Wisconsin, Iowa both feature TEs
They are considered few and far between, which is why high school football players who are true tight ends often are so heavily recruited and so highly drafted in the NFL.
That’s also why it’s not a surprise to see a true tight end have scholarship offers from Iowa and Wisconsin, two schools that are a tight end’s dream because they know how to feature the position.
“Whenever we’re recruiting a tight end, I’ll guarantee you it’s us and Iowa in there quite a bit, especially dealing with the Midwest,” UW coach Bret Bielema said. “They really like to go to those tight ends in clutch situations, and that’s the key part.”
The key part when Wisconsin hosts No. 11 Iowa on Saturday will be which team’s featured tight ends are able to get the most out of the production thrown their way. Throughout their careers, Iowa senior Tony Moeaki and UW senior Garrett Graham have been the two standouts.
After missing three games because of an ankle injury, and seeing the Hawkeyes’ offense struggle because of it, Moeaki returned to the lineup last weekend against Michigan. He caught six passes for 105 yards and two key touchdowns in a 30-28 victory and has been named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week.
Moeaki is a big factor for Iowa (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) because of the Hawkeyes’ absence of a solid running back and junior quarterback Ricky Stanzi having thrown eight interceptions to 10 touchdown passes.
Iowa is ninth in the Big Ten in scoring (25.7 ppg) and eighth in rushing (130.2 ypg). But the Hawkeyes have survived with the help of a defense that has forced a league-high 19 turnovers, creating a nine-plus turnover margin that is the best in the league, and Moeaki being a playmaker.
“I’m a little biased, but I think Tony is one of the better players in the country,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “If you just look at his production, he’s got 17 catches in three games. When he’s in there, we’re a better team offensively.’’
Although Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien has developed a good report with all his receivers, which is evident by the fact that 11 players have caught passes through six games, Graham again is the main target for the Badgers. The senior from New Jersey leads the team in catches (27) and touchdowns (4) and is third on the team in yards (303).
“It’s good to see the ball being spread around, and that’s especially important as we get deeper into the season,” Graham said. “We all can do a lot of things, and coach Chryst puts us in the position to make plays. It’s great, and hopefully we can keep building on it.”
While the senior always has been a pass-catching threat, Graham, under the guidance of tight ends coach Joe Rudolph, has improved the most this year in run blocking. That was evident by his key kick-out block on a fake field-goal attempt that got senior Chris Maragos the team’s only touchdown last weekend.
“He’s helped us a lot in blocking,” Graham said of Rudolph, a former UW offensive lineman. “Obviously, with him being a former lineman here, he knows his technique, and he recognizes the coverage. He explains it real well into detail, and that helps us run routes and out on the field.”
While Graham is the physical one of the group, junior Lance Kendricks is the speedster.
One of the few players who proudly represents the Milwaukee City Conference (along with former Badgers Michael Bennett, Darryl Carter and DeAndre Levy), Kendricks has been improving since last season’s spring football, as injuries to Graham and Travis Beckum opened the door for Kendricks to get countless reps.
“There was nobody else to give reps to because there was nobody else in camp,” Rudolph said with a laugh. “He did some good things then, and you could kind of see it.”
“What Garrett and Lance have done is found ways to help the team. Different guys have earned different roles, and that shows what they do best. I think that’s neat, because it shows that they work hard.”
and care about it.”
Not only will the tight ends be on display Saturday, but so will two of the conference’s better defenses in the front seven of Iowa and up-and-coming Wisconsin. Iowa’s defense is holding teams to 15.8 points and 305.3 yards per game, both No. 3 in the Big Ten, and Wisconsin just held the highest-ranked team in the conference to 184 yards in total offense.
Of course, both teams know that a solid pass catch trumps even the best defenses.
“If you have a good tight end, you can create some challenges for a defensive team,” Ferentz said. “The only challenge is finding those guys, because they are tough to find. They are like a 7-foot center in basketball. There aren’t just a lot around.”
But they will be easy to spot on Saturday.