Much of the recent talk around Kinnick Stadium has concerned the Iowa Hawkeyes and their passing game. More specifically, how the receiver position group, which fell flat in 2012, is undergoing a fundamental transition, and how the success of this transition will determine Iowa's offensive success in 2013.
Nevertheless, the Hawkeyes, head coach Kirk Ferentz and offensive coordinator Greg Davis would be better off reinvesting in and rejuvenating their tight ends than building an offense around their receivers.
As for those receivers, new position coach Bobby Kennedy describes his group (per the Des Moines Register) as "probably a little embarrassed about last year."
That embarrassment was due to a failure to get off the line, get open, make hot reads, make plays and more than anything, catch passes that landed in their hands. According to Tork Mason of the Daily Iowan, Hawkeye pass catchers dropped eight against Iowa State.
It is true that the Hawks need the receivers to step up, and once they step up, to present defenses with a consistent downfield threat.
However, investing in wide receivers as the backbone of the offense moves away from the program's strengths and is the wrong direction for the Hawkeyes.
Even before Ferentz took over in 1999, Iowa didn't do a good job of bringing in receivers.
According to Jon Miller of Hawkeyenation.com, seven Iowa receivers have been drafted during Ferentz's tenure and that of his predecessor Hayden Fry. That is seven receivers in 35 of the most successful years for football in Iowa's history. Only two of those receivers—Danan Hughes and Tim Dwight—did anything in the NFL.
As Miller said, that is a "hard sell."
Compare this to the results the Hawkeyes have gotten at tight end.
According to ESPN, there are currently five Iowa tight ends in the NFL: Scott Chandler, Brandon Myers, Tony Moeaki, Allen Reisner and Brad Herman. Three of them are starters.
The only other Big Ten program that comes close to that degree of NFL presence is Wisconsin, with four tight ends in the league.
The standard bearers of the conference—Michigan and Ohio State—have a combined total of three tight ends in the pros.
Further consider all-conference tight ends (first or second team going back to 2004). The Badgers are the top dog in that category boasting seven all-Big Ten tight ends, but Iowa is second with four. Moreover, the conference award for best tight end is co-named for a Hawkeyes player: Dallas Clark.
The Hawks have had no problems recruiting highly sought after tight ends. They have received the commitment of five 4-star tight ends going back to 2005: Moeaki, along with current Hawks C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ray Hamilton, plus A.J. Edds and Christian Ballard, both of whom came to Iowa as tight ends but moved to the defense.
How many 4-star receivers has Ferentz secured commitments from? One. Keenan Davis. Even highly-recruited receivers from the state of Iowa—Adrian Arrington and Amara Darboh, both 4-star players when they came out of high school—opted to take their talents out of state.
And the Hawkeye State's top receiver in 2014—4-star Allen Lazard—will be plying his wares in Ames.
Some might argue that tight ends cannot carry a passing game, but there a number of teams, pro and college, that employ their tight ends as a primary receiving option.
The most notable is Stanford. 2012's top Cardinal pass catcher was senior tight end Zach Ertz, who more than doubled the production of Stanford's top wide receiver. The No. 3 pass catcher was also a tight end: senior Levine Toilolo.
In 2011, the Cardinal regularly used three-tight end sets, employing Ertz, Toilolo and Coby Fleener. The tight end trio totaled 86 catches for 1,346 yards and 20 touchdowns. They also paved the way for an offense that averaged over 200 yards rushing per game, something Iowa hasn't come close to since 2002.
Closer to home, Penn State's Bill O'Brien turned the 2011 No. 11 Big Ten scoring offense into No. 7. One of his key innovations was the way he used his tight ends. Three of his top five pass catchers were tight ends.
And then there is Wisconsin.
As faniq.com noted, new Badger head coach Gary Andersen, rather than trying to force the receiver-heavy looks he used at Utah State, is considering installing three-tight end spread formations.
These are all pro-set teams, and as Andersen knows, if used correctly, good tight ends present matchup problems for opposing defenses.
In fact, Sports Illustrated detailed the position (in the pros) noting, "No other position group in the NFL had a better decade than tight end," and proceeded to list the 10 who "give current defensive coordinators the biggest fits." By the way, No. 1 might look familiar to Hawkeye fans.
Footballtimes.org goes further into the potential of two- and three-tight end sets, asking, "Can you imagine defensive backs that weigh 190 pounds up against taller, 260-pound, pass-catching tight ends?" On the other hand, linebackers are typically too slow to cover athletic tight ends. This puts defensive coordinators in a constant bind.
The tight end's versatility falls perfectly in line with what KCRG.com describes as the "balanced offense" that Ferentz has always favored.
Ferentz, like most coaches, wants to keep the opposing defense off balance and create mismatches. A two-running back, two-wide receiver, one-tight end formation—historically Iowa's base offensive set—will not do that. A one-running back, one- or two-receiver set with two or three tight ends will.
Moreover, this should involve minimal transition, because the tight end position group is already arguably the Hawkeyes' deepest, most experienced and most talented position.
Fieodorowicz and Hamilton are on the roster along with talented sophomores Jake Duzey and Henry Krieger-Coble. As Ferentz has said multiple times—here is one via HawkeyeSports.com—"obviously the goal is to get your best 11 out there."
In Iowa's case, the "best 11" includes at least two if not three tight ends who are used to put the defense into disadvantageous situations.
Last year, the Hawkeyes' offense was No. 113 in the country. The passing offense (efficiency) was No. 115 and tied for No. 121 in passing touchdowns.
Top tight end Fiedorowicz had the most receptions for an Iowa tight end since Scott Chandler in 2006. However, it was too little, too late. While the receivers were floundering for the majority of the year, the tight ends were collecting dust. In fact, over 31 percent of Fiedorowicz's total receptions occurred in the final two games of the year.
Following the second-to-last game of the season (Michigan) the Cedar Rapids Gazette's Mike Hlas tweeted,
RT @tomfornelli Greg Davis just discovered CJ Fiedorowicz in practice this week.— Mike Hlas (@Hlas) November 17, 2012
Incidentally, Iowa wide receivers caught only two passes against the Wolverines.
It is true that the receivers need to step up their play after 2012's "embarrassment," and it's also true that the receivers are and should be a significant part of the offense.
Nonetheless, the bigger issue concerns the tight end's role in the offense and whether it will take on a level of importance equal to if not more important than the receivers.
It should have been the case last year. Many of the transitional issues could have been minimized if the shorthanded receiver group had been de-emphasized and the talented tight end group had played a more prominent role.
Hopefully, in 2013 Davis is over what Ferentz called (via Hawkcentral.com) a "learning curve" and has a full grasp of how to best employ the Hawkeyes' personnel.
Iowa will never field receivers like Texas—Davis's former gig—but that doesn't mean the offense can't be successful.
The best and most proven road toward that success goes through the tight ends.