Wide receivers and tight ends: A-
Let’s make one thing clear: If this was only about Iowa’s tight ends, the grade would undoubtedly be an A+.
It’s hard not to get the best grade possible when your two starting tight ends are named first-team All-Big Ten by either the conference’s coaches or media. Or when they’re both All-Americans. Or when one earned the John Mackey Award, given to the country’s top tight end, and the other is basically a consensus first-round NFL Draft prospect.
All of the accolades tell the same story — T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant were incredible for the Hawkeyes this season.
The duo led the way for Iowa receivers; Hockenson ranked first on the team with 46 receptions for 717 yards and finished second with 6 receiving touchdowns, and Fant concluded his season at first with 7 scores and second with 518 yards.
Now, there is one game left for Hockenson to improve those numbers. With Fant declaring for the NFL Draft and skipping the bowl game, it’ll be up to the Chariton native to keep the tight-end train chugging along.
“The good news is I think he’ll continue to get better because he’s playing really well right now, but he can play better, and he knows that — he’d probably be the first guy to tell you that,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “But that’s exciting. I think you get excited if you’re a player, you see yourself growing and you see yourself improving, it’s a pretty neat thing.”
In Year 2 of Brian Ferentz’s offense, things got better for the wide receivers for the most part.
After catching 3 passes for 10 yards in 2017, Brandon Smith stepped up to record 25 catches for 328 yards and 2 scores and flashed big-play ability with his impressive athleticism.
Ihmir Smith-Marsette nearly doubled his yardage, racking up 332 yards after gaining 187 as a true freshman. His speed was a problem for defensive backs, and it translated to a team-best (out of players with at least 5 receptions) 17.5 yards per catch.
Smith-Marsette’s performance earned him All-Big Ten honorable mention from the conference media. He was also a star on kick returns, though, finishing the season as the Rodgers-Dwight Big Ten Return Specialist of the Year after ranking third in the country with 29.3 yards per return.
Nick Easley led the Hawkeyes last season, hauling in 51 passes for 530 yards and 4 touchdowns. Those numbers fell in his senior season, but he didn’t need to reproduce them because of the improvement of Smith and Smith-Marsette, along with the tight ends.
All in all, the Hawkeye pass catchers did exactly what they needed to do in 2018. They provided reliable targets for quarterback Nate Stanley, and some even introduced themselves as players to watch in the future.
With Fant leaving for the draft and Easley graduating, Iowa will return Smith, Smith-Marsette, and possibly Hockenson. That leaves room for an impressive 2019.
Iowa’s offense has become a threat in the air attack under Brian Ferentz and with a solid quarterback and a stellar receiving corps, it’s easy to see how things have changed.
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