Hawkeye fans and members of the media covering the 2018 football team have had no shortage of hot takes about tight end Noah Fant and his role in the Iowa offense this year (myself included). However, while Fant managed to navigate the noise and produce an All-Big Ten caliber season, it was his fellow tight end TJ Hockenson who had the biggest impact on the Hawkeye offense this year. Not only did Hockenson establish himself as the best tight end in the conference, the sophomore accomplished an even more impressive feat by posting arguably the single best season of any tight end in program history.
Hockenson’s accomplishments in 2018 were numerous. Not only was Hockenson named to the media’s 1st Team All-Big Ten team (he was relegated to 2nd team All-Conference by the coaches in favor of Fant, the first time two tight ends from the same team have shared 1st team honors in a single season), but he was also named the Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year as the conference’s best player at that position. Hockenson will likely be named an All-American by various publications after earning his way onto the midseason team, and is one of only three finalists for the John Mackey Award which is presented to the nation’s best tight end.
Yesterday it was announced that the junior earned the Ozzie Newsome Award, handed out to the nation’s top tight-end by the Touchdown Club of Columbus.
Hockenson is vying to join Dallas Clark as the only Hawkeye to win the Mackey Award, and he may in fact be the favorite to win it. Hockenson has more receiving yards (717) and total touchdowns (7) than his fellow finalists in Kaden Smith of Stanford and Missouri’s Albert Okwuegbunam, and unlike players such as Fant and Texas A&M standout Jace Sternberger who are primarily known as receiving threats, Hockenson also excels as a blocker in the running game.
However, regardless of whether Hockenson wins the Mackey Award, his performance in 2018 already ranks among the greatest single season in the history of Iowa tight ends. The Hawkeyes have long been known for producing excellent players at this position, including two consensus All-Americans and pro bowlers in Dallas Clark and Marv Cook, three-time pro bowler Jim Gibbons, and a probable 2018 pro bowl selection in George Kittle. Yet it is Hockenson whose stats outshine all other Hawkeye tight ends who came before him (per Sports Reference):
Best TE Season in Iowa History?
No tight end in program history has been able to match Hockenson’s combination of receptions, receiving yards, and total touchdowns in a single season, which is particularly impressive when one considers that Hockenson has the opportunity to add to these totals in Iowa’s bowl game. While Fant has been able to match or surpass Hockenson in total touchdowns each of the past two seasons, his reception and yardage lag behind those of his teammate, to say nothing of Hockenson’s superiority as a blocker. Furthermore, while both Cook and Clark previously posted greater yardage totals than Hockenson, both players’ touchdown numbers paled in comparison to Hockenson’s, and the sophomore still has an opportunity to surpass their season numbers with a strong performance in Iowa’s 13th game.
Hockenson’s case for boasting the best statistical season of any tight end in school history is further bolstered by the context in which this performance took place. Unlike the overwhelming majority of players on the list above, Hockenson was forced to share snaps with an equally talented tight end in Noah Fant who, despite being underutilized for much of the season, still cut into Hockenson’s snap and target count. Fant certainly made things easier for Hockenson in one sense by drawing the attention of the defense and preventing the opposition from keying in on Hockenson, but for TJ to have produced the numbers he did with another tight end tallying 39 receptions of his own is quite impressive.
However, there are certainly cases to be made against Hockenson’s claim to the best statistical season in the history of Iowa tight ends. First, Hockenson’s numbers thus far were compiled over 12 games, whereas Marv Cook and Jim Gibbons each compiled their impressive stat lines in only nine games in 1988 and 1957 respectively. Furthermore, Cook and Gibbons were arguably more versatile players for the Hawkeyes; Gibbons also played defensive end at Iowa while Cook punted 22 times over the course of his Hawkeye career in addition to successfully kicking an extra point. Finally, Cook’s 1987 campaign in which he outgained Hockenson over 12 games saw him similarly sharing the field with another talented tight end in Mike Flagg who had himself been a recipient of two 2nd team All-Conference nods before being supplanted by Cook. Flagg’s numbers (22 receptions for 375 yards and a touchdown) could also be said to have cut into Cook’s season totals much in the same way that Fant’s have for Hockenson.
Regardless of Hockenson’s place in the Hawkeyes’ historical hierarchy, his contributions to the Iowa offense this season simply cannot be understated. While Fant frequently found himself limited by his skills as a blocker, Hockenson’s tenaciousness allowed him to shine even when the ball was not in his hands:
Hockenson also showed himself to be Iowa’s most consistent receiver. His excellent hands:
combined with his surprising athleticism and underrated leaping ability:
made him a reliable target, while his ability to make plays both downfield:
and by turning short passes into big gains:
allowed him to emerge as a weapon regardless of the down and distance. And while Hockenson may not have displayed his clutch gene with a game-winning touchdown like some of his historical peers (Gibbons vs Ohio State in 1956, Cook vs Ohio State in 1988, Clark vs Purdue in 2002), his critical fourth down catch against Nebraska was essential to setting up Miguel Recinos’ walk-off field goal:
and he WAS in position to make the play that SHOULD have blown the Penn State game wide open.
Noah Fant dominated the press clippings and twitter mentions throughout 2018, but no single offensive player dominated the field for the Hawkeyes like TJ Hockenson did. Hockenson’s incendiary performance ranks as possibly the greatest statistical season of any tight end in school history, and a strong showing in the bowl game could help make his case ironclad. Hawkeye fans owe Hockenson an enormous debt of gratitude for his herculean performance this year, and one only hopes that his award shelf reflects his massive contributions on the field by season’s end.