By DARREN MILLER
ATLANTA — T.J. Hockenson remembers his first pass reception for the University of Iowa, but it is catch No. 2 that sticks out.
Hockenson was a redshirt freshman in 2017. He started, but did not have a catch in the season opener against Wyoming. The following Saturday at Iowa State, he hauled in the first two of his 70 career receptions. The catches came on the same third-quarter scoring drive: No. 1 was for 24 yards that took the ball to Iowa State’s 18-yard line. Two plays later, No. 2 nearly resulted in disaster.
“The biggest one was the flat ball I tried to extend,” Hockenson said. “I came back to the sideline and (offensive coordinator) Brian (Ferentz) yelled at me because I tried to extend the ball into the end zone.”
At the end of that 17-yard reception, Hockenson stretched the ball toward the goal line, then it was jarred loose by Iowa State’s Marcel Spears.
“Luckily, it went out on the half-yard line and (Akrum Wadley) scored on the next play,” said Hockenson, who was not targeted the rest of the game which Iowa won, 44-41, in overtime.
Iowa’s 6-foot-5, 250-pound tight end can chuckle about the fumble and the lesson learned now; things have worked out pretty well for him since. As a sophomore during the 2018 regular season, Hockenson caught 46 passes for 717 yards and six touchdowns and on Wednesday was named the winner of the John Mackey Award as the nation’s best tight end.
He is the first underclassman and the second Hawkeye to win the award that began in 2000. Dallas Clark was the recipient in 2002, when he had very Hockenson-like numbers of 43 catches, 742 yards, and four touchdowns.
Iowa and Arkansas are the only schools with two John Mackey Award winners. That tradition of excellence is important to Hockenson, a native of Chariton, Iowa.
“That was a big factor why I chose the university,” Hockenson said. “I didn’t have many (scholarship) offers, but I was waiting for one from the University of Iowa. I had a special place in my heart for this university and this team.
“Growing up, I remember watching (tight ends) Dallas (Clark), Tony Moeaki, Brandon Myers, C.J. Fiedorowicz. I was behind George (Kittle) my freshman year. There are so many tight ends in the history of this program that have done great things and it is special for me to have my name next to those guys. This university has a tradition of having some of the best tight ends and it is nice to keep that going.”
When summer conditioning began, winning the John Mackey Award was one of the farthest things from Hockenson’s mind. He had just nine starts under his belt and his 24 receptions as a redshirt freshmen were not even the most among those in his own tight end room.
“The biggest goals were to go day-by-day and week-by-week,” Hockenson said. “Attacking every day helped me get to this point. I tried to do the little things right, like all the coaches talk about every day. That put me in position to do some of the things I am doing now.”
Hockenson led the Hawkeyes with four receptions for 64 yards during a season opening 33-7 win over eventual Mid-American Conference champion Northern Illinois. He led or shared the team lead in receptions six other times during the season: against Iowa State, Wisconsin, Indiana, Maryland, Purdue, and Nebraska.
His most recent catch was one of the most memorable. With 42 seconds left in a tie game against Nebraska on Nov. 23, Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley connected with Hockenson for 10 yards on fourth-and-8 from the Cornhuskers’ 37-yard line. Two plays later, the right foot of Miguel Recinos kicked the Hawkeyes to a 31-28 victory.
“Every day we’re just playing football and having fun,” Hockenson said. “The seniors have put this team in position to be successful and I couldn’t have accomplished what I did without any of these people. Being around the guys on the team is the biggest memory of this season.”
Team success led to individual honors. After a season where Iowa won eight games and accepted an invitation to the Outback Bowl, Hockenson earned the Mackey Award, one of the biggest honors any tight end can receive.
“I remember coach (Kirk) Ferentz calling me (into his office) and I wasn’t 100 percent sure what it was about,” Hockenson said. “He told me I won the Mackey and I started tearing up. It was a great moment to share with coach.”
On Thursday evening at the Home Depot College Football Awards Red Carpet Special at the College Football Hall of Fame, Hockenson found himself in a spotlight he would rather share with others.
“I couldn’t do this without my coaches, teammates, family, and friends,” Hockenson said. “There are so many people that go into an award like this. It’s not a single person.”