After Iowa just barely survived the first game of the season with a 7-3 victory over South Dakota State, most Hawkeye fans would probably rather take a trip to the dentist than think about the showing the 2022 Iowa offense put out in the season opener.
So now’s the perfect time to think about some more positive moments involving Iowa’s offense, and most of those come via the Iowa Hawkeyes tight ends. Iowa football isn’t quite as well known for producing tight ends as Penn State is for linebackers, but it’s pretty close.
The Hawkeyes have had 13 tight ends drafted in NFL history, and of those 13, only Austin Wheatley failed to catch at least one pass in the pros.
Best Iowa Hawkeyes Tight Ends in History
The list of great NFL tight ends from Iowa and the list of Iowa’s best tight ends aren’t necessarily the same, because some of the Hawkeyes’ best tight ends proved much better in the pros than they were in college.
George Kittle, for example, has become much more versatile and feared as a pass catcher in San Francisco than he ever was in Iowa City. With the Hawkeyes, he hauled in 10 touchdown passes in his career, but he couldn’t stay on the field enough to reach his full potential while wearing the black and gold.
So, who does make it onto the list of best Iowa Hawkeyes tight ends? Take a look at the Hawkeyes’ best producers that helped them earn the nickname of Tight End U!
1. Dallas Clark
It’s pretty hard to argue with earning the John Mackey Award as the nation’s best tight end, which Clark managed to pull off in 2002. It’s also no surprise that he features in our list of top 10 best Iowans ever in the NFL.
Clark’s performance was quite the achievement, considering he arrived in Iowa City as both a walk-on and a linebacker who did most of his work on special teams in 1999 and 2000. Shortly after Kirk Ferentz arrived in Iowa City, he decided to move Clark to tight end, and the effect on Iowa’s offense was transformational.
In 2001, Clark emerged as a star at the position with 38 catches for 539 yards and four touchdowns, and Iowa made a bowl game for the first time under Ferentz. The next year, Iowa shocked everyone by romping through the Big Ten with an undefeated mark and an 11-1 overall record, leading to a trip to the Orange Bowl. Clark was a big part of that, as he presented a matchup nightmare for defenses because of his height, size, and hands. At 6’3” and 250 pounds, Clark was too tall and too strong for the average defender to deal with, which gave quarterback Brad Banks an outlet to keep drives moving.
When all was said and done, Clark both won the Mackey and became a unanimous first-team All-American, accumulating 1,281 yards in two seasons at tight end. After the 2002 campaign, Clark decided to pass on his senior season and enter the NFL draft, where he became a first-round selection. He would eventually spend 11 seasons in the NFL, becoming a first-team All-Pro in 2009. Had he spent three or even four seasons playing tight end at Iowa, he’d be the unanimous choice as Iowa’s best tight end, as opposed to sharing that title with fans of the Hawks’ No. 2 choice. When it comes to discussing the best Iowa Hawkeyes tight ends in the NFL, there is no better choice than Dallas Clark.
A highlight for our @TheIowaHawkeyes Hall-of-Famer, Dallas Clark.
— Hawkeye Football (@HawkeyeFootball) September 1, 2022
2. Marv Cook
Cook was the first great Iowa tight end, and during his time in the position, he helped change what it meant to be a great Iowa tight end. Behind coach Hayden Fry and offensive coordinator Bill Snyder, Iowa had an innovative new approach to attacking defenses, which started with having the tight end stand up before the snap instead of crouching to give the quarterback a better vision of what the defense might be planning.
The strategy worked because Cook fully embraced his role by blocking when he needed to and catching passes when necessary. With Cook in the tight end spot, Iowa established that its Rose Bowl trip in 1985 was not a fluke, reaching the Holiday Bowl after beating Ohio State in 1987 and reaching the Peach Bowl in 1988.
In the 1987 season, not only did Cook turn a short gain into almost 30 yards to make that memorable win over the Buckeyes possible, but he gained 803 yards on the year, the only Iowa tight end to hit that number in a season. It’s little surprise that he became Iowa’s first All-American tight end and is widely remembered as one of the best to ever play the position in Iowa City. Cook then became a third-round choice of the New England Patriots in 1989 and played in the NFL until 1995. Overall, Marv Cook is without a doubt one of the best Iowa Hawkeyes tight ends in history.
