In late November of 2009 Iowa and Illinois were headed in two different directions. The Hawkeyes were 10-2, ranked 10th in the nation and likely headed to a BCS Bowl. Illinois was 3-8, had already locked down their second straight losing season and only had wins over Illinois State, a Michigan team that ultimately finished with a losing record and Minneosta. Tim Brewster Minnesota. That in mind, it's clear why C.J. Fiedorowicz ended up switching his commitment from the Fighting Illini to Iowa.
There was jubilation among Iowa fans when Fiedorowicz announced. Iowa had put tight ends Dallas Clark, Scott Chandler and Brandon Myers in the NFL and it was a lock that Tony Moeaki would be drafted in the 2010 NFL Draft. Aside from Moeaki, every other player was either a 2-star recruit or walk-on and had been developed into NFL talent. What would Kirk Ferentz do with one of the best tight end recruits in the nation? A 6'7, 240lb monster who had amassed 921 yards and 15 touchdowns in his senior season at Johnsburg High School?
To start, not a lot. Fiedorowicz was what we'd call an "offensive" tight end out of high school. He was more of a Jimmy Graham than he was a Zach Miller. That probably didn't mesh so well with his head coach, who preferred his tight ends block first and catch passes later. We'll assume that's why Fiedorowicz barely saw the field in 2010 and only started five games in 2011. He had to earn the coaching staff's trust and become the blocking tight end that Kirk Ferentz expected.
By 2012 Fiedorowicz had developed into the blocking tight end Iowa wanted and started all 12 games. Unfortunately, the Iowa offense was horrid and to avoid that nightmarish subject we'll just say that he finished the season with only one touchdown. The fanbase started getting restless. How is it that a 6'7, (now) 265lb tight end only has one touchdown? Why isn't he being targeted more? Where is he? PUT IN CHRISTENSEN. HE'S NEARLY SEVEN FEET TALL. Etc. etc. etc.
It didn't help that James Vandenberg couldn't get him the football. It really didn't help that Fiedorowicz couldn't break a tackle to save his life. No, really, it was absurd. Despite looking like the Jolly Green Giant CJ Fiedorowicz could be brought down by a cornerback's arm tackle. When he needed to initiate contact he'd shy away from it. When he needed to shy away from contact he'd initiate it. It was bizarre.
By 2013 some had labeled Fiedorowicz a bust. Admittedly, I was one of those people. In three seasons he'd amassed a whopping four touchdowns and exactly 600 yards of offense. That's not what I was expecting when the second best prospect in Illinois committed to Iowa back in 2009. He disappeared at times (not literally...well it felt like it), he'd drop the ball and he couldn't stay on his feet. Naturally, Fiedorowicz threw it back in everyone's face and became the redzone target we all dreamed he would be. Y'know, like this:
Fiedorowicz finished his career at Iowa with 91 receptions, 899 yards and 10 touchdowns. Six of those touchdowns came in his senior season and he was ultimately drafted in the third round of the NFL Draft by the Houston Texans.
So was he a bust? Nah. Well, maybe before his senior season. Or maybe expectations were too high. Or maybe his weak 2012 was simply bad luck as it coincided with Iowa's hilariously bad offense. Maybe.
Regardless, he's gone now and Iowa has to find a replacement. Who is his replacement? Tell me if this sounds familiar: he was a highly touted 4-star recruit who has been mysteriously absent and is now entering his senior season. His name is Ray Hamilton.
While everyone was focusing on Fiedorowicz, Ray Hamilton has been quiet his entire career. A 6'5, 230lb recruit from Strongsville, Ohio, he committed to Iowa back in 2010 and promptly disappeared. He saw playing time his freshman and sophomore year but you'd barely know it considering he only caught three passes for 35 yards. Even when he "started" in three games last season (that's a relative term when talking about tight ends as Iowa has a three TE set) he only had one reception for eight yards.
Hamilton "started" against Ohio State last season but he wasn't the tight end making all the noise. That honor went to Jake Duzey, your "everyman" tight end who didn't come to Iowa with all the pomp and circumstance of his seniors. But it's Duzey who did this:
Duzey had 19 receptions for 270 yards and 2 touchdowns last season (albeit, a few of the statistics came on that play). Hamilton only had 8 receptions for 95 yards and to this point his career he only has 11 receptions for 130 yards. So where has he been the past three years? Why was he outperformed and overshadowed by a sophomore tight end who was buried on the depth chart? Is he a bust? Will we have a senior season like Fiedorowicz?
Junior Jake Duzey showed he's a serious target. He caught 19 passes for 270 yards and two TDs. Senior Ray Hamilton (eight receptions for 95 yards last year) is Iowa's most physical TE with junior Henry Krieger-Coble just behind him in that department. George Kittle is the lightest of the four, but rivals Duzey in wheels. (After his 85-yard TD reception at Ohio State last season, teammates claimed Duzey had a 4.5 40-yard dash.)
Seems to me that Hamilton's low-key role in the offense is likely due to him being so "physical." I read that as: he's a blocking tight end.
Hamilton never got the same buzz as Fiedorowicz because he wasn't 6'7 and the second best recruit out of Illinois. He was a lowly 6'5 recruit from a talent rich state who committed a year later. He was "the guy after the guy" who has been in the shadows for three straight years. He wasn't the one catching game winning touchdowns against Northwestern or streaking down the field against Ohio State. That was Fiedorowicz and Duzey.
I'm expecting a lot of the three tight end formation next year with Hamilton, Duzey and Krieger-Coble available. That means that Hamilton will be given all of the opportunities Fiedorowicz was given his senior year. So you can look at the statistics from earlier in his career and you can label Hamilton a bust. But I'm not going to. I made that mistake before and I'm definitely not going to make it again. But regardless of how he performs, I know that Iowa is going to be ok at tight end in 2014.