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Iowa’s tight end factory is about to make NFL Draft history

T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant are on the verge of being selected in the first round.

INDIANAPOLIS — T.J. Hockenson was nearly brought to tears.

No, the Iowa tight end was not eating the famously hot shrimp cocktail at St. Elmo Steak House in Indianapolis. He was talking about Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz and offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz.

“I can’t say enough good things about the Ferentzes,” Hockenson said at the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine. “They put me in this position. I love them to death. Coach Brian Ferentz has taught me a lot. Coach Kirk Ferentz is a mentor of mine. Just being a part of that program was really special to me.

”The culture that they’ve built at Iowa is so special. They’re family. They’ve pushed me to be the player I am and they’re going to continue to have my best interests in the NFL.”

Iowa has become something of a tight end factory since Kirk Ferentz became the head coach in 1999. In that time, Iowa has had nine tight ends selected in the draft, the most recent being George Kittle in 2017 by the 49ers. For San Francisco last season, Kittle had 88 receptions for 1,377 yards and five touchdowns. Kittle was only a fifth-round pick in 2017.

Hockenson and teammate Noah Fant could both be taken in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft. If that happens, it would be the first time tight ends from the same school were taken in the first round. That’s leading to plenty of praise for the Ferentzes.

”They’re so good with tight ends because they develop them,” Fant said at the combine. “It’s not a program where you just run routes or just catch balls. You have to do both. You have to put your hand in the dirt, you have to split out, and I pride myself on that. Where I fit into the offense is that I was able to be out wide, split out as an isolated receiver. They definitely develop their guys.”

Hockenson takes pride in his blocking skills

Of the two, Hockenson is considered to be the more developed and well-rounded player because of his skill as a blocker. Hockenson is arguably the best blocker in the draft, thanks in large part to plays like this one:

”I mean, they’re both pretty fun,” Hockenson said after being asked if he prefers blocking to catching passes. “I mean, honestly, I love to block. I love to run routes. I just really pride myself on doing both. That I can do everything that the job requires as a tight end. That’s what I try to do.”

Hockenson won the Mackey Award as college football’s top tight end in 2018 after a season of 49 receptions for 760 yards and six touchdowns.

“I love Hockenson,” NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said on a recent teleconference. “I think he’s the safest player in the draft. And part of the benefit for him in terms of what I gave him and where I ranked him, I did him the day after watching Rob Gronkowski live in person in the playoff game against the Chargers, and I saw Gronk completely dominate a football game without really having to catch the ball. He was just so dominant in the run game.

”Then I flip on this kid, and he’s not as tall as Gronk, and I don’t compare anybody to Gronk— he’s on a whole different level in terms of what he can do — but I saw this kid with that same temperament and nastiness in the run game and controlling the run game, and then on top of that, he does nothing but get open and catch everything they throw to him.”

Fant is the type of receiving tight end NFL teams — especially the Patriots — love

Fant might be even better than Hockenson as a pass catcher. Iowa would often keep Fant lined up out wide, or use him in the slot. It helped Iowa create mismatches with the 6’4 Fant.

“Who are you going to flex out to put on me?” Fant said. “Put a corner out there, he might be too small. Put a safety, he might be too slow. Put a linebacker, he might be too slow. So, it’s one of those things where you get the right matchup, it could be pretty special.”

Fant showed off his athleticism during field workouts at the combine. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds. While he was expected to put up a fast time, even that beat expectations. But it was his hands and movement skills in the other drills that stood out. Sure, Fant had some drops. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a tight end who doesn’t, especially in the rapid fire gauntlet drill. Fant was regularly snagging the ball away from his frame, and he moved smoothly down the line.

In blocking drills, he showed good leg drive and power. That’s a part of the game Fant said he’s working on a lot while preparing for the draft.

Still, for him, it’s all about being a receiver more than anything. In three years at Iowa, Fant had 78 receptions for 1,083 yards and 19 touchdowns. If Hockenson is gone when the New England Patriots pick at No. 32 — and he likely will be — Fant could be an attractive choice. The Ferentzes have close ties to Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. Belichick and Kirk Ferentz were on the same staff with the Cleveland Browns in the 1990s. Brian Ferentz coached for the Patriots for three seasons.

“They have Gronk there. They’ve had a couple of different tight ends come through that program that they’ve developed and they’ve made into great players,” Fant said. “So it would mean the world to me to go to a team like that or any team that’s willing to use their tight ends like they do.”

Whether one of them ends up with the Patriots or not, it’s likely both Hockenson and Fant will hear their names called on the first night of the draft — and make a little history.