clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Iowa Offensive Player to Watch: Tight end Sam LaPorta

LaPorta is carrying on a recent tradition of skilled Iowa tight ends, but he has very little help from the rest of his offense. Can this one-man band burn the Buckeyes on Saturday?

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Ohio State welcomes Iowa into The Shoe this weekend, as the good guys look to build off momentum gained two weeks ago by a road victory (their first of the 2022 season) over Michigan State. The Buckeyes currently sit at 6-0, with another big matchup scheduled in Happy Valley next weekend. But first, they will need to get by the Hawkeyes.

The Ferentz-led Big Ten West opponents certainly pose an interesting and unique threat. Because on one hand, they have one of college football’s best defensive units. Led by Jack Campbell, Riley Moss, and others, their defense is allowing just 9.8 points per game — good for third in the country. On the other hand, established rules of football dictate that Iowa must also play offense. And let me tell you: that offense is... something.

Through six games, the Hawkeyes are scoring an average of 14.7 points per — which is actually an improvement over the first few weeks of the season. In the team’s opener, against an FCS opponent, they failed to score a single touchdown. In Week 2, they scored a TD less than three minutes into the game, but added absolutely nothing during the final 57. At home against Nevada was a bounce-back game in which they scored 27 points, but then Iowa reverted back to the same old sluggish offense once Big Ten play began. In three conference games, they are averaging 15.7 points per, and they really don’t have a strength or calling card to hang their hat(s) on.

Much of the blame for this offense’s poor performance is, and has been, attributed to offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz. That’s not me guessing or taking a personal shot, it’s simply a matter of fact. Frustration and annoyance levels were so high, that a fan went as far as to trick former Hawkeye player Bob Stoops – and current Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery – into recording sympathetic Cameo videos wishing “Brian” the best during his difficult time. It was a master class in trolling, and a bad beat for the younger Ferentz.

But what about Pops? Where is he in all this? Because as much as people want to point a finger at Brian Ferentz for his shortcomings as the OC, it was his dad who handed him the role. And it was his dad who kept Greg Davis around (as OC) from 2012-2016, despite never having a top-50 offense. Prior to that, he employed Ken O’Keefe for 12 years, and the offense wasn’t a whole hell of a lot better. So while Brian has not been great since taking over the role in 2017, I would argue that Kirk Ferentz has been even worse at adapting to change or moving his program forward. Sometimes middle management is the problem, but often times it is the CEO. Especially when the CEO seems to be risk averse and terrified of the unknown.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s preview some players, huh!? I would love to tell you that Iowa has one diamond in the rough — an Akrum Wadley or Tyler Goodson-type, capable of making big plays consistently. But the fact is, they don’t. At least not in this current offense. If the Hawkeyes are going to put up points on Saturday, those points will likely be the result of a long, sustained drive... or even a short field via turnover. That’s just what this team is set up to do.

The ground game has been subpar, and the passing attack is honestly gross. It is an attack on the viewers’ eyes. Spencer Petras and Alex Padilla have attempted to set the quarterback position back decades, and the lack of creative playcalling does them no favors. However, in typical Iowa fashion, the team does have a future NFL tight end. His name is Sam LaPorta, and he is this week’s Offensive Player to Watch.

Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The fourth-year TE deserves much, much better. Because much like George Kittle, T.J. Hockenson, and Noah Fant, LaPorta will be playing the position on Sundays sooner than later. But right now, he is stuck in the mud. Consistently targeted, the volume of his receptions is more impressive than the impact they have or the yardage they gain. And that is not an indictment on his ability. LaPorta is a big, athletic guy, capable of making big plays when given the opportunity. Unfortunately, most of his opportunities this year have been limited to checkdowns and/or dump-off passes. He is averaging 9.3 yards per catch, which is pretty abysmal number for a player of his talent. As part of a better unit, he has thrived in the past.

LaPorta played defensive back and wide receiver in high school, displaying serious athleticism. Not much has changed in that regard, he just happens to be 20 or 30 pounds heavier than in his HS days. The (now) 6-foot-4, 249 pounder contributed to Iowa’ offense immediately, reeling in 15 receptions as a true freshman in 2019. He then became the primary starter in 2020, leading the team in that category during the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign... with 27. That’s right, 27 catches led the Hawkeyes in an eight-game season. LaPorta added his first collegiate TD, and averaged 10 yards per catch.

In 2021, the big pass catcher broke out in a similarly big way. He nearly doubled his own reception total to 53, producing 670 yards and scoring three TD. Due to his strong play, LaPorta received All-Big Ten recognition from a number of media outlets, and established himself as the next star in a long line of Hawkeye tight ends. His best game was a seven-catch, 122-yard performance in Iowa’s bowl game, during which he also added a TD. And not surprisingly, his 2021 totals once again led the team. In fact, he doubled the number of receptions hauled in by their top wide receiver (26), and nearly doubled the top WR’s yardage output (352), rendering LaPorta’s season all the more impressive... or each and every wideout’s season equally unimpressive.

Despite the Ferentz family’s refusal to field a competent, modern offense, LaPorta is still a force to be reckoned with. He is equally skilled as both a pass catcher and a blocker, and at the end of the day, the guy is just a gamer. If you’ve been forced to watch the Hawkeyes during his four-year run, you know that he is always looking to make a play or take on a block. For those reasons – and almost by default – LaPorta is a player to keep your eyes on Saturday.