IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Jake Duzey tried to come back too soon.
He knows it now, in the final days of his Iowa football career. A part of him knew it back in September, when he returned to the field in Week 4 as, statistically, the top tight end in the Big Ten from a year ago with 36 catches.
Realistically, he was a different player.
"It was my senior year," Duzey said Tuesday, "so I definitely wanted to try to get back out there as soon as I could."
The Hawkeyes travel Thursday to Los Angeles to continue preparation for Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual, Iowa's first trip to play in Pasadena in 25 years. For Duzey and most of the Hawkeyes' 20 other seniors, it marks the triumphant end to a journey that began in 2012 when Iowa dipped to 4-8 -- its lowest win total of the past 15 years.
Duzey has played in nine games this fall. He has zero catches.
An offseason injury to his left knee -- Duzey ruptured the patellar tendon in the final week of spring practice and underwent surgery on April 27 -- healed slower than the Hawkeyes had hoped. He struggled to regain strength, flexibility and explosiveness. And when he felt well, tendinitis in his right knee flared up.
As Iowa rolled to 12 wins in 13 games and a Big Ten West title, Duzey endured repeated frustration. Still, he takes satisfaction in Iowa's success, he said, and maintains hope of making an impact in his final game, followed by a shot to make it in the NFL.
"I have nothing but respect for him," Iowa guard Sean Welsh said. "He's been a great leader regardless of his circumstances. He's been completely selfless."
Duzey helped his replacements, senior Henry Krieger Coble and junior George Kittle, combine to make 52 catches for 675 yards and seven touchdowns. In part because of Duzey's absence, Krieger Coble appears in line for a good shot at the NFL.
Seven Iowa tight ends since 2000 have been drafted, and all 11 seniors at the position to start in 16 years under coach Kirk Ferentz have made an NFL roster.
For Duzey, the path is more murky. Almost eight months after knee surgery, he still suffers in practice late in weeks. When he played this season, he often filled a blocking role in multiple tight-end sets.
"Good news is," Ferentz said, "the last week, he has looked better, looked a little bit more like the old Jake Duzey."
The old Duzey caught six passes for 138 yards in 2013 against Ohio State, the most productive game by a tight end in the Ferentz era. He earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors last season and was named to the Mackey Award preseason watch list.
Clearly, he's not back yet.
"I'm getting real close to that right now in practices," he said. "I've just got to keep working on it."
He says he hopes Iowa's history with tight ends helps open the door, as a free agent, to an NFL camp.
I think I'll have a chance," said Duzey, who graduated last week. "I still have a dream of playing in the NFL, so I'm not going to give up on that one yet."
Injuries like this, Ferentz said, rate as "the low point of coaching."
"It's just really hard on everybody involved," the coach said, "especially with guys who are seniors, because they see the clock ticking."
Ferentz says he believes Duzey will get a "great opportunity" to play at the next level.
In California, Duzey plans to be a road roommate of defensive end Drew Ott, another senior who battled a knee injury this season. Ott tore the ACL in his right knee in Week 6 against Illinois. He's asking the Big Ten for a medical hardship waiver to return next season.
The prognosis on Duzey called for a three- to- four-month rehabilitation period from surgery. He thought he'd return to his former condition by October.
"Yeah," Duzey said of the original plan, "I'm guessing it was a little ambitious."
All he wants for Christmas is a chance.
"That's all you can ask for in life is a chance," Ferentz said, "just an opportunity to show what you can do."