Leistikow: What makes Iowa's Noah Fant one of college football's most tantalizing talents
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Noah Fant has now been on Iowa’s campus for more than two years since leaving his home state of Nebraska to play football for the neighboring Hawkeyes.
Yet his parents, who rooted for the Cornhuskers until their son’s college choice changed their allegiance, are still hearing about it back home in Omaha.
“When Scott Frost (became Nebraska’s coach),” his mother, Kathy, says, “everybody was asking us if he was going to transfer.”
Fant’s father, Willie, interjects with a laugh: “That ship has sailed.”
It’s no wonder Fant is viewed as a recruit who got away. One Nebraska beat reporter called it a “massive whiff” that the Huskers' previous coaching staff couldn't keep Fant from crossing enemy lines.
Heading into his junior season at Iowa, Fant is considered by many to be the top tight end in college football. His image adorned a regional cover of Phil Steele’s annual preview magazine. And he’s being floated as a high NFL Draft pick in 2019, if he turns pro early.
“It’s worked out,” Noah Fant says. “My plan was to come here and do big things with the opportunity that I have. I feel like my career so far has gone all right. I feel like I can keep improving on it, though.”
After pulling in 11 touchdown receptions in 2017 — tops by any player in the Big Ten Conference and tied for first among tight ends nationally — the hype for Fant’s third year at Iowa has continued to build.
The question now is: Can he deliver?
His skill set is undeniably unique.
Fant’s Iowa career to date has been a fast and steady rise, which offers encouragement that his best is yet to come.
He’s always had tantalizing athletic ability. A multi-sport athlete, his Omaha South High School team won a state basketball championship his senior year. As a sophomore, his thunderous fast-break dunk in a game once destroyed a hydraulic hoop.
“I was a power dunker,” he says with a laugh.
In football, he had more than a dozen major scholarship offers but ultimately was sold on longtime coach Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa program’s history of developing elite tight ends. (Dallas Clark, the 2002 Mackey Award winner who became a favorite target of Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, is the quintessential example.)
Fant arrived at Iowa carrying 220 pounds on his 6-foot-5 frame. Now, after two years with strength coach Chris Doyle, he’s at a muscular 243.
“It’s been good weight,” Fant says. “I haven’t lost any speed. I’m jumping higher than I ever have before.”
He’s set three of the four Ferentz-era team performance records for tight ends — the pro-agility drill; the 10-yard dash; and, most notably, the vertical jump.
His vertical leap of 42.1 inches during offseason testing would rank higher than any tight end at the NFL Combine in the past seven years.
Perhaps even more remarkably, it would've topped any jump recorded at this year's NBA Combine.
Forty-two-plus inches. For a guy who blocks more than half the time he's on the football field.
"Crazy athlete," Hawkeye quarterback Nate Stanley says.
It’s that kind of freaky ability that gives Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz — who in 2011 was Rob Gronkowski's position coach with the New England Patriots — a slew of creative options in scheme and play calling.
"He’s improved dramatically over the past two years, and hopefully that continues," Ferentz says. "What makes him unique as a football player is he can essentially play multiple positions."
Fant can serve as an "in-line" tight end — lining up in a three-point stance and either blocking a defensive end or running into traffic for over-the-middle catches.
He’s been extremely effective as a “move” tight end — one who can function as a fullback or a slot receiver, depending on the defense.
And he can even dabble as a traditional wide receiver — lining up near the sideline, as he did before catching a tie-breaking touchdown in what eventually became a 55-24 rout of then-No. 3 Ohio State in November.
“You’re going to have to pick your poison on what you’re going to try to defend the most,” Fant says. “That’s where our offensive coordinator comes in, and he decides where he wants to go with their weakness. It’s going to be a fun game to play, and we have a lot of weapons to play that game with.”
A Saturday of adversity brought him to tears and inspired a response.
Kathy Fant received a text message from her son the morning of Oct. 21 — game-day at Northwestern. Noah was sad that the cross necklace he would normally wear underneath his game gear had broken.
“His day started on the wrong note,” she says.
