Hawkeyes Football: How Important Is George Kittle?

Nov 21, 2015; Iowa City, IA, USA;Iowa Hawkeyes tight end George Kittle (46) celebrates a touchdown catch against the Purdue Boilermakers in the third quarter at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa beat Purdue 40-20. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 21, 2015; Iowa City, IA, USA;Iowa Hawkeyes tight end George Kittle (46) celebrates a touchdown catch against the Purdue Boilermakers in the third quarter at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa beat Purdue 40-20. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports /

George Kittle had a minimal role last season for the Hawkeyes, but how important is he this season?

It’s safe to say that the Iowa Hawkeyes football program deserves the name Tight End U. Since 2000, Iowa has produced an astounding eight NFL tight ends, including four that have been drafted in the top four rounds of the NFL Draft. Of course, Dallas Clark being named an All-American in 2002, and eventually getting drafted with the 24th pick in the 2003 NFL Draft by the Indianapolis Colts, is the biggest standout of the bunch.

C.J. Fiedorowicz was the last tight end drafted out of Iowa by the Houston Texans in the 2014 NFL Draft – 64th overall. Despite a solid season last year, Henry Krieger-Coble failed to get drafted this year but quickly signed with the Denver Broncos.

Krieger-Coble only had one season as the starting tight end for Iowa. Prior to starting 13 games for the Hawkeyes last season, Krieger-Coble had appeared in just 14 games and caught a total of seven passes. Although, Krieger-Coble, just like every tight end that has come through Iowa, has played a major role on offense.

As a senior in 2015, he caught 35 passes for 405 yards and a touchdown. It wasn’t eye-opening numbers, but the track record that Iowa has with tight ends helped him get noticed amongst the many undrafted rookies.

The tight end position has completely evolved over the years. They’re no longer an extra blocker, rather act as an extra receiver and only block on occasion. It’s more common to have a Rob Gronkowski pass-catching tight end than an old-school tight end who only knows a couple of routes and would rather block.

With that being said, the Hawkeyes still utilize both parts of the tight end’s game. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise considering Iowa rushed 40.6 times per game last season. Kirk Ferentz has always been a ground and pound coach and having an extra blocker helps open lanes for the running back. Still, it’s impossible not to change as the game evolves, which has turned Iowa-bred tight ends into pass-catching and blocking machines. Teams get the best of both worlds.

With Krieger-Coble now in the NFL, George Kittle needs to step up for Iowa. Just like Krieger-Coble last season, Kittle comes into his senior year without experience as the top starting tight end. Granted he did play in 10 games last season and caught a team-high six touchdowns, Kittle’s role will be greatly expanded in 2016.

As previously noted, Iowa wants to run the ball. The want to establish a running game early and force their opponent into a ground and pound, low scoring game. With that being said, it’s no secret that Kittle will have to establish himself as a reliable blocker early on. The Hawkeyes do lose a little size on the line with Kittle as he’s 6-4, 230 pounds – 20 pounds lighter than Krieger-Coble. Kittle is still far from being a small tight end, though, and what he lacks in size he makes up for in athleticism.

C.J. Beathard lost his second and third leading receivers from a season ago, and will now need to rely on Matt VandeBerg and George Kittle – combined for 993 of Beathard’s 2,809 passing yards last season.

Of course, Jerminic Smith and Riley McCarron will need to step up this season, as well. Although, Kittle has to add to his red zone presence. There will be more attention on VandeBerg with Tevaun Smith graduated. Therefore, Kittle can keep defenses on honest and guard him rather than just double teaming VandeBerg.

The Hawkeyes will still try to run the ball at least 35 times per game, but an injury to LeShun Daniels Jr or a close game could force them to turn to Beathard – who was one of the most consistent quarterbacks in the Big Ten last season. Besides, wanting to air it out a little more wouldn’t be crazy for Iowa after so many close games last year and knowing the dual threat and smart quarterback Beathard is.

In an era where passing games can rely very heavily on tight ends now, that is the case for the Iowa Hawkeyes. VandeBerg and Kittle are the most experienced in their receiving core, and Kittle can relive a lot of pressure off an inexperienced core. We know what to expect from VandeBerg after last season, however, as previously mentioned, can Kittle become more than just a red zone target?

While 30 percent of his catches went for touchdowns last season, he needs to step up and help get Iowa to the red zone this year, just like Krieger-Coble did last year. In fact, Kittle had just one game in which he caught more than one pass in 2015. He had five receptions for 44 yards against Minnesota, which is the type of production Iowa needs.

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His big body has proven to be a nice target in the red zone, but helping Iowa move the chains, similar to his performance against Minnesota, will establish himself as one of the top tight ends in the Big Ten.

If he had five catches and 44 yards during the 12 game regular season, he would finish the season with 60 catches and 528 yards. That would have ranked third in receiving yards and rivaled VandeBerg for the team’s leader in receptions. In the end, Kittle may not be the most talented tight end in Iowa football history but he has a great opportunity in front of him.

On a team favored to win the Big Ten West, they have a huge question when it comes to their passing game. Maybe Kittle is nothing more than a red zone target. If that’s true then Iowa’s passing game could have some serious troubles this season. Although, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him take the next step and being a reliable dump-off or down the field target for Beathard.

Next: Know Your Opponent: Week 6 Minnesota Golden Gophers

The Hawkeyes don’t need an All-American tight end on a ground-and-pound team, but they do need stability in their receiving core. Another receiver will have to step up, as well, but Iowa’s offense has always thrived from tight end play, and it’s more true this season than ever.