This article was originally written by Ryan Rodriguez and appeared in The Daily Iowan on September 18, 2015. It has been republished with the author’s permission.
The loss of Hawkeye standout tight end Jake Duzey to off-season knee surgery has been a story line for the Iowa football program this season.
His absence has left the Hawks without one of their most consistent threats during the first two weeks of the season, but it has allowed the Hawkeye faithful to get acquainted with his replacements, a dynamic duo of upperclassmen in redshirt junior George Kittle and senior Henry Kreiger Coble.
And while their bond as teammates is strong, the pair has roots that are much deeper.
First cousins and longtime childhood friends Kittle and Kreiger Coble have been teammates long before they became Hawkeyes.
“We’re just enjoying it; both of us are really just trying to enjoy all of it while the time lasts,” Krieger Coble said. “When [George] showed up at Iowa, I was just super excited, to be honest, because we’re so close. It’s just super fun for our whole family, really.”
Kittle’s mother, Jan Krieger, is the sister of Amy Krieger, Henry’s mother. But the connections between the two and the Iowa program go back even further.
Both Kittle and Krieger Coble have roots in the state, and the pair’s connection to the Hawks spans numerous generations. A quick peek at their family tree reveals a virtual pipeline of athletic talent that has circled to the Hawks for generations.
It’s a bunch stuffed with ex-Hawks.
Kittle’s father, Bruce, was an offensive lineman at Iowa during the early 1980s. He served as a team cocaptain on the 1981-82 team that fell to Washington in the Rose Bowl. His daughter, with Jan Krieger, Emma Krieger-Kittle played volleyball at Iowa in 2009.
Amy Krieger played softball for the Hawks in the mid-1980s and is also related to both former Hawkeye basketball player Jess Settles and former Hawkeye baseball standout Brad Carlson.
“It’s just fun to be able to do what your whole family did before me,” George Kittle said. “You just try to do some of the great things that they did. Especially growing up with Henry and being on the same sports teams together, it’s just really cool to continue to be able do that.”
Both Kittle and Krieger Coble are happy to be keeping the Hawkeye tradition alive, albeit in a way even their family has never done. Although both are members of the same team and competing for snaps at tight end, good luck finding even a shred of resentment between the two.
“I don’t really look at it as a competition between the two of us or anything like that,” Krieger Coble said. “We just have a lot of fun together more than anything. It’s not a competition whether one of us is going to play or not; we both understand that we just need to do whatever helps the team win.”
It’s one of the biggest sports clichés of all time, the idea that “helping the team win” will always come first, with personal accomplishments coming second.
Talk to any Division-I college athlete who has ever had a stitch of media training, and you’ll probably get a similar response. Personnel differences are always dwarfed by team needs, just happy that the team won, yada, yada, yada.
But talk to Kittle or Krieger Coble about it, and it doesn’t seem rehearsed in the least. It’s a friendship with sincerity and meaning, and one that has benefited the Iowa football program both on the field and in the locker room.
“We’ve always just fed off each other,” Kittle said. “I don’t think either for us really view it as battling for each other’s job. Whoever can do it better should be in the game.”
The pair certainly doesn’t seem as if they’d be in competition for the same position on the field come game day.
With Kittle seen as the slightly smaller, quicker, and more mobile option of the two, it more or less comes down to fitting the right player to a specific situation.
“He’s definitely faster than me, that’s for sure,” Krieger Coble said. “But at the same time, we practice the same stuff and try to improve just like everyone else. It’s just about being a better run blocker and pass catcher more than anything.”
Watching the pair battle during weekday practices has become somewhat of a spectacle for their teammates as well.
And while neither has proven to be the downfield threat Duzey is and was, their blocking ability has helped create room for Iowa’s dynamic backfield of LeShun Daniels Jr. and Jordan Canzeri.
“They really haven’t caught many balls yet but they’re not selfish guys,” quarterback C.J. Beathard said. “We run a lot of two tight-end schemes, so their job is really just like an extra down lineman a lot of the times, but they’ve been great for us so far.”
Born and raised in Mount Pleasant, Krieger Coble enjoyed a standout career at Mount Pleasant High in which he gradated as one of the more decorated high-school football players southeastern Iowa has produced, earning all-district team honors three times.
It’s a path so many Hawkeyes have taken, growing up playing high-school ball in the state before moving on to play for the Hawks.
George Kittle’s path is been a little less direct.
Born in Wisconsin, he attended Iowa City West where he played his first two years of high school football until Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops hired Bruce Kittle as a recruiting coordinator, then assistant coach.
Though he finished his high-school career in Norman, Oklahoma, the dream of one day becoming a Hawk side-by-side with Krieger Coble never went away.
“I didn’t even get a call from Coach Ferentz until national signing day my senior year,” Kittle said. “But knowing Henry and his being here, I was able to come up and visit a few times and get used to everything.”
Moving back to Iowa City has been just one of many changes Kittle has had to adapt to since signing with the Hawkeyes.
A wide receiver and defensive back in high school, Kittle has packed on nearly 40 pounds since he arrived in Iowa City and learned that he would play tight end for the Hawks.
“I came in at 199, and I’m up to about 240 now, so it has been different,” Kittle said. “I played wide receiver and free safety, so I really had no idea how to block in-line. It’s pretty hard to block a 270-pound defensive lineman when you’re only 215.”
Growing up with a former Division-I offensive tackle as a father probably helps in that department quite a bit.
“When I was in like fifth grade, he put me in at left tackle once when I was like 100 pounds,” Kittle said. “He doesn’t care. I actually think the first thing he ever taught me about football was how to pass block.”
Saturdays are fun once again for the Krieger Coble and Kittle families. The latest in a long line of standout Hawks, one gets the feeling that keeping the tradition alive means more to them than anything.
“My whole family, and my dad in particular, love coming to watch on Saturdays,” Kittle said. “Especially for his being back in Kinnick, but it’s really just a great thing for the whole family.”