The starting offense for the San Francisco 49ers offense was cycling through the narrated intros during a recent nationally televised game, when a mischievous-looking face popped up on NBC’s broadcast for his turn at telling the 26 million viewers where he learned his craft.
“George Kittle, Tight End University,” was how this player with the long blond hair draping over his shoulder pads confidently presented himself.
Just in case Kittle’s clever bit caused any confusion for the casual fans: He went to Iowa, the hard-nosed program that has proudly been producing NFL tight ends in the heartland of America as well as any college team around. The Hawkeyes have practically built their scheme around the players at this long-underappreciated position that blends the flash and grit of the game as no other.
“My first day on campus, they told me if I didn’t learn how to run block, I’d never touch the field. So I made it a passion of mine,” said Kittle, who was a fifth-round draft pick by the 49ers in 2017. “Iowa just kind of instills in you that you just have to work harder than everyone else, no matter what.”
When Kittle was a fifth-year senior with the Hawkeyes, T.J. Hockenson was a wide-eyed redshirt in the tight end room. He wound up as the eighth overall pick in the 2019 draft by Detroit, which traded him to Minnesota last season. The two former Hawkeyes were featured receivers for their teams on Monday night when the Vikings topped the 49ers. They play heavy roles in the running game, too.
“There’s not many schools that teach you to run off the ball like Iowa does, to go attack players,” Hockenson said. “That was a big thing for me in college to learn that.”
Iowa tied for the most tight end alumni on NFL opening weekend rosters this year, matching Georgia, Notre Dame and Stanford with five apiece. With Kittle, Hockenson, Seattle’s Noah Fant and Lions rookie Sam LaPorta, former Hawkeyes have a collective 94 catches for 1,014 yards and eight touchdowns this season entering Week 7 to make them the most productive tight ends from one school in the league. Iowa also holds that crown over the past five years, besting noted factories Miami, Notre Dame and Stanford.
Current Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz is a tight ends coach at heart who coached that position in 2011, his last of four seasons in the NFL with the New England Patriots.
“It’s just one of those places that really develop you. I wasn’t really a star when I came out,” said Hockenson, an Iowa native whose first scholarship offer was from Iowa State, where his parents went.
His brothers attended Iowa, though, and he long dreamed of playing for the Hawkeyes after growing up admiring their most accomplished former tight end, Dallas Clark, who accumulated 5,665 receiving yards over 11 years in the league.
“They’ve been a winning program for a long time, and that’s an easy thing to buy into,” Hockenson said. “Playing there definitely helped me through the ebbs and flows of an NFL system.”
Kittle and Hockenson train together in the offseason with some other NFL players at Kittle’s 75-acre property outside of Nashville, Tennessee. Kittle and his wife installed a workout facility in a remodeled barn and had a football field built in the yard. The group brings in their own physical therapists and speed and strength specialists.
Kittle and Kansas City Chiefs star Travis Kelce have also led an annual summer summit in the area — called ” Tight End University ” — for dozens of NFL tight ends to work on their games, help each other out and have a good time.
There’s a lot to celebrate these days, thanks largely to Kittle.
While wearing a microphone during a game in 2018, Kittle fawned on the sideline over a touchdown catch by teammate Garrett Celek and joked that it was “National Tight Ends Day.” Social media funsters ran with it, the league caught on and now the day is observed each fourth Sunday in October.
“Got some family coming in, got some T-shirts made up, so I’m pretty excited,” Hockenson said. “It’s just great to be able to showcase what we do, because we do do a lot.”
The 49ers-Vikings matchup couldn’t have been more fitting for the occasion, even though the game took place a day after the official holiday. The prime-time game gave Kittle and Hockenson a grand stage for showing off their skills and how far they’ve come.
“I love everything about T.J. and I really respect his game and how he plays it,” Kittle said before the game, joking that he would sell Hockenson’s trade secrets to the 49ers defensive backs. “If I had him on my fantasy team I’d probably start him this week. But I’m giving our guys tips to try to slow him down so I can have a better National Tight Ends Day.”