Leistikow: Noah Fant's uncertain status vs. Indiana outweighs snap-count fuss

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — When Iowa tight end Noah Fant takes the football field, opponents notice.

His teammates do, too.

“When I’m on the field when I’ve got Noah to my side,” sophomore receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette said, “I notice how focused the (defensive backs) or linebackers are focused on Noah.”

Tight end T.J. Hockenson, left, is Iowa's team leader in receiving yards (287). Tight end Noah Fant, right, is Iowa's leader in receptions (19) and touchdowns (five). The pair has combined for 37 catches for 483 yards and seven receiving touchdowns. Hockenson also has a rushing TD.

They shout Fant’s number, 87, as they make sure the Hawkeyes’ preseason all-American is accounted for — usually with some kind of double team. That means Iowa’s wide receivers might get single coverage.

“When that happens,” Smith-Marsette continued, “it puts a little smile on my face.”

Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley has thrown 56 percent of his nine touchdown passes this season to Fant, who leads the team in receptions (19) and is tied for the FBS lead among tight ends with those five TDs.

“A lot of times when he is on the field,” Stanley said, “that’s the person that can make the biggest play and who has the biggest mismatch.”

So, it’s no wonder that there is concern that Fant might not be available for Saturday’s game at Indiana (11 a.m. CT, ESPN2). Fant was injured running a fourth-quarter jet sweep against Minnesota. As he was tackled, Fant’s head slammed to the turf; he staggered a bit to the sideline and did not return.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz on Tuesday did not clarify whether Fant or running back Ivory Kelly-Martin, who took a helmet-to-helmet hit in the fourth quarter, was going through concussion protocol. But he did say that a decision about their status against the Hoosiers would be determined Friday.

“The medical people make those decisions,” Ferentz said. “And then if a guy clears with the medical staff, then we have to see if they look good on the field.”

Iowa’s mantra for injured players is “Next Man In.”

But there really is no duplicating the threat that Fant, a speedy 6-foot-5, 241 pounds, brings to the huddle. He is Iowa’s top red-zone target; his 17 career touchdown catches are already tied for fourth-most in program history.

The Hawkeye offense is built around the mismatches that its two talented tight ends, Fant and sophomore T.J. Hockenson, create. Hockenson’s 18 receptions are one behind Fant for the team lead.

They make each other — and the rest of the team — better.

“They have the ability to make just as big a play as the receivers do,” Stanley said.

When Hockenson is on one side of the line of scrimmage and Fant is on the other, defenses must decide how to line up.

Play tight to the line for the run? Play softer for the pass? And to which side should the personnel shift?

“That’s the great thing about having Noah and I out there,” Hockenson said. “We can be on opposite sides of the ball and they set the front to his side, and maybe they should’ve set it to mine. Or they set it to my side, and they should’ve set it to his.”

Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz has the luxury of lining both on the same side, too, and either power run out of those formations or throw it downfield. 

“They’re starting to trust us in the run game a little more,” Hockenson said, “to be able to do things that maybe they didn’t last year.”

Hockenson (6-5, 250) leads the team in receiving yards (287) … and tight-end snaps.

That last part has become a sticking point for a vocal minority of observers, including with Fant’s older brother. Chris Fant, a head football coach in their hometown of Omaha, tweeted after Iowa’s 48-31 win against Minnesota that “it’s hard to believe a player who is arguably the best at his position only plays sometimes. Hard to watch that mess over and over!”

Kirk Ferentz was made aware of those comments before he handled his weekly Tuesday news conference. According to Pro Football Focus, Hockenson has played 284 snaps this season to Fant’s 193 and third tight end Nate Wieting’s 105.

“I don't really have much to say about it,” Ferentz said. “We're trying to do things that we think are best for the team, whether it's how we sub on defense; same thing on offense. And the bottom line is, as I said after the game, we've got two really good tight ends right now. And they both play really critical roles on our team.”

Of course, whether Fant’s snap count is zero this week or closer to his season average of 38.6 is the far more pressing concern for Ferentz.

As the coach’s answer continued about Fant, he pointed to his left, toward the portraits of Iowa’s 25 consensus all-Americans. And he insisted that Fant’s approach and attitude are consistent with those of past offensive stars like Brad Banks, Fred Russell, Dallas Clark and Shonn Greene — who didn’t worry about snap counts.

“I can't remember anybody ever coming in and complaining about like, ‘Hey, I'm not getting the ball enough or not enough routes for me’ or not enough touches,” Ferentz said. “I would throw Noah in that category.

"He's been great. Hopefully, we'll have him back this week. It would really help us if he's there."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.