s really smooth,” Hodge said. “He can put his hand on the line of scrimmage and be a tight end. And he can do some damage in the backfield as a fullback."

The idea of using tight ends forces defenses to choose how they match up. If they go bigger, maybe it's time to throw the ball. If they go lighter, maybe it's time to run it. That's a chess match that offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz will try to consistently win this fall, as he did famously in a 2017 blowout of Ohio State (when Hockenson and Fant combined for four touchdowns).

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There’s another very important reason you might see multiple tight ends on the field with regularity: Points.

Last year, Iowa finished an abysmal 128th out of 130 FBS in touchdown percentage inside the opponents’ 20-yard line (red zone), at a meager 40.4%. But look back to 2018, and Iowa ranked 25th (and No. 6 among Power Five programs) in red-zone TD percentage (69.1%). Hockenson and Fant combined for 14 touchdowns themselves that fall. As a program, Iowa has only mustered five tight-end TDs since (LaPorta four, Shaun Beyer one).

Iowa’s cause near the goal line would, in theory, be helped with multiple tight ends. They add more blocking prowess and play-calling unpredictability.

Could we see a reprise of the Hawkeyes' 2018 season? 

One with similar offensive production ... but without the heartbreaking losses?

“I’m expecting to have a great year,” LaPorta said. “I think we all are.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.