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TJ Hockenson returns to Detroit as ‘friendly target’ on big downs for Vikings

Maybe it’s only fitting that it took only three snaps after just three practices for TJ Hockenson to become a guy Kirk Cousins ​​can trust when things get hairy and the sidelines scream “3 “.

“It was weird,” Hockenson said, recalling that first third in 90 seconds in Washington’s Nov. 6 game, five days after the Vikings acquired him and two draft picks from rival NFC North Detroit. for a second-round pick in 2023 and a third-round pick in 2024.

“I remember we got the look we wanted, and I saw the ball in the air. At that point, I’m still not used to Kirk’s ball, you know? So I’m like: “Oh, man. be too high.'”

Instinctively, the 6-foot-5, 248-pound tight end jumped.

“Then all of a sudden I’m here and the ball is here,” Hockenson said, pointing to his thighs. “I was used to Jared [Goff’s] Ball. His would stay on the same plane.”

Somewhere on the sideline, third-string quarterback David Blough was shaking his head and laughing. Former Detroit teammates Blough and Hockenson had spent the week cramming the Vikings offense into Hockenson’s head using Lions terms he could relate to. Blough also reminded him that while Cousins ​​has the arm strength to make every throw necessary, he doesn’t always shoot the ball, à la Goff.

“Kirk has a knack for layering the ball on defenders,” Blough said. “Kirk gave TJ a nice, easy catch there. TJ could have gotten through it, but he’s jumping. I had to give him a hard time for that one.”

Meanwhile, Cousins ​​praised the long-armed guy for the 19-yard gain and everything after that, especially on third and fourth downs of the last five games. The Vikings went 4-1 against teams with a combined 38-22-1 record and have a 10-2 record in Detroit with a chance to clinch their Premier League title since 2017 with a win over a Lions team. which is also 4-1 from the trade.

The cousins ​​said it was now “fun to watch the tape” of the first match between the teams in Week 3 and see Hockenson on the opponent.

“He did a great job for us,” the quarterback said. “We have to keep using his skills and he will keep making the difference.”

Playing against the Lions, who drafted him eighth overall from Iowa in 2019, at Ford Field, not far from where he owns an empty house, is going to be beyond weird for Hockenson.

“My career right now is totally, completely different from last year when the Vikings came and we were [0-10-1]”Hockenson said of Detroit’s upset 29-27 victory. “I thank Detroit. Really no hard feelings because it’s a blessing I never imagined in my wildest dreams.

“I didn’t think I would be traded and, frankly, I never thought it would be in the division because I didn’t think they would want to see me twice a year.”

Lions coach Dan Campbell this week called Hockenson, a 2020 Pro Bowler, a “regular player” for the Vikings. He has 30 catches on 40 targets for 225 yards (7.5 yards per catch) and a touchdown for the Vikings after 26 catches on 43 targets for 395 yards (15.7) – including a franchise single-game record of 179 for a tight end — and three touchdowns in seven games for Detroit.

“We knew we were going to lose production, he was a good player,” Campbell said. “But I feel like our guys have stepped up. For [make the trade] you had to feel good to distribute the load to the rest of the group.”

That group now includes rookie receiver Jameson Williams, the player the Lions picked using the 12e overall selection they got in an earlier trade with the Vikings. Williams came back from his torn ACL to make his NFL debut with eight snaps and no touches in last week’s win over Jacksonville.

Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz, who recruited Hockenson from a small high school in Chariton, Iowa, and guided him to the biggest stage in the game, remembers hearing the news of the trade for the first time.

“There was a time when you didn’t trade inside your division,” said Ferentz, who was Bill Belichick’s offensive line coach with the Browns in the early 1990s. , that still seems like a good rule. Especially in this case for Detroit. I think the Vikings could be thrown in jail for making that trade.”

Born to play third downs

Curt Smyser led a running-focused offense as head football coach at Chariton High – until Hockenson, who had been turning heads in the town since seventh grade, was around 15.

“In his second year, we totally changed our offense, we went completely wide just to get TJ to have the ball,” Smyser said. “Great hands and very good body control when he got up to get the ball back, even at that age. I still have a picture of him going up to get a ball back from a crazy hold inbounds. third goal against Knoxville to set the state record for career touchdowns at 49.”

Hockenson also played safety, outside linebacker and even defensive end on occasion.

“We played Saydel one year and worked all week with TJ on what they would do when their offense fell near the goal line,” Smyser said. “We got TJ to safety and he cut past that short road and took it 95 yards out for a touchdown.”

Ferentz liked Hockenson’s skills, but had questions about the lanky youngster’s tenacity and willingness to learn how to block in the Big Ten.

“He came to our June camp and took those fears away because he was tough, a good athlete, and one of the best humans you’ve ever met,” Ferentz said. “He came in, red-shirted and part of our scout team burning down our defence, which was pretty good.”

And, yes, Hockenson has become a guy who moves the chains on third downs.

“We played Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl the year TJ got drafted,” Ferentz said. “It was a close game late in the game. It’s the third and short and we really need to get a first down.

“TJ takes a short pass and comes off a few tackles on a play that no one on our roster in the last decade could have done. He goes like 30, 35 yards. We don’t score, but we knock down the court and our defense close it.”

The Vikings have converted 32 third downs and four fourth downs since the trade. Hockenson was responsible for a quarter of them — eight on third down, including a touchdown, and a fourth and five to set up a late touchdown in Buffalo’s 33-30 overtime win. Only Justin Jefferson (13) has converted more third downs. Dalvin Cook is third on this list with four followed by KJ Osborn (three), Cousins ​​(two), Adam Thielen (one) and Jalen Reagor (one).

“A Friendly Target”

Cousins ​​said Hockenson “showed up a lot” on key downs for a combination of reasons: “he’s a friendly target” and “he gets good matchups and he’s been decisive with his routes.” Some of them have to do with Coach Kevin O’Connell’s play-calling and scheming.

“We’re just trying to give him opportunities to do things that he’s comfortable doing, that he’s been successful at doing,” O’Connell said. “And it happens to be a lot of things, which makes him fun as a coach.”

The Hockenson trade coincided with Irv Smith Jr. landing on injured reserve with an ankle injury. Although Smith still has potential, Hockenson had more catches (nine) and more yards (70) in his first game as a Viking than Smith has had in any of his 38 games since 2019. Hockenson also had three of the team’s seven thirds. conversions that day.

“I was doing a lot of different things on the third try in Detroit,” he said.

The Vikings remembered that a year ago when they led the Lions with 23 seconds left at Ford Field. Detroit faced third-and-sixth Minnesota 29. Guess who caught the 10-yarder to move the chains and set up the last-second touchdown.

“That’s been my MO throughout my career,” Hockenson said. “You can ask a lot of these guys in this dressing room. There are guys here who want the ball when we need it. That’s definitely my mindset. Give me the ball any week this week in Detroit, and I can get the first try.”

It’s been just over a month since Hockenson left a 1-6 Lions team for a 6-1 Vikings team. The Lions had gone 12-42-2 during his stint with the team when he grinned ear to ear while telling Twin Cities reporters: “What we’re here to do is is to go somewhere and win games. And that’s kind of the first time I’ve been able to say that.”

Hockenson laughed when asked this week how much heartache he took for that comment.

“I don’t know, probably some,” he said. “But, hey, I’m spitting out facts. It’s not like I’m making a false statement. Being in this locker room, we’re here to win games.”

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