By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Contrary to how some fans and how some in the media might feel, everything is just fine with Noah Fant and A.J. Epenesa.
Neither is being under-utilized despite what some might think, and it is business as usual for two of the most dynamic players on the 3-1 Iowa football team.
At least, that is how I interpreted what Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said about Fant and what Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker said about Epenesa on Wednesday.
Iowa's two coordinators, along with special team’s coordinator LeVar Woods, all met with the media on Wednesday as part of the bye week.
There is a perception that Fant is being under-utilized despite having made all but one of Iowa’s five touchdown catches this season, and the same with Epenesa even though he leads Iowa with four sacks and four tackles for loss.
Fant and fellow tight end T.J Hockenson also lead Iowa with 15 catches apiece.
Brian Ferentz seemed a little surprised when asked on Wednesday how teams were taking away Fant a lot more than what fans and the media maybe expected.
“I don’t know what his stat line is, but I don’t know how well people are taking him away,” Brian Ferentz said. “He’s been pretty productive for us. He’s scored a few touchdowns and has a few receptions.
“And it’s something we talked about during the offseason. If you put good players on the field, people are going to account for them. And if they’re accounting for them, can we get the ball to the other guys? And I think we’ve been able to do that. I think it’s opened up some of the rest of the offense. And that’s all been positive.”
The fact that Fant only has 169 receiving yards, and that he doesn’t always play, even when Iowa uses two tight ends, has some questioning why he isn’t being used more.
Part of the problem is that the bar has been set so high in Fant’s case as a preseason first-team All-America selection.
Fant has 15 touchdown catches on just 45 receptions since the start of last season. That is one touchdown for every three receptions, which is extraordinary.
Fant is actually on pace this season to eclipse the 11 touchdown catches that he made last season in 13 games. He is currently averaging one touchdown per game, and yet, there is a perception that he is being under-utilized.
“I’m pleased with what Noah’s done, I’m pleased with the production Noah has,” Brian Ferentz said. “He’s a guy we’ve tried to create matchups with at times and we’ve been successful at times and not as successful in others.
“But in the wake of those matchups, other matchups have developed on the field for us, and I feel like we’ve done a pretty good job of taking advantage of those.”
It’s hard to argue with Brian Ferentz’s assessment because Fant and Hockenson have combined for 30 catches and 407 receiving yards in the first four games. That is a lot of productivity from the tight end position.
Hockenson leads the team with 238 receiving yards and has clearly benefitted from defenses paying closer to attention to Fant.
So maybe it’s not a case of Fant being under-utilized, but more a case of Fant’s reputation creating more opportunities for Hockenson, who led Iowa with 125 receiving yards in last Saturday’s 28-17 loss to Wisconsin.
Hockenson proved last season as a redshirt freshman that he could be a force at tight end by catching 24 passes for 320 yards and three touchdowns.
So it’s not like he just came out of nowhere this season.
And if Hockenson keeps performing at his current level, defenses will have to design ways to stop him, and that should only benefit Fant.
Epenesa, meanwhile, is the third option in a very talented three-man rotation at defensive end, and that doesn’t sit well with some fans who want to see more of Epenesa on the field.
It’s understandable why fans would want to see more of the 6-foot-5, 277-pound Epenesa because he truly is a dynamic performer, especially when it comes to rushing the quarterback.
But the two players he alternates with at defensive end– senior Parker Hesse and junior Anthony Nelson – are also reliable, productive and established.
Phil Parker was asked on Wednesday if Epenesa has shown in the first four games that he is capable of being an every-down guy and if his role would increase.
Those hoping to see a lot more of Epenesa on the field probably wouldn’t agree with Parker’s answer.
“The way he's been working is really good,” Parker said of Epenesa, who is the only five-star recruit on the Iowa roster. “The one thing about it, we always want to make sure the depth of our defensive line, and the multiple positions that the guys can play inside and outside and make sure that our guys are fresh, I think has been more productive.
“If we played him more, would he be as productive? That's the thing you've got to really watch out. I really think the way we're handling the situation, and it worked out the first four weeks, is that 25, 26, reps a game has really been his potential to really make some big plays.”
In other words, Parker likes to keep Epenesa fresh because that helps Epenesa pressure the quarterback, which takes a lot of energy and effort.
“He has an opportunity to come on third down and make things happen and get off the field, which is pretty good,” Parker said of Epenesa.
Parker can afford to use Epenesa on a situational basis because Parker trusts and respects Nelson and Hesse for what they bring to the defense.
Neither is as dynamic or as powerful as Epenesa, but they might be more polished and versatile at this stage, especially Hesse, who excels at defending the run and pass.
It makes sense why fans want to see more productivity from Fant and more playing time for Epenesa because they’re arguably the two most celebrated players on the team.
And they’re both real good players.
But football is also a team sport where making sacrifices goes with the territory.
Fant’s receiving yards might be lower than what was expected after four games, but Hockenson’s receiving yards probably are higher than what was expected.
And as mentioned before, Fant is on pace for 12 touchdown catches this season, and 13 should Iowa play in a bowl game.
Epenesa is on pace for 12 sacks, and don’t be surprised if he gets more than that because he should have the luxury of being fresh and rested most of the time.
Parker understands what he has in Epenesa, but Parker also understands what he has in both Hesse and Anthony Nelson. All three players are special in their own way, and there still is two-thirds of the season remaining.
A.J. Epenesa should have plenty of chances to impact games with his immense talent and with his determination.
This is one of those times when you just have to trust that the Iowa coaches will do what is best for the team.