IOWA CITY — With T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant getting mention as potential first-round selections in the NFL’s annual draft, Iowa is taking a hit in experience at tight end as it builds its 2019 football team.
But, coach Kirk Ferentz doesn’t exactly label the situation as dire.
Returning Hawkeyes may not possess Hockenson’s magnet-like hands or Fant’s extraordinary quickness for the position, but Ferentz believes Iowa has enough skill and depth to accomplish what it wants to do at the tight end position even with the early exits for the NFL Hockenson and Fant opted to make.
“We have some experience, some guys who have been around,’’ Ferentz said.
Nate Wieting and Drew Cook will be seniors next season and Shaun Beyer is preparing for his junior year.
Wieting, a 6-foot-4, 250-pound native of Rockford, Illinois, is the most experienced of the group. He has seen the field in 30 games for Iowa over the past three seasons.
Used primarily for his blocking abilities in short-yardage situations, Wieting recorded his first catch for a 17-yard gain in the Pinstripe Bowl in 2017 before gaining 51 yards on two receptions in 2018.
The 6-5, 240-pound Beyer appeared in eight games for Iowa last season, but missed the final five games of the year after suffering a leg injury in practice.
Cook, the son of former Hawkeye all-American tight end Marv Cook, shifted to tight end from quarterback last spring and the 6-5, 250-pound Iowa City Regina graduate earned snaps in five games last season at the position.
Coaches also like what they have seen from Ben Subbert, a 6-3, 235-pound walk-on from Williamsburg, Iowa who just completed his freshman season.
Iowa will add three incoming freshmen from Illinois high school programs to the mix at tight end when fall camp opens, with Orion’s Logan Lee joining Sam LaPorta of Highland and Josiah Miamen of Dunlap in the position group.
Ferentz said during a news conference last week that Wieting and Beyer will be at the top of the depth chart when spring practices begin in March. He added he expects Cook to be in the mix as well.
The leg injury which kept Beyer off the field late in the season also prevented him from participating in bowl preparation, a situation Ferentz labeled disappointing.
“December is such an opportunity for guys to really grow, especially guys that are in his category that are playing behind good players,’’ Ferentz said. “He was really coming along, doing a lot of nice things.’’
As Iowa begins its offseason strength and conditioning work this month, Ferentz said Beyer is nearing a return.
“He’s eager and anxious. I told him it’s better to be conservative. You’ve invested the time. Let’s not be silly about it. He’s pretty close to being ready to go. Hopefully he’ll be one of those guys who really continues to improve. We’re hopeful he will be,’’ Ferentz said.
“Obviously we like Nate Wieting a lot, too, so those will be the first two guys at the tight end positon along with Drew Cook.’’
They won’t be counted on to lineup the way Hockenson and Fant did at times during Iowa’s 9-4 season.
To expect them to replicate the combined 88 receptions, 1,279 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns that Hockenson and Fant combined for during all-American seasons is unlikely, but production is expected.
Double tight end sets remain a part of the Hawkeyes’ offensive playbook, although Ferentz said the frequency that alignment is used may change moving forward.
That was noticeable in Iowa’s bowl win over Mississippi State following Fant’s departure prior to the start of bowl preparation.
The Hawkeyes used more three-receiver sets in the Outback Bowl than they had in any game during the regular season, right at 70 percent of its snaps.
That was a reflection of not only Fant’s early exit but also the growing confidence coaches have developed over time in receivers Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette, now both working to take on expanded roles as they prepare for their junior seasons.
“We’ll continue to do work to put our top 11 players on the field in whatever configuration that might be and go from there,’’ Ferentz said.