LINCOLN — Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is the dean of Big Ten coaches, and one doesn’t reach that status without some skill in the art of talking up opponents.
It wasn’t hard for Ferentz to highlight the strengths of Nebraska’s offense — particularly quarterback Adrian Martinez, whom Ferentz compared to Penn State’s Trace McSorley.
“He’s not the same body-wise — Martinez is bigger — but he can hurt you with his feet and he can hurt you with his arm,” Ferentz said. “He seems to be the center of everything. It’s hard to believe he’s a freshman. He’s very, very impressive.”
Ferentz is bullish on his own team, too.
And since Iowa is 7-4 and 4-4 in the Big Ten, perhaps Ferentz is excited over last week’s 63-0 blowout of Illinois. Or perhaps Ferentz sees a team that, day-to-day, reminds him of his best teams, including the 2015 squad that went 12-2. He’s not sure that 2015 bunch is any better than the 2018 team in most ways.
“This team belies their record,” Ferentz said. “Basically all four of our losses are one-possession games … we’re that close. It makes us more frustrated than anything else because we all know that record isn’t representative of this team.
“I’m old enough now — lived through enough good and enough bad — to realize it’s really about how you’re approaching things.”
Iowa lost 28-17 to Wisconsin, which tacked on two late touchdowns. Beyond that, Iowa lost 30-24 at Penn State, 38-36 at Purdue and 14-10 to Northwestern, which eliminated the Hawkeyes from the divisional race and clinched the crown for the Wildcats. A season that seemed headed for 10 wins dovetailed, and reporters in Iowa City asked whether Iowa’s offensive approach with its two dynamic tight ends, T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, had anything to do with the swoon.
Ferentz discussed the matter multiple times in the past several weeks, especially as it related to Fant, the Omaha South graduate that ESPN’s Mel Kiper projects as a top tight end in the 2019 NFL draft. Though Fant has 38 catches for 507 yards and seven touchdowns, there’s been a lingering sense that he could have had more chances to complement Hockenson, who has 41 catches for 663 yards.
“Noah has receiver-type skills and speed,” Ferentz said. “So it’s a hard matchup for a linebacker or a safety to stay with him. He can run really well. T.J.’s fast, too — but, by comparison, he’s not as fast.”
Ferentz said it’s rare to have one tight end who’s a matchup nightmare. Iowa is “thrilled” to have two, Ferentz said.
“We’re certainly enjoying it,” he said.
The World-Herald requested Fant for a phone interview this week as it has done previously. An Iowa spokesman said no Iowa players would be available by phone this week.
Fant told reporters in Iowa City he’ll consider turning pro after the season depending on what feedback he gets from the NFL draft advisory board. Fant said he understands most fans expect him to leave.
“That’s all just mock drafts and you never know what can actually happen,” Fant said, according to Hawkeye Nation. “I’m just going to see what happens.”
Hockenson told reporters he’d consider leaving for the NFL, as well. Both are Mackey Award semifinalists, and both will be focal points of Nebraska’s defense Friday.
“We are going to have to be very clean with our run-pass keys,” Nebraska outside linebacker Luke Gifford said. “They are really versatile. They both can block well and also run really well, too. They run good routes and it is basically like having a couple more receivers out there.”
Ferentz is equally complimentary of NU’s skill players, including receivers Stanley Morgan and JD Spielman and running backs Devine Ozigbo and Maurice Washington. Those players make a blowout — Iowa beat NU 40-10 in 2016 and 56-14 in 2017 — less likely.
“This one has an opportunity to be really tight — assuming we make it that way,” Ferentz said. “Nebraska’s playing really well right now.”
Noah Fant isn’t Iowa’s only talented tight end. T.J. Hockenson might be Hawkeyes’ best player
IOWA CITY (AP) — Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz caused a stir last week when he intimated that star tight end Noah Fant’s lack of snaps in a loss to Northwestern was due in part because T.J. Hockenson had passed Fant on the depth chart.
The Hawkeyes (7-4, 4-4 Big Ten) corrected course last week at Illinois: Fant was predictably fantastic, scoring the game’s first touchdown in a 63-0 rout.
It has nonetheless become clear that Hockenson, a redshirt sophomore, just might be the best player on Iowa’s roster. He has caught 41 passes for 663 yards and six TDs and on Monday was named one of three finalists for the Mackey Award, given to the nation’s top tight end.
“He’s got a good skill set … but more importantly, he has a good work ethic and he’s been patient,” Ferentz said. “In our camp, we’ve felt like he was a pretty good player for quite some time now.
Hockenson put up enormous numbers at tiny Chariton High in Iowa, with 85 grabs for 1,219 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior. But when he and Fant, an Omaha South graduate, came to Iowa in the same recruiting class, Fant was expected to be the star and Hockenson was seen as a potential complementary piece. Hockenson redshirted in 2016 while Fant played right away.
But as Hockenson sat two years ago, former Iowa star and current San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle took him under his wing. And once Hockenson got a chance to play, it was evident that the Hawkeyes had found something special.
Hockenson started along with Fant from the opener in 2017 and had 24 receptions for 320 yards and three TDs. With teams often focused on Fant this fall, Hockenson has blossomed into Iowa’s top option. And Fant — who has 38 catches for 507 yards and seven touchdowns — has at times benefited from the attention paid to Hockenson.
“Most teams are going to try and double somebody, and that leaves everyone else single covered. It ends up being a good situation for the whole offense,” Fant said. “When we take advantage of that, we’re able to move the ball.”
Hockenson, who is averaging 16.1 yards a catch despite playing inside, says he and Kittle still talk regularly. The relationship has paid off for Hockenson, who at 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds has a similar frame to Kittle’s.
“He usually has his opinions on what I can do. He’s a good mentor,” Hockenson said. “George was a big influence on me … he was a good person to look up to. He does a lot of things right.”
Iowa closes the regular season on Friday when it hosts Nebraska. There is a chance that Fant, whose 19 career TDs rank third all time among Big Ten tight ends, might join Kittle in the NFL as soon as next season. And maybe Hockenson, too.
Hockenson said that leaving early for the NFL is “definitely an option,” adding that he won’t have an answer until he gets a chance to talk with Ferentz and offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz after the season.
“During the season, you take it day by day. But at end of the season, you’re looking back to see what you did and what you can do in the future,” Hockenson said.
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Nebraska at Iowa
When: 11 a.m. Friday (6 a.m. Pregame)
Where: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City
Radio: 103.1 FM