IOWA CITY – In crowded competition for a starting position, T.J. Hockenson relied on his personal blueprint for success.
The redshirt freshman tight end earned a spot in the Iowa lineup during fall camp by leaning on what he learned last season while watching George Kittle work.
“George was a big influence on me,’’ Hockenson said. “The way he went about things last year taught me a lot about what it takes to play at this level and succeed. I showed up last spring trying to do things the way he did them.’’
That strategy worked.
Hockenson joined left tackle Alaric Jackson as the only redshirt freshmen to crack the starting lineup for the Hawkeyes’ season opener against Wyoming.
He enters Saturday’s 11 a.m. game against Illinois with eight receptions during Iowa’s 3-2 start, his average of 14.5 yards per reception the third best among Hawkeyes with more than one catch this season.
In last week’s 17-10 loss at Michigan State, Hockenson led the Hawkeyes with 46 receiving yards on three receptions.
Hockenson has also made something happen on each of his catches this season, scoring a touchdown on one and picking up a first down on his other seven receptions.
“I still find myself going back to how he did things when I think of how things should be done. It helped me a lot being around him last year,’’ Hockenson said. “He was always offering feedback and even though he’s gone off the NFL, he’s still helping me when we talk now.’’
Hockenson arrived at Iowa a year ago much like Kittle, utilized frequently as a receiver in high school.
The 6-foot-5, 243-pound native of Chariton, Iowa, was split out wide throughout much of his prep career. He caught 85 passes for 1,219 yards and 17 touchdowns as senior at the high school level, earning first-team all-state honors.
“There were some similarities to the adjustment I had to make from that level to this level that George had to make coming out of high school and I learned a lot talking with him about the experiences he went through,’’ Hockenson said.
Those conversations happened long before Kittle took his game to the NFL and earned the chance to start as a rookie for the San Francisco 49ers.
They happened on the practice field and in meeting rooms last fall, part of what Hockenson now looks back on as an “eye-opening experience’’ as a true freshman.
“Getting open against guys at this level has been an entirely different game for me,’’ Hockenson said. “In high school, that was no big deal. I was able to get open pretty easily but here I’m competing against guys who are as big and physical as I am.’’
He studied how Kittle was able to get open last season, positioning himself to catch 22 passes and averaged 14.5 yards per reception in the 11 games he played last season for Iowa.
“He’s doing great things in the NFL now and I’m constantly going back to what he talked about with me last year and what he’s told me recently,’’ Hockenson said.
Coach Kirk Ferentz said Hockenson’s potential began to surface to coaches as they watched him work on the scout team last fall.
“Just working against our defensive football team, he did some really good things, made some good grabs and catches,’’ Ferentz said.
His willingness to learn and adapt made a difference as well.
Ferentz said it positioned him for a chance to work his way the depth chart quickly.
“He has a good attitude, good enthusiasm,’’ Ferentz said. “He’s had to go physically, and that’s ongoing with him. But, we saw that. Then in spring ball he did a good job with the opportunities he had and he just keeps on climbing with every week actually, so I think he’s got a really good future.’’
With Iowa using two tight ends more frequently this season, Hockenson and sophomore Noah Fant have each started four games this season. Both have been in the same line up three times including in each of the Hawkeyes’ two Big Ten games this season.
Fant has caught 10 passes through five games and quarterback Nate Stanley said the tandem is working help grow Iowa’s offense.
He calls Hockenson “a super-hard worker” and praises the precision in his work.
“He does what we ask him to do and he’s where he needs to be based on whatever play is called,’’ Stanley said. “If it’s a run play, he’s ready to play. If it’s a pass play, he gets to where he needs to be. You can rely on him.’’
Hockenson works to make that the norm as the Hawkeyes reach the midpoint of their conference schedule.
“I feel the experience I picked up last year on the scout team is helping me now. I feel like I’ve been able to get open better and that is helping me make some plays,’’ Hockenson said. “I’m starting to get a feel for what the game is like in the Big Ten. Everybody is big and fast here but I feel like I’ve found out that I belong and that I can compete at this level.’’
OPTIONAL BRIEF (CUT IF YOU DON”T NEED)
NO SHORTAGE OF YOUTH FOR IOWA, ILLINOIS
Saturday’s Iowa-Illinois football game at Kinnick Stadium features a new generation of players for both programs.
The Hawkeyes’ depth chart for the 11 a.m. game includes 11 first-year starters, but that pales in comparison to the youth movement taking place within the Fighting Illini program.
Eleven true freshmen have started games for Illinois this season, the highest total among NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision programs. The Fighting Illini have had 19 first-year starters through the first four games of the season and last week against Nebraska, that group included eight true freshmen.
“When you play young guys, you have to live with a few mistakes but the expectations don’t change,’’ Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. “You expect them to go out and do things right or else they wouldn’t be out there.’’