Leistikow: Noah Fant's perplexing usage emblematic of Iowa Hawkeyes' free fall
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Noah Fant, the preseason all-American tight end, is not one of Iowa’s best players.
Fant’s presence in key situations would not give Iowa a better chance to win.
That’s the message being delivered, based on the Hawkeye coaching staff’s actions and even the words of Kirk Ferentz, in the aftermath of Iowa’s frustrating 14-10 loss to Northwestern on Saturday before 66,493 fans at Kinnick Stadium.
"Our coaches decided to get some other guys the ball," Fant said following a game in which he was targeted three times on quarterback Nate Stanley's 41 passing attempts, and finished with one catch for zero yards. "I’m not saying if it’s right or wrong. I’m not really sure. That’d be a better question for the coaching staff."
The question was asked to the head coach.
Ferentz's answer: “We’re playing the best guys out there that we feel are best for the situation that’s given.”
There you have it, from a 20th-year Hawkeye head coach with a storied track record of developing NFL-caliber tight ends.
He knows what he’s doing, right?
When talking about tight ends, no doubt we should defer to Ferentz … right?
There is an obvious disconnect — one that’s representative of the free fall of this 2018 Hawkeye team that lost a third straight game it had a chance to win in the fourth quarter and fell to 6-4.
Not using a guy who is projected to be a high pick in the 2019 NFL Draft seems, on the outside of things, unusual.
Unofficially, Fant played nine of Iowa’s 26 second-half snaps.
His lack of usage isn’t health-related, Fant said — “no lingering injuries” from shots to his ribs and head (a Game 5 concussion, after which he didn’t miss any games) earlier in the season.
“I’d love to play more. I’d love being out on the field,” Fant said. “But it’s their decision. It’d be nice if I could say, ‘I’m going to make a mandate and put myself on the field all the time.’ But that’s their job. That’s what they’re there for. That’s what they get paid money to do.”
It wasn’t anything Northwestern was doing to take Fant away, Stanley said.
“There were opportunities to throw him the ball,” Stanley said. “But it comes down to where he is in the progression, in the read.”
And it’s not anything he’s doing wrong in the locker room. Ferentz has repeatedly called Fant a great teammate.
But when push came to shove Saturday, and Iowa needed to rally from a 14-10 deficit in the fourth quarter, Fant was barely on the field.
Iowa’s standard “11” package included (for the most part), one running back, three receivers (usually Nick Easley, Ihmir Smith-Marsette and either Kyle Groeneweg, Max Cooper or Tyrone Tracy Jr.) and one tight end.
That one tight end was T.J. Hockenson, who absolutely was one of Iowa’s best players Saturday. He caught seven passes for 89 yards on his nine targets.
“If you’ve got ‘11’ personnel, you can only have one tight end out there,” Ferentz said. “And we’ve got two pretty good tight ends. So, T.J. would have been the guy of choice at that point.”
That would be a logical explanation if Iowa hadn’t used Fant split out wide frequently throughout the year in “12” personnel — one running back, two tight ends. It’s been the bread and butter of Fant’s career, and he’s caught 18 touchdown passes — 17 of them from Stanley over the past two seasons — that are a school record for tight ends.
But that wasn’t part of the plan Saturday to beat Northwestern.
That also wasn’t the plan in several key situations in a 30-24 loss at Penn State two weeks ago.
It’s hard to understand how a projected NFL millionaire isn’t a frequent primary target. Northwestern was without two of its four starting defensive backs Saturday, then lost its top cornerback (Montre Hartage) to a game-ending injury in the third quarter.
At that point, Iowa should have been determined to send 6-foot-5, 241-pound Fant — one of the team’s fastest players who has a 42-inch vertical jump — repeatedly into the Northwestern secondary. Throw him the fade pass into the corner of the end zone, not the rarely used fifth wide receiver, on the play before Miguel Recinos' failed 38-yard field goal with Iowa trailing, 7-3.
Chris Fant, Noah’s older brother (and a high school football coach in Omaha) who made headlines earlier this season by questioning Iowa’s coaching staff, was frustrated again Saturday night.
“Well I have said it (once) already; this mess doesn’t make any (sense) to me!” he tweeted in a post that was later deleted.
To be clear, Noah Fant was putting on a good face after the game. He smiled at times, even laughed a little bit with reporters. He’s not being an outwardly bitter teammate whatsoever. He just wants to play more.
Good for him for being candid about that. Good for Iowa for bringing him into the interview room instead of shielding his voice.
“I’ll always be 100 percent behind my family,” Fant said, acknowledging his brother’s frustration. “Our coaching staff is a pretty good coaching staff, and they know what they’re doing. They’ve had quite a few tight ends come through here and used them well. It’s just an overall belief in the system. And overall, I know there’s a plan. And it’ll all play itself out."
It sounds like there's more to the story than anyone's willing to say.
Maybe the goal-line interception at Penn State — in which Fant was caught flat-footed at the time of the critical snap — was indicative of a greater issue of trust between the coaches and star player.
On the outside, we're left to wonder ... why Fant's usage and the Hawkeyes' record are dwindling.
This team looked to be soaring three weeks ago, at 6-1.
Now, something doesn't add up — with how Fant is being used and the struggles of this once-impressive team.
"If you do have an opportunity, you have to cash in on it," Ferentz said. "And ... that's really emblematic of how well your season is going to go."
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.