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Iowa's T.J.Hockenson leaps over Northwestern defender Cameron Ruiz, Saturday, November 10, 2018, during first half action at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

UPDATED: It was far from an easy decision but the more T.J. Hockenson thought about it, the Iowa tight end concluded that taking his game to the next level was the right decision at the right time.

On the final day he could declare himself eligible for the 2019 NFL draft, the sophomore who won the John Mackey Award as college football’s top tight end became the fourth Hawkeye underclassman in recent weeks to announce plans to forfeit remaining college eligibility.

Hockenson made his decision public Monday morning on Twitter, following Iowa tight end Noah Fant, defensive back Amani Hooker and defensive end Anthony Nelson into the record pool of 112 underclassmen vying for selection in this year’s draft.

“This was a very difficult decision because of the love and respect I have for the University of Iowa, coach Kirk Ferentz and the entire coaching staff, along with my teammates,’’ Hockenson wrote. “However, my dream has always been to play in the NFL and I believe now is the right time.’’

He reached that conclusion after what he labeled “tremendous thought and consideration.’’

In addition to thanking family members for their support, Hockenson went on to thank members of the Hawkeye football program for challenging him to become a better player and person.

“I look forward to this next chapter and am grateful that I was first and always will be an Iowa Hawkeye,’’ Hockenson wrote.

Ferentz acknowledged for the first time the January announcements by Hockenson, Hooker and Nelson in a statement issued Monday, the first day of spring-semester classes at Iowa.

“Amani, Anthony and T.J. have been outstanding members of our team on the field and as leaders within the program,’’ Ferentz said. “While we are disappointed to see them leave, we recognize this is an important decision and we wish them the very best as they pursue the draft.’’

He offered similar wishes to Fant following his departure in December prior to Iowa’s Outback Bowl win over Mississippi State.

The quartet are looking to join a group of 170 players Iowa has sent to the NFL during Ferentz’s 20 seasons as the Hawkeyes’ coach, including 66 draft picks and 104 who signed as free agents.

Hockenson, the first Hawkeye to win the Mackey Award since Dallas Clark claimed it in 2002, makes his move after leading the Hawkeyes with 49 receptions for 760 yards and six touchdowns during 25th-rated Iowa’s recently-completed 9-4 season.

He completed his career with three catches for 43 yards in the Outback Bowl, including receptions for gains of 20 and 22 yards on consecutive plays midway the fourth quarter which helped set up a field goal that provided Iowa with its 27-22 winning margin.

Hockenson’s 49 catches equaled the third-most by an Iowa tight end in a single season, tying the work of Marv Cook in 1987 and the 760 yards he covered during his sophomore season are the third most for an Iowa tight end, topped only by the 807 and 767 yards Cook gained in 1987 and 1988, respectively.

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