Iowa Under Ferentz A Fertile Ground for Tight Ends

May 27, 2020

Written by Rick Brown

Hawkeye Nation

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Dallas Clark came to Iowa as a walk-on linebacker. He left as a first-round NFL draft pick.

Clark sat out as a redshirt in 1999, then saw his first action in 2000. He had six tackles, logging his most significant time on special teams. He was moved to tight end in 2001. 

Clark was awarded a scholarship before the 2002 season, when he started every game for a team that won the Big Ten title and finished 11-2. He then passed on his final season of eligibility to enter the NFL Draft, was selected by Indianapolis with the 24th pick and helped the Colts win Super Bowl XLI. He was a first-team All-Pro selection in 2009.

Clark also won the 2002 Mackey Award, presented annually to the nation’s top collegiate tight end.  He is one of the great stories of the Kirk Ferentz coaching era at Iowa, a small-town kid with big dreams who reached the pinnacle of his sport.

Each year, the Big Ten now presents the conference’s best tight end with the Kwalick-Clark Award. It is jointly named for Penn State’s Ted Kwalick and that former walk-on linebacker from Iowa.

In 2018, Iowa’s T.J.Hockenson won that award. He also joined Clark as a first-team all-Big Ten selection and a winner of the Mackey Award. Another small-town Iowan, Hockenson was also redshirted his first season at Iowa. He, too, left early for the draft. And he was a first-round pick.

Iowa has always had a reputation for producing quality tight ends. That reputation was polished even more in the last few seasons. George Kittle has gone from a fifth-round draft pick in 2017 to a player regarded as the best tight end in the NFL.

Kittle has 2,945 receiving yards, the most in NFL history by a tight end in his first three seasons. He reached 2,000 career yards in just 33 games, tying for third fastest in NFL history behind Mike Ditka (30 games ) and Kellen Winslow Sr. (31). Kittle set an NFL record for most receiving yards (1,377) by a tight end in 2018. He was a first-team All-Pro choice in 2018 and has already been selected for two Pro Bowls.

Iowa also became the first program in the nation to have two tight ends selected in the first round of the same draft in 2018. Noah Fant, a semifinalist for the Mackey Award, went to Denver with the 20th pick. Hockenson went to Detroit with the eighth pick.

The April issue of Sports Illustrated tabbed Stanford as Tight End U., with seven players drafted in the last decade. An eighth, Colby Parkinson, went in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Iowa and Miami of Florida tied for second.

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While that remains a subject for discussion, NFL scouts will continue to check out Iowa on an annual basis. And the Ferentz era has been productive by NFL standards.

Eleven Ferentz tight ends have been drafted since he became head coach in 1999 – Clark, Hockenson and Fant in the first round, C.J. Fiedorowicz (2014) and Tony Moeaki (2010) in the third round, Scott Chandler (2007) in the fourth round, Austin Wheatley (2000) and George Kittle (2017) in the fifth round, Brandon Myers (2009) and Tony Jackson (2005) in the sixth round and Erik Jensen (2004) in the seventh round.

Three more former Hawkeye tight ends made it to the NFL through free agency – Zeron Flemister (60 games, 38 catches from 2000-2005), Allen Reisner and Henry Krieger Coble.

And how all these tight ends got to Iowa includes some interesting stories. Moeaki, Fiedorowicz and Fant were the most highly regarded prospects out of high school.

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But Chandler was just a two-star prospect out of Southlake, Texas. After making 93 catches over his last two college seasons, he was drafted in the fourth round by San Diego. He played 90 career games for the Chargers, Buffalo and New England, with 39 starts and 205 catches for 2,379 yards and 21 touchdowns.

Hockenson was a two-star prospect when he committed to Iowa as a junior at Chariton High School. He was elevated to a three star by the time he signed his letter of intent.

Myers, a multi-sport star at Prairie City-Monroe, had committed to Northern Iowa before Iowa made a late recruiting push. After being named first-team all-Big Ten as a senior in 2008, Myers played eight NFL seasons with Oakland, Tampa Bay and the New York Giants. He played in 115 games, starting 63, with 199 catches for 1,954 yards and nine touchdowns.

The Kittle story is a movie waiting to happen. He was born Oct. 9, 1993, at University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics in Madison, Wis. Wisconsin’s football team was hosting Northwestern at nearby Camp Randall that day, and the Kittles could look out their hospital window and see the stadium. George’s dad, Bruce, played football at Iowa. His mom, Jan, was a basketball standout at Drake (1,846 points).

George grew up a Wisconsin fan. He was in the stands on Nov. 13, 1999, when running back Ron Dayne ran for 216 yards against Iowa and set an NCAA Division I-A rushing record. Ferentz was in his first season as Iowa’s coach. That 41-3 loss was part of a 1-10 season.

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George played his prep football at Norman High School in Norman, Okla., where Bruce was coaching on Bobby Stoops’s staff at Oklahoma.

Wisconsin never recruited George. Iowa gave him a look, but hadn’t offered when signing day arrived.

George wore a Hawkeye t-shirt to school that day, hoping things would change. They did. Ferentz called and offered a scholarship. And the rest, they say, is history.

Sam LaPorta made some history of his own in 2019, becoming the first true freshman to start a game at tight end under Ferentz (Wisconsin).  The former standout at Highland High School in Highland, Ill., who caught 68 passes for 1,457 yards and 19 touchdowns as a senior, had no Power Five offers until Iowa came calling. His other offers came from Yale, Bowling Green, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Northern Illinois, Lindenwood, Northern Iowa, Southern Illinois and Western Illinois.

A year later, LaPorta made six catches for 44 yards against USC in Iowa’s winning 49-24 performance at the Holiday Bowl.

As Ferentz is fond of saying, Next Man In.

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