George Kittle said that he got lucky.
As a junior in 2015, he would rotate in with his cousin, fellow Iowa tight end Henry Krieger Coble. Often times, Kittle would give Krieger Coble a break at the end of a long drive.
A sequence would unfold like clockwork. Iowa would call for a pass play in which Kittle would streak over the middle. As his luck would have it, defenses weren’t too worried about the backup tight end catching passes. Kittle would be left wide-open, and C.J. Beathard would find him for an easy score.
That exact scenario resulted in Kittle’s 12th career catch, which was a touchdown against Illinois. Three weeks later against Maryland, Kittle got “lucky” again.
This time, however, the circumstances were a bit different.
Kittle wasn’t just a red-zone fill-in. He entered in the beginning of the drive, and unlike his Illinois touchdown, Kittle was well-covered. Beathard still targeted the junior tight end.
Somehow, a diving Kittle plucked the ball out of the air with one hand to make the catch of his life.
But Kittle didn’t credit the play to freakish athleticism.
“I’m pretty sure my eyes were closed,” he told Saturday Tradition. “That was kind of a surreal moment. I really wasn’t sure what I did until I watched it on video.”
Lucky or not, the play will inevitably be at the top of all of Kittle’s pre-draft highlight videos. It was as remarkable as any catch ever made by an Iowa tight end, many of whom went on to play in the NFL.
Now, Kittle hopes to make catches like that at the next level and follow the guys who paved the way for him.
According to the recruiting experts, Kittle wasn’t supposed to be Iowa’s next NFL tight end. In fact, he wasn’t supposed to be anyone’s tight end. The Norman, Okla. recruit was rated as a two-star receiver by 247sports. Without a Division I offer that he liked, Kittle considered going the junior college route.
But when Kirk Ferentz called on National Signing Day and offered him Iowa’s last available scholarship, the decision was an easy one.
“I’m not gonna say no to that,” Kittle said.
Kittle had multiple family ties to the Hawkeyes. His dad was an Iowa offensive lineman in the late 1970s and his cousin, Krieger Coble, was a freshman tight end for the Hawkeyes. The latter proved to be an invaluable connection.
“When I was young, I didn’t know anything,” Kittle said. “(Krieger Coble) would take me aside and help me learn offense, scheme, stuff like that. He was a guy that was always there for me. If I had a bad practice, he’d pick me up.”
While Kittle learned the ropes, he got a front-row seat to the C.J. Fiedorowicz show. Kittle watched him become a first-team All-B1G tight end and eventually, a third-round pick of the Houston Texans.
In 2014, two more NFL-caliber tight ends emerged for the Hawkeyes. Ray Hamilton and Jake Duzey were both dubbed next-level prospects. It wasn’t until Hamilton left — he had stints with three NFL practice squads — and Duzey suffered two significant knee injuries that a new duo got a chance to shine.
Even after he started getting significant snaps, Kittle enjoyed the front-row seat to the Krieger Coble show.
“He has the best hands I’ve ever seen out of anybody to ever play football,” Kittle said of Krieger Coble. “He might not be the fastest guy, but that dude gets open.”
Both Krieger Coble and Kittle got open plenty for Iowa in its undefeated regular season in 2015. They combined for 55 catches, 695 receiving yards and seven touchdowns (six of them came from Kittle) and they became key blockers in Iowa’s dominant ground game.
Of all the NFL tight ends they waited behind, Kittle and Krieger Coble were Iowa’s most-productive one-two punch at the position. Pro Football Focus even dubbed Kittle “the best all-around tight end returning in college football” after his breakout 2015 season.
Krieger Coble went undrafted, but he got picked up by the Denver Broncos. He earned a roster spot and made his first career catch in Week 16 of the 2016 regular season.
Just like he did in Iowa City, Krieger Coble passed on some important advice.
“There’s a lot of stuff to learn. That’s the big thing he said,” Kittle said. “You think you learn a lot in college, but it’s nothing compared to all the schemes that you learn in the NFL. Every week is so different. He said you just have to have an open mind and commit to it or else you’ll fall behind.
“It’s not really fun to fall behind.”
These days, Kittle’s focus is as clear as ever. He’s currently training for the NFL Scouting Combine at EXOS in Frisco, Texas. He gets in 2-3 workouts per day and tries to stay as healthy as possible.
Kittle’s roommate, former North Carolina receiver Ryan Switzer, got him into cryotherapy. The process involves exposing the body to extreme cold temperatures — Kittle said as low as -230 degrees — to allow muscles to recover quickly and avoid inflammation.
After suffering a midseason leg injury, Kittle is doing whatever he can to make sure he doesn’t have any pre-combine setbacks.
“I feel like if I’m healthy, I can play with anybody,” he said.
Kittle wasn’t healthy in the second half of 2016, and his production took a hit. He only had five catches after the Oct. 15 injury — two of which were touchdowns in a blowout win on senior day against Nebraska — and he finished the year with 314 receiving yards and four touchdowns.
But Kittle said that the post-Outback Bowl break allowed him to get back to 100 percent. There won’t be any restrictions on his combine workout.
Besides working on combine-specific drills, Kittle’s time is spent studying to make sure that he’s ready for the off-the-field evaluations in Indianapolis. He’s been in touch with his former teammate, Fiedorowicz, on what to expect in the interview process.
Kittle still picks his cousin’s brain, too.
“(Krieger Coble) helped me through four years of college football,” Kittle said, “and he’s gonna help me with the rest of my life.”
The experts have Kittle slotted as a Day-3 pick in this April’s draft. It wasn’t long ago that he was offered a scholarship at the last minute.
He made the most of his five years in Iowa City. Instead of transferring when he was buried on the depth chart, Kittle soaked in everything he could from future NFL tight ends. He learned how to become an all-around player at the position, he got bigger and he developed a knack for getting open.
Kittle was lucky to join a group of future NFL tight ends, but it took more than luck to continue that pipeline.