Sep 14, 2019; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes defensive back Geno Stone (9) tackles Iowa State Cyclones tight end Charlie Kolar (88) at Jack Trice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — As Iowa State tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh spoke three years ago, offensive coordinator Tom Manning listened intently, perhaps with an arched eyebrow.
The subject: Then-incoming tight end Charlie Kolar.
The assessment: “He goes, ‘Man, this guy’s going to be a really good tight end,’ and I’m like, ‘Man, what tells you that?’” Manning recalled. “He obviously has a history in coaching the tight ends at this level and I think he has a really good eye for it.”
Fast forward to this season.
Kolar — and the tight ends group as a whole — has become a focal point of the Cyclones’ offense.
Entering Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. (ESPN) Big 12 season opener at Baylor, Kolar ranks third on the team in receptions with 14. Dylan Soehner has three and Chase Allen’s grabbed two. All tolled, ISU’s tight ends account for 19 of 77 (or 24.7 percent) of the Cyclones’ completions in 2019 — a vast increase from the paltry five of 300 total team catches the group mustered just two seasons ago.
Kolar’s emergence last season helped accelerate that ascent, but Allen and Soehner also flash attributes that make them valuable in all aspects of the offense, not merely the running game.
“Those guys are proving it,” said ISU head coach Matt Campbell, whose team (2-1) strives for a third straight win over the Bears (3-0) Saturday at McLane Stadium in Waco. “They are — and that part is certainly positive. The neat thing about them is none of them are finished products either. They’re only going to continue to get better. You’ve got to remember Charlie is only a redshirt sophomore and Dylan has still played limited reps at the tight end position. Chase is trying to be healthy for the first time in his career for an entire season. So even though those guys have been here a little bit longer, they’re still young in what they’re doing. I think you’ll only see them get better and better.”
The evolution of Allen, Kolar and Soehner enhances the Cyclones’ ability to be multiple. ISU can deploy all three on the field for an ostensibly “heavy” package, but their collective athleticism and pass-catching ability mean just about any play can be called — even out of a traditionally run-first formation.
“We’re fortunate to have talented tight ends,” said Manning, who coached the Indianapolis Colts’ tight ends last season before returning to Ames. “I think, number one, is it obviously creates extra gaps in the running game. I think that’s where it all starts from and from there, if you have the ability to create gaps and also be able to throw the football and be in multiple formations, I think it just helps you. It gives you the ability to make defenses decide what personnel do they put out and then it helps you dictate what you do from there.”
Kolar said he played a lot of wide receiver in high school, despite living in a tight end’s bulkier body. He stands 6-6. Soehner is 6-7 and Allen is also listed at that height.
Couple that length with uniquely good footwork and route running and a recipe for heightened productivity begins to take shape.
“We’re a pretty selfless group,” said Kolar, who caught three touchdown passes last season. “Obviously, we like to catch the ball but at the same time, we’re much more worried about if the team’s winning or not. So, I mean, if we catch 10 passes and lose the game, no one cares. We were happy with how we played last week. Just continue to play better. Big game this week.”
Baylor — albeit against teams that are a combined 1-11 — hasn’t given up a passing touchdown this season. The Bears have allowed a Big 12-leading 4.8 yards per reception, while ISU ranks second in the league with 9.9 yards per completion.
The key to the Cyclones’ production in the passing game is a diversity of threats — both at receiver and at tight end. Quarterback Brock Purdy is spreading the ball around after clear go-to receiver Hakeem Butler left for the NFL and that’s one reason Campbell thinks the offense could be more consistently productive despite struggling to score points the first two games of the season.
“When you lose a Butler and you lose a (David) Montgomery (at running back), you’re almost creating a new identity as to who you are and what you’re becoming,” Campbell said of his offense. “And I think we knew that was going to be that way early in the season for us. We felt like we were really close in those first two football games to having great games offensively and we didn’t. We did some things well but still probably weren’t playing to our potential and I think what you saw this past Saturday (in the 72-20 win over Louisiana-Monroe) is growth in some areas, but you’re still talking — you can’t start the game with two turnovers and there’s still little things we’ve got to continue to clean up. Now you’re going against a very veteran defense that’s playing really confident, so again, another unique challenge to a young offense. How does it handle it? How does it handle a different style of defense? All those things. I just think growth is what’s really important for this offense.”
And, Kolar stressed, it doesn’t matter how many catches he, Allen and Soehner collect if the scoreboard isn’t a welcome sight late Saturday afternoon.
Growth is great. Winning is much better. Near perfection materializes when one melds the two from week to week.
“Every game’s really important, but once you get in the Big 12, there’s a little more sense of urgency, a little more sense of got to go now,” Kolar said. “Baylor’s a good team. Was that the game there was a fight at (last season)? I remember last week’s (game), can’t remember last year. But it should be fun. Like I said, they’re a good team. They play hard and run to the ball. It should be fun.”