By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Part of my approach to writing this column about Noah Fant’s peculiar role with the Iowa offense was do it without criticizing or blaming anybody.
It’s hard to criticize or blame somebody when you don’t have all of the necessary information to know exactly what has or hasn't happened.
On the surface, we know that Fant has spent more time watching from the sideline in critical parts of games this season than most of us probably expected.
Fant didn’t have a first-half target in last Saturday’s 30-24 loss at Penn State and was only on the field for two of Iowa’s seven snaps within 10 yards of the Penn State end zone. All five of Fant’s catches against Penn State also came in the fourth quarter.
Part of that was due to Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley having a bad game in which 31 of his 49 passes fell incomplete.
Stanley also missed seeing Fant on several pass plays where Fant appeared to be open.
But it still was odd for Fant to go an entire half without being targeted.
It's strange because Fant already is a proven star after catching 11 touchdown passes as a true sophomore last season.
The Omaha, Neb., native has 18 career touchdown receptions, which is already the most for an Iowa tight end, and Fant still has another season to play if he chooses.
You can assume that Purdue will make defending Fant a priority at all times during Saturday’s game in West Lafayette, Ind., and would probably prefer him to be on the sideline watching.
Fant was asked about his role with the offense during Tuesday’s weekly press conference and he handled it well by saying all the right things.
Fant made it obvious that he would like to play more, especially in the red zone, but he didn’t lash out or blame the coaches for holding him back.
“Obviously, I would like to be involved all the time, but that’s not really in my control,” Fant said. “I can control if I catch the ball. I can control what I do with the ball when I catch it. So I’m just kind of taking that standpoint of it and taking advantages of the opportunities that I’m given when things are thrown to me and things like that.
“But, obviously, in the games, I’m not really focused on any of that. I’m just focused on being a team player. As long as we move the ball and are scoring points, that’s all that matters.”
Fant’s older brother caused a stir a few weeks ago when he posted some critical comments on Twitter about Noah’s lack of playing time. It was serious enough that Noah had a meeting with Kirk Ferentz and with Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz to clear the air.
Noah Fant sort of took both sides when he spoke to the media for first time since his brother made his comments. Noah said his brother was entitled to his opinion and that the Iowa coaches handled it the way they thought to handle it.
The concern about Noah Fant’s snap count has festered below the surface since then and became an issue again this past Saturday due to his limited role.
“We’re not intentionally trying to get him not to catch the ball,” Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday when asked why Fant was a non-factor against Penn State until the fourth quarter. That would be pretty dumb on our part.”
I believe Ferentz when he says that because it would be dumb for the Iowa coaches to not take advantage of a 6-foot-5, 241-pound tight end who has a 42-inch vertical jump.
It was odd that Fant wasn’t in the game for Iowa’s final play against Penn State, which was supposed to be a Hail Mary throw from the Penn State 44-yard line. I like Iowa’s chances a lot more with Noah Fant on the field in that situation.
I also like Iowa’s chances a lot better with Noah Fant playing in the red zone where the offense has struggled this season.
"I would love to be in the red zone," Fant said. "That’s a great place to be at. You’re close to the end zone. That’s where I make a lot of my touchdowns at. Again, that’s one of those things where our coaches went with what they thought would get us there."
Fant isn’t blaming the coaches for anything, but he is shifting the responsibility to the coaches, and rightfully so, because who plays is the coaches’ responsibility.
One thing that has impacted Fant’s role this season is the emergence of fellow tight end T.J. Hockenson as a go-to option. Hockenson leads Iowa with 487 receiving yards, while Fant leads the team with 31 catches in eight games.
Both are having an all-Big Ten caliber season from a statistical standpoint, but both are also cutting into each other’s playing time and statistics.
Hockenson without question has benefited from Fant's reputation because defenses are now designed to stop Fant after what he accomplished last season.
Hockenson appears to be a better blocker than Fant and that might explain why Hockenson is used more at times because Iowa relies heavily on its rushing attack.
But for Fant to go the entire first half against Penn State without a target just seems odd or strange or wacky or whatever you want to call it.
It’s silly and unfair to think that the Iowa coaches are trying to hold Fant back because why? And who wins in that case?
I would like to think that Ferentz, and his assistant coaches, always have 11 players on the field that they believe give Iowa the best chance of being successful on each play.
Ferentz is way above being petty with playing time. And why would there be any reason for Ferentz to be petty in this case?
Ferentz has praised Fant throughout the season for being a good teammate, even after Fant’s brother had lashed out.
Ferentz also could point to Fant’s statistics to show that he is being utilized because Fant is on course to have the kind of numbers that rank among the best in a single season for an Iowa tight end.
And yet, Fant still has spent an unusual amount of time on the sideline this season for reasons that are hard to figure out.
At least, I think it's been an unusual amount of time on the sideline, but maybe the Iowa coaches feel differently.
There appears to be no friction between Fant and Hockenson as they both seem to have a genuine respect for each other and for the team-first mentality.
So I don't want to give the impression that Fant's playing time, or lack of it, is a big controversy that is hurting the team because there is no proof of that.
Again, it just seems strange how often he is on the sideline or not targeted.
Fant’s situation sort of reminds me of Tim Dwight’s senior season in 1997 when Dwight went through stretches where he didn’t touch the ball much despite being the team’s best receiver.
Dwight had fewer catches (42) and receiving yards (704) as a senior in 1997 than he had as a sophomore or junior.
But Dwight also finished his career as Iowa’s all-time leading receiver at the time, so he was featured in the offense.
Fant is also featured on offense, just not enough in my opinion.