Vikings star T.J. Hockenson is a product of Tight End U. How did the Hawkeyes develop that reputation?

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T.J. Hockenson was always going to wait for that scholarship offer from Iowa. Even after rival Iowa State made the first move.

After growing up watching Dallas Clark star at tight end for the Hawkeyes in the early 2000s, Hockenson went on to play the same position a couple of hours away at Chariton High School.

That made his college decision fairly simple.

“I knew at a young age that was where I wanted to go,” Hockenson said. “Even though I wasn’t a big recruit, I think if I was, I still would’ve gone to Iowa.”

Why wouldn’t he? There isn’t a better place for a tight end with hopes of making it to the NFL. The legacy started with Clark, who went on to play for the Indianapolis Colts, then continued with the likes of Scott Chandler, Brandon Myers and Tony Moeaki, all of whom were drafted after playing for the Hawkeyes.

It has reached the pinnacle over the past decade or so with Iowa churning out a top prospect at tight end seemingly every year.

“You know, when T.J. was being recruited, he had a chance to go to other schools,” said Chariton High School football coach Curt Smyser, who served as a sounding board for Hockenson during his recruitment. “That said, if he wanted to get to the next level as a tight end, he knew that’s where he had to go.”

It worked out for Hockenson. He starred for the Hawkeyes, got drafted No. 8 overall by the Detroit Lions, then ended up with Vikings via a blockbuster trade. He parlayed his production into a historic four-year, $68.5 million contract extension over the summer.

Now, with the Vikings set to host the San Francisco 49ers on Monday Night Football, Hockenson will get to go against best bud George Kittle. It will be a big moment for his alma mater and its reputation as Tight End U.

That moniker used to be up for debate, with Miami and Notre Dame also claiming a share of the title. Not anymore.

This is the golden age for Iowa with Hockenson, Kittle, Noah Fant and Sam LaPorta all serving as starting tight ends in the NFL.

“We don’t really share it,” Hockenson said with a laugh. “We just say we’re at the top of it.”

It raises the question: How did a Big Ten school located smack dab in the middle of flyover country become a factory for tight ends?

The secret sauce for the Hawkeyes is twofold, rooted in the passion they seek out when recruiting players and the coaching they provide, which mimics a pro-style offense. It’s a culture head coach Kirk Ferentz has cultivated since taking over in 1999.

“It’s a place that really develops guys,” Hockenson said. “It was a blessing for me to be able to go there and be a part of that.”

The passion is an important ingredient for the program.

It allows players to be fluid in the development process, which, according to current Iowa tight ends coach Abdul Hodge, can be instrumental in future success. He referenced the college career of Clark, who actually walked on as an outside linebacker, then made the switch to tight end at the request of the coaching staff.

“A guy like him ends up developing and becoming a really good tight end,” said Hodge, a former linebacker for the Hawkeyes. “All because he loved the game enough to be open to making that change.”

Still, as important as the passion is from its players, the way Iowa coaches its tight ends is what truly sets it apart from its peers.

“We’re doing the exact same drills as the offensive linemen to start every practice,” Hodge said. “Everything the offensive line is being taught, the tight ends are being taught, as well.”

As many programs throughout the country have started to use their tight ends as oversized receivers, looking to gain optimal matchups downfield, the Hawkeyes have continued to emphasize the importance of blocking at a high level.

“Everybody knows how to run routes nowadays,” Hodge said. “I want my guys to take pride in their ability to put their hand in the ground and move a grown man backwards.”

That mindset is something Iowa beat writer Scott Dochterman has noticed about the tight ends while covering the program for the past couple of decades.

“They find those guys that have that natural ability and teach them how to be good blockers,” said Dochterman, who started covering the team at the Cedar Rapids Gazette and now works for The Athletic. “Most of them are pretty good athletes. You’re still expected to block like an offensive lineman. That’s the expectation from the moment a guy steps foot on campus.”

The development of Hockenson and Kittle is a good example of that. They came to college as very good athletes who thrived as pass catchers. They turned into complete players, capable of making a difference in the passing game, while also being a key component in the running game.

“I learned how to block when I went to college,” Hockenson said. “Not many schools teach guys to run off the ball and go attack players. Just getting to learn that was a big thing for me. It really got me prepared for the league.”

All the while, the Hawkeyes still encourage their tight ends to be playmakers, using them as a key part of the offense play in and play out. As a result, Hockenson, Kittle, Fant, LaPorta and all of the tight ends who came before them, have entered the NFL with a skill set needed to succeed.

“It’s a staggering number of guys who have been a starting tight end at Iowa, then gone on to have great success at the next level,” Dochterman said. “Now that it’s a legacy I think most of these guys feel like it’s their responsibility to carry it on for their predecessors.”

There’s a reason it’s become known as Tight End U.

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