IOWA CITY, Iowa – For the first time as an Iowa football player, George Kittle doesn’t have his cousin and fellow tight end, Hank, on the team.
Life without Henry Krieger Coble feels kind of weird for Kittle this spring. But he can’t allow the loss of his cousin to be costly for the team.
Kittle has shown the ability to make big plays – six of his 20 receptions last season resulted in touchdowns – but he now has to show consistency and show that he can make the tough catches on third-down in traffic, which his cousin did so often for the Hawkeyes last season.
Kittle wants to earn the same level of trust that his cousin had with Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard and with Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz.
“Everybody wants the ball in their hands all the time,” Kittle said “I want C.J. to trust me in those situations like he trusted Hank.
“And that’s why spring ball is real helpful because you get in those situations and scenarios that coach Ferentz puts us in. And if C.J. gets me the ball on those third-and-mediums and stuff like that, then that’ll carry over to the season.”
It’ll be hard enough replacing Krieger Coble, but Iowa also has to replace another proven tight end with Jake Duzey also exhausting his eligibility last season. Duzey missed most of last season with a knee injury. However, before the injury, Duzey was a big-play tight end similar to Kittle.
“They’re going to be sorely missed over the next couple of years,” Iowa tight ends coach LeVar Woods said of Krieger Coble and Duzey.
Kittle no longer has the security of playing in his cousin’s shadow. Kittle is now Iowa’s featured tight end. And with that role comes a huge responsibility.
“I’m learning it one day at a time,” Kittle said. “It’s pretty easy following guys like Hank and Duzey. They have done it right for four and five years. And I’ve just got to follow them in stride. Their leadership really helped me and I’m just trying to be a leader for the guys.”
Woods described Kittle’s ceiling as being extremely high in terms of potential.
“I think he can be as good as he wants to be,” Woods said. “He can be as good as anybody that’s played here. He has the speed and the size combo. He also has an energy and enthusiasm about him that can help him be as good as he wants to be. And we’re far from seeing I think the best that George has put on the field. But he’s got a long way to go, long way to go.”
Krieger Coble finished last season with 35 receptions for 405 yards and one touchdown. He had the second most catches on the team behind Matt VandeBerg’s 65 receptions.
But it wasn’t just the number of catches that Krieger Coble had last season that made him special. It was the kind of grabs that he made, the ones on third-down with two and three defenders draped all over him.
Ferentz raved about Krieger Coble’s hands last season, telling reporters that he routinely made spectacular catches in practice.
Woods echoed his head coach when asked at a recent spring press conference if any of the returning tight ends were in Krieger Coble’s class as a receiver at this point.
“I think I would be doing Hank a disservice if I said that somebody was catching the ball like him,” Woods said.
“But I will be honest, I have not seen a guy that can catch a ball like Henry at that level. I played with some good players in the National Football League, and I haven’t seen them catch a ball like Henry. So I would be doing Hank a disservice in that regard.
“However, I haven’t had any problems in spring. One of the models we have when the ball is thrown to you, you catch it. I don’t care where it goes and who is on you.”
Sophomore Jameer Outsey was listed as Kittle’s backup heading into spring practice. Outsey was used mostly as a blocker last season, and held his own.
The rest of Iowa’s tight ends are inexperienced to say the least. Outsey is the only returning tight end besides Kittle who caught a pass last season. But Outsey only had one catch for 10 yards.
Junior Jon Wisnieski is now nearly two years removed from a serious knee injury, while Nate Vejvoda is in the mix for playing time after being redshirted last season. Wisnieski was healthy last season, but he fell behind Outsey on the depth chart.
“Overall, the group is very, very young, but it is a group that is hungry and ready and willing and able to come to practice every single day and work hard,” Woods said.
The group will add some more young players when 2016 tight end recruits Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson join the team next season.
Cedar Rapids Kennedy senior Shaun Beyer also signed with Iowa in February and could play either tight end or on defense for the Hawkeyes.
“We’re excited about those two and there’s a couple of other guys am coming in that we’re not sure if they’re going to be tight ends or not,” Woods said. “We would like to have them, but other positions dictate whether or not they can play tight end or whether they need to play defense.”
George Kittle 6-4, 246, Sr., Norman, Okla., – Scored six touchdowns last season on just receptions.
Jameer Outsey 6-3, 245, Soph., Somerset, N.J., – Held his own while used mostly as a blocker last season.
Jon Wisnieski 6-5, 250, Jr., – The former West Des Moines Dowling standout has been slowed by a knee injury.
Nate Vejvoda 6-5, 235, Homer Glen, Ill., – Gained weight and strength last season while being redshirted.
Peter Pekar 6-4, 250, Jr., Greendale, Wis., – The son of former Iowa football player Jim Pekar has stayed the course after joining the program as a walk-on.
Nate Wieting 6-4, 245, Fr., Rockford, Ill., – Redshirted last season as a true freshman walk-on.
2016 tight end recruits
Noah Fant 6-5, 220, Omaha, Neb.
T.J. Hockenson 6-5, 230, Chariton, Iowa
Shaun Beyer 6-5, 210, Cedar Rapids, Iowa