Duzey's journey to the spotlight


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The coronation of Jake Duzey will come in due time. He will soon become the face of the Iowa tight end corps. He’s set to be a future starter at the position.

Before this season, these assumptions were largely based on what Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz has said about his group of tight ends. He’s said they’re big, athletic and chock-full of experience — but most of that experience came in the form of senior C.J. Fiedorowicz.

The other three tight ends who have seen the field — sophomores Duzey and Henry Krieger-Coble, along with junior Ray Hamilton — totaled 81 yards receiving on 10 catches before the 2013 season. Duzey himself accounted for 3 of those catches and 16 of those yards. The experience was there, sure, but the stats didn’t back up the praise.

“That is a group where we probably have as much depth at that position as any,” Ferentz said on Aug. 8 at Iowa’s media  day. “I think for us to be an effective offensive football team, those guys are going to have to be involved.”

And thanks to quarterback Jake Rudock’s ability to spread the ball around, the tight ends have been involved. As of this writing, two of Rudock’s favorite targets are tight ends. Duzey is one of them, amassing 10 catches for 169 yards and one touchdown — an 85-yard catch-and-run score that knotted the score at 24 against fourth-ranked Ohio State, the ninth-longest touchdown pass in Iowa football history.

The play itself didn’t come as a shock to any members of the Iowa football team. They watch Duzey every day in practice and know what he’s capable of. But Ferentz did joke on Tuesday that he hoped the touchdown wouldn’t go to Duzey’s head.

“I hope he doesn’t become a big shot now that he’s got significant yardage in one game,” Ferentz said and laughed.

As Duzey sped across the goal line and silenced Ohio Stadium while outrunning some of the fastest defensive backs in the country, a phone back home in Troy, Mich., rang.

It was Josh Heppner’s phone. On the other line was Duzey’s mom, Laura. She was euphoric in telling Heppner about Duzey’s score. It didn’t matter that Heppner was on a date with his wife. He needed to know.

“I was bawling my eyes out with tears of joy,” said Heppner, Duzey’s high-school football coach. “She called me from Ohio State to tell me he took the ball to the house. I was ecstatic.”

Heppner and the Duzey family are close. They have been ever since Heppner first met Duzey when he became the head football coach at Athens High School in 2009.

Heppner had heard plenty about Duzey. He heard about the 4.49 40-time and the 33-inch vertical. He heard that Duzey lived in the weight room and that he had incredible athletic ability and was as big as his 6-4 height suggested.

“I could just tell by talking to him that he was something special,” Heppner said. “He obviously proved that on the football field.”

But during the few years that Heppner coached Duzey, the football team was in a state of confusion.

Heppner struggled to utilize Duzey to his full potential. But the work ethic was apparent — Heppner and Duzey, no matter the season, spent the early mornings in the weight room breaking a sweat. And it showed on the field, as Duzey commanded double- and triple-teams. When he found open space, he made opposing teams pay.

“We were playing Clarkston, and he caught a 5-yard out and turned up the field,” Heppner said. “It was like the crowd went silent and the only thing you could hear was Jake coming up the sideline. It literally sounded like the hum of a locomotive. He just flew 80 yards up the sideline for a touchdown … I’ll never forget that.”

During those final high-school seasons, Heppner and Laura Duzey became close. They both worked together at the school. Heppner was a shoulder on which the Duzey family leaned after the death of Jake’s father, Greg. Heppner made it a point to help Jake through the recruiting process, traveling with him to schools all over — including Iowa.

Heppner grew up in Iowa. His dad played football for Iowa in the 70’s. He still has family living around Iowa City. So when Duzey made the decision to commit to the Black and Gold, surrounding friends and family jokingly blamed Heppner, but he allowed Duzey to make his own decision.“I just wanted to be there and help answer some questions and ask certain questions,” Heppner said. “All kids are looking at are how sweet do the jerseys look and how many free pairs of shoes do I get. I helped him ask some of the tough questions.”

Duzey was hesitant at first, but continued trips to Iowa City helped sway and eventually cement his choice. Duzey talked a lot with Chris Doyle, Iowa’s strength and conditioning coach, and was confident with what Doyle had planned for him. Coach Ferentz’s usage of tight ends also caught Duzey’s attention.

Duzey is still adjusting — at least in terms of football. He said one of the first things he had to learn was how to block. Duzey didn’t block much in high school, which made his first few lessons that much tougher.

“When me and Henry were freshman on the scout team, we’d be up against Broderick Binns,” Duzey said and laughed. “When I came in, it was something I had to learn, and our coaches are great at teaching.”

The ceiling is high for Duzey. Fiedorowicz said he’s the fastest tight end on the roster. Rudock said he has reliable hands. He’s put on about 20 pounds since he first got here.

And if Oct. 19 was any indication of how good he might soon become, his fans back home are eager to see what happens.

“I would like to see him break Dallas Clark’s records,” Heppner said. “Not for selfish reasons, but with a weapon like Jake, he could help the Hawkeyes get back on track to winning Big Ten championships.”

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