George Kittle's evolution into NFL star latest example of Iowa's tight end pipeline

Sporting News

49ers tight end George Kittle was asked about the evolution of his position at San Francisco's team hotel on Tuesday, part of the buildup to the Sunday Super Bowl 54 matchup against the Chiefs.

"The tight end position has evolved a lot," Kittle said. "From just the traditional wide stuff to Dallas Clark to (Rob Gronkowski), to (Travis Kelce), to (Zach Ertz). There's Tony Gonzalez. It's just evolved so much. You have guys who can do both."

Kittle — who has consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and has emerged as one of the game's best blocking tight ends — can do both. That he mentioned Clark first among that list of tight ends isn't an accident.

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Clark is part of an Iowa pipeline that has produced 11 draft picks at the position since Kirk Ferentz took over in 1999. Clark was a first-round pick in 2003 and lived up to the billing with the Colts. Kittle, however, was a fifth-round selection in 2017. One might wonder how that happened, given the talent the 6-4, 250-pound tight end has flashed with the 49ers.

Go back to the pipeline to find the answer.

Year

Player

Round

2000

Austin Wheatley

5

2003

Dallas Clark

1

2004

Erik Jensen

7

2005

Tony Jackson

6

2007

Scott Chandler

4

2009

Brandon Myers

6

2010

Tony Moeaki

3

2014

C.J. Fiedorowicz

3

2017

George Kittle

5

2019

T.J. Hockenson

1

2019

Noah Fant

1

Ferentz likes to joke that, every time Iowa lost a game when he was an assistant coach under Hayden Fry in the 1980s, his wife would say they didn't throw to the tight end enough. That wasn't a problem with Kittle, even if he proved to be a late bloomer in college.

"That is one of the things people maybe failed to appreciate in the NFL," Ferentz told Sporting News. "When I was coaching there for six years, sometimes in scouting you forget that guys have the potential to grow and improve when they get to the NFL. George is a great illustration of that. He was a late bloomer in high school and fair to say that happened out of college, too."

Ferentz said Kittle, whose father Bruce was a captain on the 1981 Rose Bowl team and mother Jan was a basketball star at Drake, was a late add in the recruiting process. He was a 6-3, 200-pounder who had potential at either tight end or outside linebacker.

George-Kittle-022020-GETTY-FTR.jpg
George-Kittle-022020-GETTY-FTR.jpg

Kittle grew into his role as a tight end, playing through injuries in his final two seasons to compile 42 catches for 604 yards and 10 touchdowns: not exactly big numbers, though perhaps an explanation of how he fell to the fifth round.

"He played well and had some flash plays that were like, 'Whoa,' but he wasn't maybe as consistent as what they are looking for," Ferentz said of Kittle. "Being a fifth-round pick was probably was fair. He was between a third- and sixth-round guy, but I think the moral of the story is he has continued to improve."

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Ferentz sees a few things that have taken Kittle's game to the same level as those tight ends he talked about.

"He has grown since he got there," Ferentz said. "We don't count on that happening often. He's a taller guy now. He looks like he's 6-5 or 6-6 on the field."

Ferentz also recognized Kittle's versatility, but said it's his blocking that has stood out most in San Francisco's last two games against the Vikings and Packers.

"I can't remember seeing any tight end block like he has consistently," Ferentz said. "It's been very, very impressive. A lot of credit goes to George."

That’s great for Iowa's tight end pipeline, which Kittle can now rep on the biggest stage in football.

"We try not to screw 'em up if we get a good one," Ferentz said. "He was a really good player here, but he's beyond really good right now. He's just playing super football. As a coach, you appreciate that."

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