Detroit Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson has become a better pro. Here's how
Maybe it’s the wild mop of curly blond hair that spills out under his backward baseball cap.
Or it could his laconic speech that goes so well with an easy smile, both of which are perfectly on brand for his laidback style.
But make no mistake. Hockenson, 23, has improved dramatically. He leads the team with 52 catches and he’s second with 614 receiving yards. That puts him on pace to blow past the franchise record for single season receiving yards by a tight end Brandon Pettigrew set in 2011 with 777 yards.
Hockenson’s catching ability and playmaking were obvious his rookie year. But it was off the field where he made the most strides this year, according Lions tight end coach Ben Johnson.
“I would say how he approaches every single day,” Johnson said Wednesday. “I think the professionalism, which is something that we talked about back in the spring time, we kind of laid out a plan: ‘Hey, this is what a professional looks like, this is what a meeting looks like, this is what a walkthrough looks like, this is what practice should look like.’
“I think he took that with open arms and he’s attacked it this entire season with that in mind, with ‘Hey, I want to be a professional during the week and then on game day it’ll take care of itself through the preparation I put in and the deposits I put in the bank there.’ To me, that’s where the biggest growth has happened. It hasn’t even been on the field necessarily. It’s been more off the field and mindset-wise.”
Those deposits have turned into withdrawals and they’ve clearly paid off. Hockenson has made big plays consistently all season by gaining separation and also making acrobatic catches.
“Yeah, I think he’s doing a really nice job for us,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “He can kind of do it all. Can run, can block, can catch. Doing all that kind of stuff for us. His role just keeps expanding. His route tree does the same, just keeps expanding in things that he can do.”
Hockenson’s effectiveness in the pass game hasn’t exactly come because of his Talmudic study of the playbook. It’s come through his artful way of deceiving a defender by throwing him off his true intentions on a route, of making something appear to be something other than what it is.
“He understands routes, he understands how to run routes,” Johnson said. “Something we talk about is in this offense the lines that we put up in terms of the plays, those are what us coaches draw but the beauty of him and all of our route runners is they’re the artists. They make those lines come to life.
“So I think he’s really taken that approach, particularly the last few weeks in terms of saying, ‘Hey, the release, I can make it look however I want to get this defender off balance, tumble and be able to get separation at the top of the route.’ So I know (interim coach Darrell Bevell) challenged him a few weeks ago. He took that to heart and he really came out that next week guns a-blazin’ and that fire really hasn’t died down at all.”
Contact Carlos Monarrez at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.