In 2012, the Hawkeye tight ends had one of their least productive seasons in the Kirk Ferentz era.
That is likely to change this season, as junior C.J. Fiedorowicz looks poised to take his place as a starter and the next in line of Iowa-produced, NFL-caliber tight ends.
The second tight end, which has always been something of a starter in Iowa's scheme, will probably be senior Zach Derby.
True sophomore Ray Hamilton, redshirt freshmen Jake Duzey and Henry Krieger-Coble and true freshman George Kittle will fill out the depth chart.
By the Numbers
Last season, C.J. Fiedorowicz had 16 receptions for 167 yards and three touchdowns.
He didn't start the first seven games of the season; consequently, he made 14 of his catches, as well as all of the touchdowns, in the final six games.
If one could take his production during the final six games and average it out for the entire year, one would come up with 30.3 receptions, 292.5 yards and 6.5 touchdown grabs. Not coincidentally, this is just under the first-team Iowa tight ends' average production dating back to 2007.
Zach Derby also grabbed four starts, though his inconsistent play was one of the reasons for the ascendency of CJ Fed.
Derby finished the year with 12 receptions for 117 yards. In 2010, he had one grab for 17 yards.
Finally, then-true freshman Ray Hamilton had one catch for 15 yards.
Issues Heading into 2012
2011 was statistically the worst season for Iowa tight ends since 2003, when Erik Jensen was the top receiving Hawkeye with 16 catches for 182 yards.
I would further argue that, statistics aside, 2011 was the worst season for Iowa tight ends under Kirk Ferentz since 1999.
Things improved once Fiedorwicz became the starter, but there were still issues, particularly as concerned the tight ends as blockers.
Fiedorowicz probably would have taken the starting spot—or at least the second tight end spot—at the beginning of the 2011 season if he had demonstrated proficiency as a blocker. He has improved, but he is not where he needs to be yet.
Positives Heading into 2012
Fiedorowicz is currently listed at 6'7", 265 pounds, and unlike most exaggerated collegiate measurables, CJ Fed looks every bit of his listed numbers.
His catch radius is huge, and it will be nearly impossible for a linebacker to keep up with him or a defensive back to measure up to him. Moreover, only a gang tackle will be able to take him down if he gets into the secondary.
New offensive coordinator Greg Davis plans to make extensive use of his top tight end. He has said, "I’ve never had a tight end like C.J. with his size and ability to play at the line of scrimmage and also stretch the field."
If the spring game is any indication, the west coast tendencies of Greg Davis will put the tight ends in more quarterback-friendly routes.
Specifically, former OC Ken O'Keefe tended to use his tight ends mostly in rollouts, waggles and delays. There were rarely any traditional drop-back passes where the tight end was the quarterback's primary target.
Davis has indicated that his tight ends will line up all over the field—in a three-point stance, in the slot, in the backfield—which, as previously indicated, will take heat off the receivers and utilize what looks to be one of Iowa's strongest position groups next season.
Zach Derby is arguably not starter-quality, but he can be a solid second option.
Meanwhile, Hamilton, Duzey and Krieger-Coble look to be stars of the future.
Lastly, Brian Ferentz was the New England Patriot's tight end coach last season, and the Pats' top tight ends had a pretty good year. It has been rumored that Ferentz, who is Iowa's new offensive line coach, has been spending some of his time with the Hawkeye tight ends. That can only have positive results.
How many receptions will CJ Fed have in 2012?
As previously mentioned, Derby isn't the second-coming of Dallas Clark, but he is experienced, a decent blocker and opponents can't afford to ignore him.
Hamilton is arguably the second-most inherently talented tight end on the team and could be the Aaron Hernandez to CJ Fed's Rob Gronkowski.
Duzey and Krieger-Coble are undersized and inexperienced, but both project to have bright futures and were used as receiving options in the spring game.
As for true freshmen, George Kittle will come to Iowa City as a wide receiver, but will most likely end up at tight end. Nevertheless, with a listed weight of 6'4", 200 pounds, he'll need a redshirt year in the weight room and at the dining hall table.
Outlook for 2012
I expect a breakout year for CJ Fed.
I also expect Greg Davis to make use of his backups. I'm not entirely sure how creative he'll get in that capacity, but with the Hawks' dearth of experienced wideouts and running backs, he may have to dig into his playbook.
Personally, I hope he borrows from Stanford's playbook with the Cardinals' use of three-tight sets and taps Brian Ferentz for some of the Patriots' innovative uses of their tight ends.
Furthermore, quarterback James Vandenberg will need a go-to guy now that Marvin McNutt is off to ply his wares in Philadelphia. It is unlikely that Keenan Davis can handle McNutt's workload. In effect, Fiedorowicz might function as JVB's security blanket.
In 2012, Iowa needs the Polish Hat to grab at least 40 receptions, and I am confident he will be successful.
On top of that, the Hawks will need 20 grabs from the backups.
As previously mentioned, the passing game will be the difference between a successful season and a flop.
At the moment, I'm lukewarm as it concerns the wide receivers, but I'm optimistic where it concerns the tight ends.