Leistikow: The Noah Fant question still doesn't have a satisfactory answer

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — For the first time since his “we needed to talk” press conference in January 2015, Kirk Ferentz went to the lectern inside the All-American Room of the Hansen Football Performance Center knowing he would be answering questions about a three-game losing streak.

The 20th-year Iowa football coach was prepared, purposeful and self-aware with opening remarks that covered six of his 24 minutes Tuesday in front of media members.

“Just looking backwards for a second,” Ferentz began, “last weekend was a defining weekend for a lot of teams in college football, and certainly a pivotal one for our football team.”

Noah Fant, right, reacts to scoring one of his two touchdowns against Wisconsin on Sept. 22. Fant has been held without a touchdown in Iowa's last four games.

A 14-10 home loss to Northwestern, he acknowledged, clinched that this season did not go how the Hawkeyes thought it could go. Everything Ferentz and the coaches saw from this team since January created “guarded optimism” that a Big Ten Conference championship was possible.

“You go through a lot, and then August rolls around and there's a lot of hope and optimism,” he said, “and we certainly felt that way.”

The Hawkeyes went from 6-1 and a College Football Playoff hopeful to 6-4 after three losses by a combined 12 points against Penn State, Purdue and West Division-winner Northwestern.

“Certainly, the first seven weeks went better for us than the last three,” Ferentz said, “and that's certainly disappointing for each and every one of us.”

Then his comments — and later the questions — turned to the baffling storyline of the 2018 season: the sudden, diminished role of preseason all-America tight end Noah Fant.

Ferentz, without naming the freakish athletic junior who has 18 career touchdowns and is a projected high NFL Draft pick, addressed in his opening remarks “personnel issues” that came to a head against Northwestern (with Fant not playing in the final 8 minutes, 53 seconds as Iowa tried to rally).

“As you can well imagine, our first goal as a team is to win,” Ferentz said, “and then our secondary goals are to score points offensively and stop points on the defensive side.

“We spent a lot of time evaluating our team, looking at the team, watching them, and then week to week trying to figure out what gives us the best chance to do those two things. ... It's a little bit complex.”

Fant had his chance Saturday to speak about playing time. He wants more, he confirmed. He trusts the coaches, he continued. And he’s fully healthy, he assured.

So, that was the backdrop to more Fant conversation that followed Tuesday.

Ferentz was asked to take another crack at explaining his rationale. He admitted he didn't handle it the best Saturday night.

Ferentz reiterated that sophomore T.J. Hockenson is a fabulous tight end, too, and deserves to be on the field for almost every snap (as he is). Nobody disputes that. The outside contention is that both players deserve to be among the 11 regulars on offense that Iowa uses to score points.

“I would compare him more to a specialist position,” Ferentz said of Fant. “But nonetheless, he's an outstanding football player, and we've tried to get him the ball, and we'll continue to try to get him the ball.”

A specialist? Only if he means "scoring specialist," as Fant is the school’s all-time leader in tight-end touchdowns.

Ferentz was asked if eight or nine second-half snaps for Fant is enough.

It’s not like the Northwestern game was the first curious bout of use. Fant wasn’t targeted once in the first half at Penn State and stood on the sidelines there during 75 percent of Iowa’s snaps inside the 10-yard line and during the Hail Mary at the end of that game.

“We went back and looked at everything,” Ferentz said, “and we'll try to keep him involved and get him involved. … We're going to be a better team if we can get him the ball.”

That was a better answer. (Putting him on the field first is a good starting point.)

Just to be sure, Ferentz was asked about any lingering issues with Fant's character or animosity. (His brother has twice tweeted displeasure about how Noah is being used.)

“He's a great kid,” Ferentz said. “So, there's no issues there at all, and that's hardly the deal.”

So ... what is the deal? 

Ferentz did confirm that he lets his coordinators and assistants determine playing time, in most cases. That means more responsibility for getting Fant on the field lies with his son — offensive coordinator (and tight ends coach) Brian Ferentz — than him.

The head coach’s answers Tuesday left the Fant issue exactly where it stood Saturday night: prominent.

This wouldn’t be getting as much attention if Iowa was winning ballgames.

Iowa tight end Noah Fant (87) looks over his shoulder during an NCAA Big Ten conference football game on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

And that’s what this is really all about.

In Iowa’s 14 games prior to Penn State, Fant had 14 touchdown catches.

During Iowa’s three-game losing streak, he’s had zero.

The best way for the Ferentzes to resolve the Fant issue is to put him on the field frequently at Illinois … and call plays to get him the ball ... and win Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. game against the defensively challenged Illini.

“There's still a lot of good moments we can have if we'll stick with it,” Kirk Ferentz said, getting back to the 2018 team's big picture. "And that's the goal right now.”

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.