Lions rookie TE T.J. Hockenson making strong early impression

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- T.J. Hockenson took off from the line of scrimmage. It was a red zone period early during Detroit Lions training camp and moments like these are why the former Iowa tight end received such an investment from the franchise three months ago.

Hockenson worked his way into the end zone. Backup quarterback Tom Savage let the ball go. Hockenson was in the middle of traffic, though. Had to jump up. And he outplayed fellow rookie Will Harris, coming down with a touchdown.

Over and over again early in Lions training camp, it has been like this. Double coverage from Tavon Wilson and Jahlani Tavai? No problem, Hockenson caught the ball after beating both of them. A hard-thrown ball threaded through the defense in the back of the end zone from Matthew Stafford -- Hockenson snagged that for a touchdown, too.

Sure, pads aren’t on and there’s only been two practices during training camp. There’s a lot of times for things to get better – or for Hockenson to start to struggle with what the Lions are doing offensively. He hasn’t even faced a real opponent yet. And even he recognizes he isn’t close to ready, both as a pass-catcher and as a blocker, which he’ll really start to work on once pads come on this weekend.

“All of it has been a challenge. To sit here and tell you it hasn’t would be an understatement,” said Hockenson, who was selected No. 8 overall in the 2019 draft. “You know, it’s the next level. Everything’s faster. Everything’s more dynamic. Everyone is smarter.

“So it’s different.”

But from a raw skill perspective, Hockenson has slid seamlessly into the Detroit offense, giving the Lions the tight end option that just didn’t exist for them the year before. Yes, things might change once Hockenson faces more contact at the line of scrimmage and gets jostled around a bit more.

His 6-foot-5, 247-pound body should be able to handle the contact opposing linebackers and safeties are going to deliver to him. It’s the next question to be answered with Hockenson in an offseason and admittedly early part of training camp where everything has come up very positive about him.

That includes how he’s worked with Stafford, who has looked to him often early in camp even though Hockenson might be the receiving option he’s least familiar with.

“I mean, he’s just such a great quarterback. You know where the ball is going to be. It’s going to be in the right spot when it needs to be,” Hockenson said. “It’s just easy being in that position with a guy like that. And just reps.”

The reps have been coming -- and the sparse amount of fans who have shown up the first two days of training camp have been able to see what the Lions are hoping the rest of the NFL does in less than two months when the regular season starts. A player who might be able to make a bigger-than-expected impact in Year 1.

As he walked off the field Friday afternoon, Hockenson changed direction from heading inside the practice facility out back toward the far end of the Lions training camp setup. It’s where the fans were and as he sauntered over, the chants started.

T.J., T.J., T.J. The fans screamed over and over again as he made his way closer. No other player Friday received that kind of ovation or attention. It’s part of the attention you get with being a first-round pick and if all goes as well as the Lions hope, the start of where his future might be in Detroit.