Iowa football: Hockenson is focused on Outback Bowl, and that's a good thing
Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson has a big decision to make about his future. The Mackey Award winner, now considered the best tight end in college football, has to decide by Jan. 15 if he’s ready to head off to the NFL, or if it’s in his best interest to stay in Iowa City for another year.
It’s a huge, life-alerting decision, one that involves lots of money, now or maybe a year from now. But, for now, it’s taking second stage to Iowa’s Jan. 1 bowl game. That’s his focus for now, getting prepared for a stern test from Mississippi State of the SEC, and its No. 1 scoring defense in the nation.
And that’s good, because the Hawkeyes are going to need him. Really bad.
The best way to beat Mississippi State is with quick routes to sure-handed receivers. That’s Hockenson to a tee. That’s Noah Fant too, for that matter, but he’s already made his NFL decision and has decided to turn pro and skip the bowl game.
So it’s on Hockenson — and his quarterback Nate Stanley — to make things happen. The focus is on.
“A huge opportunity for us to kind of show who we are,” Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley a few weeks ago. “Really just excited to play a team like that; you always talk about playing great competition to see how good you are.”
Hockenson will probably see a lot of all-conference safety Johnathan Abram, the Bulldogs’ leading tackler. Mississippi State also has a first-class pass rush, which means Stanley will have to get rid of the ball quickly — and Hockenson will have to get open on short routes. Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat are probably the best one-two combination of defensive ends in the country, and Iowa folks know all about good defensive end play.
Iowa has run into stout SEC defenses before at the Outback Bowl in Tampa in their previous five visits to the west coast of Florida. Iowa is 2-3 in Tampa, beating Florida after the 2003 season and South Carolina after 2008. Iowa lost to Florida after the 2005 and 2016 seasons, and LSU after 2013. All five games, the Iowa offense has struggles to match their season-long numbers against some tough defenses.
There could be more of the same on Jan. 1. Mississippi State is that good. They are 8-4 and they’ve done it all with their defense. Their offense has been hit and miss all year and all four of their losses were to ranked teams — Alabama (1), Florida (10), LSU (11) and Kentucky (14). Iowa, presently unranked, is a 7-point underdog.
Hockenson has an opportunity to play well on a big stage. And when it’s over, he can get back to thinking about his NFL decision. He said he has sought advice from dozens of people, and will make an announcement after the Outback Bowl.
“I’m going to weigh and research and make sure I’m 100 percent sure on what decision I’m going to make,” said Hockenson, who said he has a notebook full of details from his journey through the process thus far.
“I think writing something down is very helpful, because then you don’t forget it and you have it to look back on.”