IOWA CITY — Before beginning their professional careers, Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson are positioned to make a little Hawkeye history together this week.
Iowa’s all-American tight end tandem may well become the first set of tight ends from the same college program to be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.
Since announcing plans to forego their final year of collegiate eligibility, the two Hawkeyes have impressed scouts with their jumps and sprints and have been measured by and talked with any future employer willing to listen.
From their work at the NFL Combine to the drills they ran at Iowa’s Pro Day last month, Fant and Hockenson have remained near the top of the list of prospects for this year’s draft.
Both received and accepted invitations to spend Thursday night in the green room in Nashville as the opening round of the three-day NFL selection process begins, ready to reap the rewards of their work while playing a position of need for many teams in this year’s draft.
“It’s a good year to be a tight end,’’ Fant said after participating in Iowa’s Pro Day. “There’s a lot of teams that need tight ends.’’
This year’s crop of tight ends is a deep one.
NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah sees the potential for tight ends to be selected in each of the seven rounds in this year’s draft.
“There is a good group of talent to select from and a sizable number of teams in need of tight ends,’’ Jeremiah said.
Hockenson, the Mackey Award winner as the nation’s top collegiate tight end, has been mentioned as a possible top-10 selection when the 32 NFL teams begin to select future talent and has been labeled by Jeremiah as “the safest pick in the draft.’’
Most draft projections list Fant as a first-round choice as well and the Big Ten’s tight end of the year is frequently listed among middle opening-round picks.
Both plan to simply take things as they come this week.
“When you hear people talking about where you might end up, it’s flattering obviously, but at the same time, no one really knows,’’ Hockenson said. “No one has a clue about how it will all play out. You could fall very easily. No one knows what is going to happen on that day. I don’t think the teams even know until that day.’’
Fant gets that as well, saying he has preferred to control what he can control during the process and not looking beyond that point.
“I think that’s the smart way to approach it,’’ he said. “When my name is called, whenever it is called, I’m simply going to be thankful for the opportunity.’’
Fant said he has tried to “block out the noise’’ in the weeks since performing well at the Combine.
“I don’t think it’s productive to get caught up in the hype,’’ he said. “On draft day, anything can happen and that’s what I plan to be ready for. I could be picked eight, 18th or 38th. You just don’t know.’’
Fant and Hockenson have been willing to meet with any teams who have been interested and all are aware of the success Iowa tight ends have had in the NFL and of the readiness Hawkeyes to reach the next level in recent years have displayed.
From Dallas Clark to George Kittle, that work hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“People know what they’re getting when they select a tight end from Iowa,’’ Fant said. “An Iowa tight end isn’t just out there running routes and catching balls. That’s part of it, but teams also know that we’ve had to put our hand in the dirt and block.’’
Whenever they have been in Iowa City in recent weeks, both Fant and Hockenson have trained under the watchful eye of Chris Doyle and the Hawkeye strength and conditioning staff that he leads.
“There’s no better place to be,’’ Hockenson said. “The one thing I do know is that when the draft is over I’m going to need to be in football shape and the best place to get there is to be working with Doyle in the facility.’’
Fant and Hockenson positioned themselves to be among the premier selections in this year’s draft with their work on the field last season for Iowa.
They combined to catch 88 passes for 1,279 yards and 13 touchdowns, with Fant exiting with 19 career touchdown receptions, the most ever by an Iowa tight end.
“We’ve always done what we can to help the team,’’ Hockenson said. “It’s funny how it has worked out, being in this spot together.’’
Performance has positioned the pair to be listed as potential first-round choices, a situation Iowa has experienced twice before, most recently in 1997 when defensive back Tom Knight and offensive lineman Ross Verba were chosen in the opening round.
The only other time at least two Hawkeyes have been selected in the first round of the NFL Draft was in 1986 and on that occasion, three Iowa players were chosen.
Quarterback Chuck Long was taken by Detroit with the 12th pick, followed by running back Ronnie Harmon at 16 by Buffalo and offensive lineman Mike Haight at 22 by the New York Jets.
Whether or not history repeats itself this week, both welcome the position they find themselves in after spending the past three seasons at Iowa.
“I know I’m going to be happy for him and he’ll be happy for me,’’ Fant said. “It’s a unique situation, but we only want the best for each other.’’