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Can Iowa’s Tight Ends Save the Hawkeye Offense?

For this Hawkeye team, playing with one tight end in the lineup would be the equivalent to playing with one hand tied behind their back; a luxury they simply cannot afford. 

Syndication: HawkCentral Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

After two seasons of abysmal production, national expectations for Iowa’s offense are as low as any point in recent memory. While the addition of former Michigan standouts Cade McNamara and Erick All and a pair of transfers at both wide receiver and offensive line have created some, it will take a lot more than a few new names on the depth chart to change the overwhelming negative perception of the Hawkeye offensive scheme. To transform Iowa’s offense from a national embarrassment to a unit capable of averaging the 25 points per game needed to save offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz’s job, the team will need to dramatically elevate their performance on the field compared to 2021 or 2022.

While Iowa has a realistic chance to improve at every offensive position group this year, the Hawkeyes’ best shot at producing an elite unit comes at the tight end position. This should hardly be a surprise; Iowa has earned a reputation for developing productive tight ends throughout the Ferentz era, many of whom have gone on to have strong careers at the next level. Even in years in which Iowa has struggled to score points, the tight end position has a served as a reliable well from which the Hawkeyes can draw offensive production, as evidenced by former tight end Sam LaPorta serving as the team’s leading receiver over the past two seasons. While Iowa’s recent history shows that elite tight end play alone is not enough to singlehandedly elevate an offense, the Hawkeye coaching staff finding a way to creatively feature its tight ends while supporting their production with greater consistency at other positions could be a recipe for offensive success. If the Hawkeyes hope to turn a corner offensively this season, the Iowa tight end room may have to be the engine that gets them around the bend.

Iowa is blessed with incredible talent and depth at the tight end position entering the 2023 season. The Hawkeyes return junior Luke Lachey, a 6’6” matchup nightmare who has thus far been shockingly underutilized as a redzone weapon (in fairness to him, that would require Iowa actually REACHING the redzone every once and a while). Tight end coach Abdul Hodge has spoken highly of the progress Lachey has made as a leader, pass catcher, and run blocker during the offseason, and his strong performances in relief of LaPorta against Minnesota and Nebraska (12 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown) have him poised to emerge as one of the conference’s top tight ends this year. Meanwhile, Erick All comes to Iowa as the most athletic tight end the program has seen since Noah Fant jumped to the NFL—a versatile player who can pancake opponents in the running game and beat defenders either in space or for a contested catch in the passing game. Behind these two proven commodities, Iowa’s coaching staff is high on both true sophomore Addison Ostrenga and senior Steven Stilianos, both of whom were cited by Kirk Ferentz as players who have made tremendous strides since last taking the field. Should Iowa decide to play a heavy, three-tight end set on the goal line or need to spell one of their stars, the coaches seem increasingly confident that the backups can provide real contributions as either blockers or receivers.

The versatility of Iowa’s tight ends may prove as valuable to the team’s success as their raw talent. Both Lachey and All are willing and capable blockers who can add support in the run game but are also athletic enough to split out wide or play in the slot when the situation calls for it. During Iowa’s open practice on Saturday, the team showed 12-personnel sets in which Lachey was positioned as an in-line tight end next to one of Iowa’s tackles, while All lined up as a wideout on the outside of the formation. The fact that Iowa can credibly play these two tight ends together in such distinct ways (and could easily reverse their roles and play All on the line and Lachey out wide) creates several interesting possibilities for its offense. Not only will the Hawkeyes be able to play two of their best skill position players at once regardless of whether the situation calls for a run or a pass, but All and Lachey should be able to exploit mismatches against defenders in either scenario. When Iowa’s tight ends play in-line, they create a difficult cover for any opposing linebacker. When flexed out wide, they can overpower defensive backs as blockers when Iowa opts to run the ball. Either way, their presence on the field should force defenses to account for them at all times, a difficult task when they can line up in a variety of positions.

Yet Iowa’s twin tight end attack alone does not guarantee offensive success. First, Iowa’s coaching staff must find creative ways to deploy Iowa’s tight ends in ways that can maximize their versatility. Iowa’s offense was fairly productive in 2018 (the Hawks averaged 31.2 points per game, ranking 44th out of 130 teams in scoring that season) in large part due to their duo of All-Big Ten tight ends in Noah Fant and TJ Hockenson. However, the Hawkeye coaching staff faced real criticism surrounding their insufficient incorporation of Fant into certain offensive gameplans, with the tight end’s disappearing act in Iowa’s division-costing loss to the Northwestern looming large in fans’ collective memory. While Kirk Ferentz has indicated his intent to play 12 personnel a considerable amount in 2023, the coaches must still find ways to maximize both players’ usage to ensure steady production for the offense this season. Furthermore, strong play for the tight ends must be complimented by production from other positions. A tight end is only as good as the quarterback throwing him the ball, the running game taking pressure off the pass, the line blocking long enough for players to complete their routes, and the receivers presenting enough of a vertical threat to prevent defenses from focusing all their attention on the tight ends the way they often did in 2022. As much as Iowa’s excellent tight ends can raise the ceiling of its offense, the offense must also have a floor high enough for their contribution to make a real difference.

After two years of incredible offensive futility, Iowa’s excellent tight end room could provide the Hawkeyes with an opportunity to turn their fortunes around. Iowa doesn’t need Luke Lachey and Erick All to be the second coming of Fant and Hockenson; stylistically they are more similar to the 2006 duo of Scott Chandler and Tony Moeaki, albeit with All being a more experienced if slightly less explosive athlete than the latter player. However, Iowa’s coaching staff must find a way to exploit the mismatches its twin tight end stars can create to give their offense the best chance for success in 2023. As bad as Iowa’s scoring attack has been of late, the team will need all the help it can get to turn its offense back on track. For this Hawkeye team, playing with one tight end in the lineup would be the equivalent to playing with one hand tied behind their back; a luxury they simply cannot afford.