Tony Moeaki has often been considered one of the nation’s most talented tight ends. Until now, the Iowa senior has been hurt too often to prove it.
Moeaki is finally healthy and producing for the 7th-ranked Hawkeyes (7-0, 3-0 Big Ten). After missing three games with a sprained ankle, he has caught nine passes for 160 yards and three touchdowns in the past two games.
Moeaki’s re-emergence has made an immediate impact on Iowa’s offense, which has done just enough to keep the Hawkeyes unbeaten heading into Saturday’s game at Michigan State (4-3, 3-1).
Despite playing about half the season, Moeaki leads Iowa with 20 catches and four receiving TDs.
“He’s a marquee player. Historically we haven’t had a lot of those,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “When you have a good team and then you add a couple guys like that who can give you extra octane out there … I think the last two weeks we’ve certainly seen how he can impact a game.”
Moeaki, a 6-foot-4, 250-pound native of Wheaton, Ill., was considered one of the best prospects in the country out of high school. He was expected to break out as a junior in 2007, and that appeared to be the case when he caught three TD passes against Syracuse early that season.
But in the Big Ten opener at Wisconsin, Moeaki dislocated his elbow and broke his hand on the same play. Though he tried to return that season, he eventually took a medical redshirt.
Moeaki returned healthy in 2008, only to break his foot in fall camp. That injury led to hamstring and calf issues, and he caught just 13 passes for 144 yards in nine games.
He opened this season with what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown, a 6-yard grab in the fourth quarter of Iowa’s 17-16 win over Northern Iowa.
Then it happened again, as an Iowa State lineman fell on Moeaki’s ankle. Though Moeaki dressed for Iowa’s 21-10 win at Penn State on Sept. 26, the coaching staff kept him sidelined.
“You can’t really control that type of stuff, so you just keep looking forward and waiting to get back on the field,” Moeaki said. “Glad that part is over.”
Moeaki returned for Iowa’s 30-28 win over Michigan, which the Hawkeyes might not have picked up without him. Moeaki caught touchdown passes of 42 and 34 yards against the Wolverines.
“Tony’s about as tough as they get. He’s been through pretty much everything, and he’s been able to battle back from everything,” Iowa offensive lineman Bryan Bulaga said. “To still be able to perform the way he does, it’s unbelievable.”
Iowa’s offense still ranks just 81st nationally at 24.9 points per game. The Hawkeyes are probably going to have to start scoring more points to keep their dreams of a BCS title game berth alive, and Moeaki’s return should help.
Iowa uses a balanced, pro-style offense, and the tight end plays a prominent role in the attack. Moeaki’s size, blocking skills and pass-catching ability force opposing defenses to plan for him – and it allows Iowa to take more chances.
Against Michigan, quarterback Ricky Stanzi sensed that Michigan was about to send an aggressive blitz. Stanzi changed the play to get Moeaki into the space vacated by charging Wolverines, and the tight end cruised into the end zone.
Moeaki also made an acrobatic TD catch at Wisconsin, and Stanzi found him in the corner of the end zone from 34 yards away.
“He does everything well, and I don’t say that about a lot of players,” Ferentz said.
Though Moeaki isn’t among the more vocal Hawkeyes, the way he’s handled adversity hasn’t gone unnoticed on a team that’s defied expectations and vaulted atop the Big Ten.
“He always has the same demeanor,” Ferentz said. “I know he’s been frustrated. This guy is human too. He hasn’t shown it. He’s handled it and he’s kept his eyes going forward.”