By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - In a typical Iowa football season, one in which a defensive back and a middle linebacker aren't consensus All-Americans, Noah Fant would have been the headliner last fall.
The Omaha, Neb., native would’ve owned the spotlight, and deservedly so, considering what Fant accomplished last season.
From a statistical standpoint, Fant has gone where no Iowa tight end has gone before by catching 11 of Nate Stanley’s 26 touchdown passes last season. That is the most touchdown receptions for an Iowa tight end in a single season.
And if you know anything about Iowa’s success with throwing to tight ends, Fant’s accomplishment speaks volumes.
As great as Marv Cook, Dallas Clark and Tony Moeaki were as Iowa tight ends, none of them ever caught 11 touchdown passes in a single season.
Fant not only had 11 touchdown catches, he did it as a first-year starter and with just 30 receptions overall. Over one-third of his catches resulted in touchdowns and his 16.5 yards-per-catch average led all FBS tight ends.
But Fant also had his breakthrough at the same time as cornerback Josh Jackson’s incredible rise to stardom last season, and while middle linebacker Josey Jewell was putting the finishing touches on his spectacular career.
So it was easy to overlook or under-value Fant’s productivity, as evidenced by him only making third-team All-Big Ten.
But his performance was incredible from a playmaking standpoint, considering Fant had more touchdown catches as a sophomore than catches overall as a freshman, which was nine for 70 yards and one touchdown.
Fant now faces the challenge of trying to avoid being a one-hit wonder. He has set the bar extremely high and will almost certainly be a marked man this coming fall with defenses designed to stop him.
“I feel like defenses are going to be smart in what they do and cover different guys and throw different coverages at us,” Fant said. “I feel like that’s where we have to bring something different to the table.
“And that’s the job of our coaches to bring something different to the table and bring us different offensive sets or different play calls and put us at a higher advantage than those defenses.”
Devising new ways to use Fant is one of the tasks being worked on during spring practice, which started on March 21st.
Fant’s goal is to be more well-rounded and versatile as a tight end. He obviously loves catching touchdown passes, but there is more to his position than that, especially in Iowa’s system where establishing a rushing attack is always a top priority.
“I feel like I can definitely get better in the run game,” Fant said. “I always want to improve my run blocking. That’s something I try to focus on, the finer techniques and different ways you can block and stuff like that.
“As far as route running, I want to get my routes more crisp than they were last season. I feel like there is definitely still room to improve on those, and then trying to be a leader for the young guys that we have on our team.”
The 6-foot-5 Fant is listed at 241 pounds in Iowa’s spring prospectus after having his weight listed at 232 pounds last season.
Fant credits Iowa strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle for helping him gain the weight and strength needed to be more effective as a blocker.
“I knew I needed to get bigger and I knew I needed to keep gaining weight,” Fant said. “And I knew it was a process, and I didn’t want to put too much weight on and lose speed and different thing like that.
“So all the credit goes to our strength program and coach Doyle and the stuff that he puts us through. I was able to put some good weight on.”
Stanley also deserves credit for Fant’s record-breaking season because Stanley was the quarterback throwing to him. Fant showed a knack for getting open, especially in the red zone, while Stanley showed a knack for getting him the ball.
Combine their chemistry with having a year of Brian Ferentz’s offense under their belts and this spring feels and looks different than a year ago at this time.
“I feel like things are quicker now that Nate is our second-year starter,” Fant said. “That makes things a lot easier. But also having a whole year under a new system that we put in and everybody being able to have a little bit of time under their belt, also makes it easier to teach the younger guys because the older guys have a year and are able to teach it because we know it pretty well.”
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Fant’s situation is similar to what Stanley is going through this spring. They both showed star potential last season, but still have room to improve as third-year juniors.
“There are still a lot of things he can improve on, and a lot of things in his game he can get better at,” Ferentz said of Fant. “It's kind of like a discussion with the quarterback, just more maturity, little bit more awareness, those types of things, quicker decisions.
“But he's a really talented guy. He's got a good attitude. He likes being out there. He was a young player two years ago, really young. It was all big to him, but that's pretty common. I think he took a big step last year. He seems to be really confident right now. I think you can just see players with experience, they're a little bit more confident.”
Fant has good speed and quickness for a tight end, enough to where he can be split out in certain formations in order to take advantage of his effectiveness in space.
Fant doesn’t really care where he lines up on offense, but he likes giving defense different looks.
“My thing is I like being all over the field,” Fant said. “I like being split out. I like being in line. I like being everywhere. It varies the offense and it gives the defense a different looks as far as what we’re going to do.”
Fant also has a strong supporting cast at tight end, led by sophomore T.J. Hockenson, who had 24 catches for 320 yards and three touchdowns last season. Opposing defenses can't just focus on Fant, and there is plenty of competition in practice with 10 tight ends listed on the current roster, including at least six on scholarship.
Fant has two seasons of eligibility remaining after playing as a true freshman in 2016.
It is reasonable to assume that he is on the NFL radar based on what he accomplished last season. Jackson declared for the NFL draft as a junior and Fant might be in the same position a year from now should he come close to matching what he did last season.
Because what Fant accomplished last season truly was amazing, even if it wasn’t Iowa's top storyline.