The Mystery of Noah Fant’s Usage Remains Hot Topic with Hawkeyes
IOWA CITY, Iowa – When we look back at the 2018 Hawkeye football season, the usage of tight end Noah Fant will play a prominent role in telling the story. To be sure, it’s far from the only thing plaguing this team, but it is one of the most visible and puzzling.
It’s been the talk in Hawkeye Nation since the preseason all-American saw only eight snaps in the second half of a 14-10 loss against Northwestern on Saturday. Iowa left the game with its first three-game losing streak since ’14 and fans wanted answers as to why one of the team’s best offensive players was standing on the sideline with the outcome still in doubt.
Coach Kirk Ferentz vaguely answered questions about it after the game. To his credit, Fant didn’t complain following Saturday’s loss. He said it was up to the coaches who plays and that he would do his best when called upon.
Tuesday, his teammates talked about the controversy and also handled themselves well. Fellow tight end T.J. Hockenson, who Ferentz said Saturday was the team’s No. 1 at the position, hasn’t felt any awkwardness.
“The tight end unit is a close-knit unit. There’s no being caught up in any of that,” he said.
Hockenson leads the Hawkeyes with in receiving yards (615) and is tied with receiver Nick Easley with the most catches (39). Fant ranks second in yards (453) and catches (35). Of those three players, Fant is seeing the fewest snaps.
Like Fant and the other players, quarterback Nate Stanley believes it’s up to the coaches to decide who plays.
“As far as people saying, ‘oh, you should throw it to him more,’ the defense ultimately tells us where to throw the ball,” Stanley said. “You can game plan as much as you want. You can try to isolate on a certain person.
“But when the ball is snapped, whatever the defense does, we have to react to it. Sometimes they can take away a certain person or sometimes they do something to give someone else a better opportunity to make a play.”
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Also factoring into Fant’s usage is Iowa developing receivers. Guys like Easley, Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette are producing and seeing more reps.
“We have a lot of guys out there that are weapons and (Fant is) right there at the top of the list,” Stanley said. “Maybe defenses based off of certain coverages they run against one our route concepts are able to take him away more so than a different person.
“Again, it just comes back down to what the defense does and the play that we have against that certain defense.”
Fant’s playing time, or lack thereof, came into focus following the Oct. 6 game at Minnesota. His brother, Chris Fant, a high school coach in Omaha, took to social media and complained about Noah’s usage. Noah handled himself well when confronted with that.
One thing is for sure, Fant’s teammates appreciate when he’s on the field. They realize he draws attention from the defense.
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“He’s such a talented player and he’s done so many things in this league and proving himself as an elite player,” Easley said. “He’s really good and defenses are going to key on him all day. We should be able to take advantage of that.”
The most puzzling part of the situation is the lack of snaps for Fant. One would think if he draws attention from defense, it would be beneficial to have him on the field more.
Saturday, on Iowa’s lone touchdown, a 28-yard pass to Smith-Marsette, Fant drew multiple defenders.
Ferentz was asked on Tuesday’s Big Ten teleconference if he felt, in hindsight, that he should have used Fant more on Saturday.
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“Obviously we’re going to be a better team, a more explosive team of we can get him the ball. That’s not a secret and our opponents probably start there when they start their game planning, both he and (Hockenson),” the coach said.
Again, it makes sense that teams want to take Fant away. But it would seem that taking him off the field helps them do that.
Ferentz reiterated on Tuesday that Hockenson is the team’s No. 1 tight end. When Iowa goes with one at the position, he’s been the choice.
“The lean is to T.J. probably because he’s a little bit more versatile as a tight end. I would compare (Fant) more to a specialist position. But nonetheless, he’s an outstanding football player, and we’ve tried to get him the ball, and we’ll continue to try to get him the ball,” the coach said.
A reporter asked Ferentz if it’s a character issue keeping Fant off the field.
“I can assure you that’s not an issue. Noah is a high-character guy. He’s been tremendous with us. He’s a great kid. So there’s no issues there at all, and that’s hardly the deal,” he said.
It’s likely this controversy will end when the season does. Fant is universally regarded as a first-round NFL Draft pick. Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller projects him as the No. 1 tight end and the No. 11 overall prospect available.