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Reexamining Noah Fant’s 2018 Season

Diving into the numbers tells a different story about the Iowa tight end and his place within the offense

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NCAA Football: Iowa at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The further we get away from the 2018 season, the more tertiary questions regarding Noah Fant’s usage seem.

Looking back through the takes immediately surrounding the Northwestern loss, it seemed like the world was falling. Everyone seemed to think Kirk Ferentz was misguided, including myself.

There are clear indicators that was the case. After all, look at the way Fant attracted attention on Iowa’s only touchdown of that game:

Four guys committed to Fant on this play and it opened up the seam for Ihmir Smith-Marsette. Why he wasn’t on the field throughout much of the fourth quarter is indefensible. He was largely absent against Penn State or Purdue until it was absolutely necessary and he jumpstarted Iowa’s offense in both cases: a nearly 100% focus to him with the game on the line against PSU, and with a screen pass he took 65 yards when Iowa was down 15 to Purdue. He received just two targets, both against Purdue, in the games’ first halves.

Sometimes it felt like he was Iowa’s “break in case of emergency” fire extinguisher. Until he wasn’t.

And then he was gone.

I also won’t understand the passive aggression Kirk Ferentz displayed throughout the year, culminating in an on-brand quote for Iowa’s press release: “We are disappointed Noah will not be finishing the season with his teammates. He is a tremendous athlete and we wish him the best as he pursues his goal of playing in the NFL.”

Noah Fant was defined by athleticism coming out of high school. Many schools, most notably his home state Nebraska Cornhuskers, had him pegged as a defensive end. Not Iowa, though.

Kirk Ferentz offered him an opportunity at tight end and Fant ran with it. He left Iowa City as an all-time great tight end in pads and gym shorts, which makes his usage a bit of an enigma at face value. Every time he touched the ball, it seemed like he was the best athlete on the field. Athleticism was his hallmark throughout his Iowa career and it will continue into the NFL.

In contrast to Fran McCaffery’s goal of positionless basketball, Kirk views skill position players as strictly positional. It is rare to see anyone line up where you would not expect them: tight ends out wide or alongside the quarterback, running backs in the slot. It all plays into the Belichickian “do your job” mantra which emanates from the Hansen Football Complex, though the Belichick comparisons should stop there.

Despite the outcry throughout the season, both receptions and yardage were up for Fant in 2018, at 39 for 518 yards which was a decrease of about three yards per catch. His touchdowns went down by four, to seven, but it still led the team. He finished his career as Iowa’s tight end leader for touchdown receptions, with 19. Through any other lens, Fant had an impressive season and career.

It is just that the lens we see things through is the TE1 for Iowa football was more important to the down-to-down lifestyle of a Ferentzian offense. Since T.J. Hockenson was the superior blocker, his presence was required on every down by Kirk and Brian as they tried to achieve balance and shove the square-pegged zone blocking scheme into the round hole of the modern collegiate football game. His talent allowed him to be the most omnipresent skill player for Iowa and achieve the most receptions and yards of any Iowa tight end under Kirk Ferentz. Only a swan song Outback Bowl from Nick Easley prevented Hockenson from being the first tight end to lead the team in receptions since Scott Chandler in 2005.

As such, it moved Fant down a peg. He became Iowa’s most prolific TE2 since…2017 when Hockenson had 24 catches. Only a handful of first-string tight ends had more receptions or yards during Ferentz’s tenure than Fant did as the second. Typical TE2s for Iowa often accumulate 10-20 receptions on a year, as they are more often viewed as the requirement to goose the run game. 2018 and even 2017 showed a willingness to rely on the tight end as pass catching options, with the two finishing second and third on the team in receptions.

Together, Hockenson and Fant made up a comparable allocation of offense as Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in 2011 when Brian Ferentz coached tight ends in New England. Gronk and Hernandez accounted for 42% of receptions and 43% of receiving yards that season. Hockenson and Fant had 36% of receptions and 48% of receiving yards in 2018. Receptions did, however, tilt more towards Hockenson as a proportion of Iowa’s offense than Gronkowski’s for the Patriots.

With these kinds of numbers, it is clear Brian Ferentz built Iowa’s offense around their talents. I mean, what would have been the right mix if not that? Like Brian said during bowl preparation, at some point an offense leans too much on an individual.

As the calendar turns towards the NFL Draft, it is clear the relationship between Noah Fant and Kirk Ferentz was mutually beneficial. Fant was able to excel at the position Iowa gets into the NFL as prolifically as any other. Kirk Ferentz won the right football games to keep people happy.

Once Fant gets drafted, it ends the narrative between him and Ferentz while allowing him to begin his own at the next level.