Kirk Ferentz remembers the exact moment the tight end became part of his coaching DNA.
It was right about the time the Iowa football coach said his vows.
“Seriously,” Ferentz said. “When we lose a game, my wife always says, ‘You didn’t throw to the tight end enough.’ And she’s usually right, which is unfortunate. I hate to admit that.”
But Ferentz acknowledges his affection for tight ends. He loves the versatility they bring to Iowa’s offense. Loves the added muscle they bring to the run game. Loves the mismatches they can create in the passing attack. Loves how they give defensive coordinators one more thing to think about.
Yet while tight ends have flourished at Iowa, they’re turning into an endangered species in other corners of college football where spread offenses and four-receiver sets have taken over.
Take Northwestern and Illinois, for instance. The Wildcats carry 14 wide receivers on their roster and zero traditional tight ends. The Illini threw 13 passes to their tight ends in 12 games last season. There’s a good chance Iowa could eclipse that number in the second week.
The Hawkeyes played five tight ends last week during their 37-7 victory against Eastern Illinois. Allen Reisner, Brad Herman and Zach Derby combined to catch eight passes for 113 yards.
Iowa regularly integrates two tight ends into its offense. You might see three on the field simultaneously in short-yardage situations Saturday when the Hawkeyes play Iowa State at Kinnick Stadium.
“There are all kinds of ways to do things effectively and efficiently,” Ferentz said. “Some of these spread attacks, they don’t utilize them or need them, and they move the ball and score more points than we do. There’s a lot of ways to be successful, but it just kind of depends on what you settle in on.”
Few teams have been more adept at utilizing the tight end than the Hawkeyes. In nine seasons, beginning with 2001 when Dallas Clark became an integral part of Iowa’s offense, tight ends have averaged 46 catches, 587 receiving yards and five touchdowns per season for the Hawkeyes. During that time, every starting tight end at Iowa has graduated as an NFL draft choice.
These are all bullet points in Iowa’s recruiting pitch to tight end recruits, all drawing cards that helped the Hawkeyes pry C.J. Fiedorowicz from Illinois last fall and helped them land commitments this summer from Ray Hamilton, Jake Duzey and Henry Krieger-Coble, all three-star tight end prospects.
“If a guy is a tight end prospect, it gives us a great (advantage), it’s factual,” Ferentz said. “We can show them on paper: A. You have a chance to be on the field. B. We don’t just play one guy, so a couple guys can be on the field. C. If you want to play beyond college, there’s an opportunity for you. We’ll let you showcase what you’ve got.”
There is no cookie-cutter Iowa tight end. Reisner was a late addition to the program’s 2007 recruiting class and played out of necessity that year when Moeaki went down with a season-ending injury in the Big Ten opener. Derby joined the program as a walk on. Fiedorowicz was considered one of the top high school tight ends in the country last year. Gimm specializes as a blocker in short-yardage situations. Herman was initially listed as a linebacker at Iowa and had just one reception during his first two seasons at Iowa before catching three passes for 57 yards against Eastern Illinois.
Herman laughed Saturday when someone asked for an explanation to his breakout performance: “Tony finally left. You know, finally I got to go out there and get my feet wet.”
Like those before him, Herman had to wait for another tight end to come off the assembly line before getting a shot at regular playing time with the Hawkeyes. Since Clark started Iowa’s uninterrupted NFL run of tight ends, there’s always been another capable player paying his dues at the position. But there hasn’t been a prototype tight end for the Hawkeyes.
Clark was a walk-on linebacker. Erik Jensen arrived at Iowa as a fullback. Tony Jackson was primarily a blocker, but he turned a 14-catch college career into a brief stint in the NFL. Scott Chandler came in as a 6-foot-7, 210-pound receiver and left with 117 receptions at tight end. Brandon Myers was the last player taken in Iowa’s 2004 recruiting class. Tony Moeaki was rated by some recruiting analysts as the top high school tight end in the country in 2005.
All six were drafted. Clark, Myers and Moeaki are still on active NFL rosters. Only Miami and Virginia have more alums playing tight end in the NFL.
“People always say that we get some of these guys that look ready-made physically, but it’s the intelligence of the group that also helps them get drafted,” Iowa tight ends coach Eric Johnson said. “You have to be a smart football player to be successful as a tight end in this offense.”
The way Johnson describes it, it takes the equivalent of a football honor student to play the position in Iowa’s system. The Hawkeyes like to maintain their flexibility on offense when they go to sets with two tight ends. That means the tight ends are required to know the protections, routes and runs of the fullback, the routes of the slot and two outside receiver positions and the line calls and protections.
“The only two positions (the tight end) doesn’t have to know are tailback and quarterback,” Johnson said.
Iowa’s system has taken out a lot of the guesswork for NFL scouts.
“If you draft a player from Iowa, you know you’re getting a guy who works, he’s been well coached, he’s had a strong staff there all the time, that’s the first thing,” said Greg Gabriel, who spent nine seasons as the director of college scouting for the Chicago Bears and now writes for The National Football Post. “But number two, they use the position, they use the tight end.
“A lot of places have gone to the spread and the position has almost gone the way of the fullback, it’s like a bastard position. A lot of teams don’t use it because of the spread, but Kirk finds a way to utilize it, and they’re all good, well-rounded players when they get to us.”
Ferentz knows that he has to utilize the tight ends. He’ll hear about it at home if he doesn’t.
Reach Andy Hamilton at 339-7368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football