— The Iowa Hawkeyes (@TheIowaHawkeyes) September 2, 2016
3. T.J. Hockenson
When you pass on your final two years of eligibility in college for the NFL draft and go in the first round, it’s because you’re a truly special talent at your position. Hockenson was absolutely that for the Hawkeyes, as he won the John Mackey Award in 2018 as a sophomore when he seriously threatened Cook’s record, gaining 760 yards for the season.
Had Hockenson stayed in Iowa City, Iowa might very well have built even more in 2018 and made a run at a New Year’s Six Bowl in 2019. But when you put up the kind of numbers that Hockenson had and you do so in a way that earns you a look as a first-rounder, you kind of have to go for the pros. The Detroit Lions made him their top choice in 2019’s draft and he’s been a must-start whenever he’s healthy over the past two seasons.
What makes it even more impressive is that Hockenson could have become even more of a star at the tight end had he not been one of two stars at the position during his time with the black and gold. Even though there’s only one football on a play, both Hockenson and Noah Fant made themselves indispensable parts of the offense all season long.
— TJ Hockenson (@TheeHOCK8) January 14, 2019
4. Noah Fant
In the fourth place of our best Iowa Hawkeyes tight ends in history is Noah Fant. Here’s something you might not know about Fant: his 19 career touchdowns represent the highest career total for any Iowa tight end in history. Roughly one in four catches from Fant resulted in six points for Iowa, and he scored more touchdowns for the Hawkeyes than Clark and Cook combined.
And the amazing thing is that the number and hype could have been higher if not for the fact that he had to share the spotlight with Hockenson. During Fant’s time in Iowa City, the Hawks were blessed with two excellent tight ends, which meant Kirk Ferentz had the difficult but welcome problem of making sure to get both of them on the field and contributing to the offense. What resulted was that Fant became more of the touchdown specialist, grabbing passes near the goal line.
What the Hawkeyes did work, as Fant also became a first-round pick when all was said and done in Iowa. Fant’s started for most of three seasons with the Denver Broncos, and he moved over to Seattle when the Seahawks traded Russell Wilson to Denver and needed to get real value in return.
— Noah Fant (@nrfant) November 30, 2018
5. George Kittle
Kittle deserves to be on the list because of what he became with the 49ers, but he can’t be any higher because his Iowa career just wasn’t worthy of recognition on its own. That’s because in college, Kittle couldn’t stay healthy. He only really got to spend two seasons doing the job in Iowa’s offense, and when he did, he was a great touchdown threat, turning just under one of every five catches into points.
However, because he couldn’t stay on the field during his college career, Iowa had to get a little more creative with how it moved the ball when Kittle was in Iowa City. The potential was clearly in place for Kittle to become the next great Iowa tight end while he was in Iowa City, but his ability to chew up yards and punish defenses came later. Kittle did plenty to impress the NFL scouts and is certainly a point of pride for the Iowa program, but there have been other tight ends who did more in Iowa City while still making it to the NFL and deserve to be higher on this list.
— George Kittle (@gkittle46) March 21, 2019
Iowa Tight Ends in 2023
The Hawkeyes again have a talented tight end option in Sam LaPorta, although he didn’t really have much of an impact on the first game with South Dakota State. LaPorta has served as a safety blanket for Spencer Petras in previous games, but Petras wasn’t really hitting anybody in Week 1 and has to do a better job of distributing the ball if Iowa plans to do much of anything this season.
If Iowa can get both LaPorta and Luke Lachey on the field, the Hawkeyes’ offense could look a lot like the days of Hockenson and Fant, as both are talented enough to put up some big numbers with the right quarterback in place. With Petras, not exactly the best at making big throws, two tight ends might be the best way for Iowa to do the job this season.
In this list, we reviewed some of the best Iowa Hawkeyes tight ends of all time. Iowa has a rich history of producing outstanding tight ends that have gone on to successful careers in the NFL. Dallas Clark, Marv Cook, and T.J. Hockenson are among the best to ever play the position in Iowa City.
Clark’s transformation from a walk-on linebacker to the nation’s best tight end and unanimous first-team All-American in 2002 is remarkable. Cook was the first great Iowa tight end, helping to change the position and leading Iowa to three consecutive bowl games. Hockenson’s talent and success as a sophomore earned him the John Mackey Award and made him a first-round draft pick.
Iowa’s reputation as Tight End U is well-deserved, and Iowans will be hoping that this tradition continues for a long time in the future.