Several hours later, Kathy would be comforting her son in person at Ryan Field, but for a different reason. The Hawkeyes had lost in overtime, 17-10, after he dropped a fourth-and-3 pass from Stanley that ended the game.
It would've been a first down; maybe a tying touchdown. Instead, it was a Hawkeye loss.
Fant’s eyes welled with tears in postgame interviews. When he found his parents, he lost it.
“I was standing in my mom’s arms for probably 25 minutes,” he says now. “It hit me hard.”
Willie Fant remembers encouraging his son: “You learn from this experience, and it’ll make you a stronger and better player.’”
Fant took his father's advice to heart.
After returning to Iowa City, he re-watched the entire Northwestern game — a loss that dropped the Hawkeyes’ record to 4-3 overall, 1-3 in Big Ten play.
He was better than that, he knew. His team was better than that.
“I needed to grow,” Fant says. “Something as simple as taking your eyes off the ball for just one second can end a game.”
From that point on, Fant’s production exploded. The following week, he found redemption with a 45-yard touchdown grab in a 17-10 win against Minnesota — another program that recruited him hard. After the TD, he broke into a “Row the Boat” celebration — a product of the emotions he experienced during a difficult week.
“I got a little flak for it,” he says. “The funny thing is I don’t plan that stuff. It was spur of the moment."
He would end up scoring seven touchdowns in Iowa's six post-Northwestern games — including two against Ohio State, then two more at Nebraska in the regular-season finale.
Final score in that one: Hawkeyes 56, Cornhuskers 14.
Fant's stats in his first game wearing a Tigerhawk helmet inside Memorial Stadium: Three catches, 116 yards, two TDs.
“I’m not going to lie to you, it felt good. I was back in my home state. Especially with all the people (chirping) about me going to Iowa and choosing Iowa over Nebraska,” Fant says. “As a recruit and as a player, you don’t forget those things that fans have said.
“Going back home and being able to have a game like that and make a couple big plays, that felt good. Felt real good.”
On the NFL: 'His best football is way in front of him.'
The only Iowa speed-and-agility record for a tight end that Fant doesn’t hold: The 40-yard-dash. At Iowa, players don’t run the 40 — until their pro day.
There’s already speculation Fant will get that chance come March.
In ESPN analyst Todd McShay’s “way-too-early” mock NFL Draft for 2019, he had Fant as the No. 1-ranked tight end and going 12th overall. (Of note: McShay batted .375, 12 of 32, on predicting the 2018 first round a year out.)
USA TODAY's Jacob Infante tweeted in May that Fant "has the potential to be better than any tight end prospect from the 2018 NFL Draft."
“When they say it’s way too early … yeah, it’s way too early,” Kathy Fant says.
Says Willie: “Like I told him, you haven’t played a down of football for this next year. You still have two years of eligibility left. Let’s just take that one day at a time, and hopefully you have a good season. At that point, it would be an interesting decision.”
For all the love that Fant is deservedly getting — he was named preseason first-team all-America by Athlon Sports — an argument could be made that he wasn’t even the best Hawkeye tight end in 2017. T.J. Hockenson, a redshirt freshman, had just six fewer receptions (24) than Fant and played far more snaps because of his ability to block in the trenches.
“He’s received a lot of press, a lot of accolades, a lot of adulation. And that’s all good. I think that comes from the fact that he was very productive last year,” Ferentz says of Fant. “... He did a lot of things that a lot of people that create these teams are looking at. But from our perspective — and hopefully his perspective — I don’t think we’re really close to where we need to be.
"He’s many years away from (his ceiling). His best football is way in front of him.”
Fant hears that message from his coaches, and understands this is a prove-it year. He's going to get a lot of attention from opposing defenses, to be sure.
The NFL buzz, he says, is “cool to hear. But also at the same time, it’s one of those things where I know I have a whole season to play. I don’t want to be this bust that has a good season, then a bad season.”
If he maintains his rapidly rising trajectory, he'll have a chance to follow the path of his 2017 roommate: cornerback Josh Jackson, who turned pro a year early after an all-America junior season and became a second-round pick of the Green Bay Packers.
"I really, sincerely hope we’re having this conversation in January," Ferentz says. "That’s going to mean he played well.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.