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Iowa tight end Noah Fant on getting more involved in the offense against Illinois, and whether he thinks he's being underutilized Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Noah Fant got his two feet into the end zone again Saturday, the 19th touchdown of his Iowa football career.

But if you assume Fant, the ultra-talented tight end who has had a mystifying junior season, already has one foot in the NFL, think again.

“It’s going to be my decision to make and I think everybody knows that,” Fant said after Iowa’s 63-0 victory over Illinois. “If my grade isn’t where I want it to be, then it’s time to go back to college.”

Fant was referring to the grade NFL prospects receive from the College Advisory Committee in late December. It’s a projection of how high they’re likely to be drafted. It’s the process Iowa juniors Josh Jackson and James Daniels went through a year ago. Both opted to leave school early. Both were selected in the second round.

Fant, at 6-foot-4 with a 42-inch vertical leap and wide receiver’s speed, is considered a first-round pick by most prognosticators. He’s well aware of that. But he wants to hear it from the people who count first.

“I still plan on being here another year,” he said after catching three passes for 54 yards against Illinois.

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“I think everyone in that situation that’s been scouted and kind of got some hype around their name, you will have a meeting with the coach and get that feedback and what round they think you’ll go in and then make a decision off of that.”

Fant doesn’t doubt his ability. He knows his skills translate to the pass-happy NFL. But he said his mind is still open. He’ll meet with Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz after the Hawkeyes’ regular season ends Friday. He’ll discuss his options with his family.

More on Iowa's win:

Fant has also seen what former Hawkeye tight end George Kittle is doing as a member of the San Francisco 49ers (50 catches for 775 yards and three touchdowns). They are still close.

“They’re really targeting him and giving him the ball a lot,” Fant said of Kittle. “I expected that from him going into the league. It’s great to see his talents getting used. It’s good to see him flourish.”

And that brings us back to the storyline that has dominated Fant’s season. He had been on the field for only 55.3 percent of Iowa’s snaps entering Saturday’s game. The issue of his playing time came to a head after last Saturday’s 14-10 loss to Northwestern when Fant caught only a single pass for zero yards and appeared in only nine second-half snaps.

Ferentz called Fant a “specialist” in Tuesday’s news conference, a contrast to sophomore tight end T.J. Hockenson, who he sees as more versatile. Hockenson is having a terrific season, turning both of his targets Saturday into touchdowns. He has six of them this season, one less than Fant. He leads Iowa with 663 receiving yards.

Ferentz’s description of the tight end with the most touchdown catches in program history raised more than a few eyebrows. It made its way back to Fant as well.

“I guess if the coaching staff wants to say that, I’ll make my role as a specialist as big as it can be,” Fant said Saturday.

Ferentz said after Saturday’s win, the 150th of his Iowa head-coaching career, that there were no “major conversations” this week about getting Fant more playing time.

“We’re a better team, obviously, if the tight ends are involved and are doing well. He had a good week,” Ferentz said of Fant.

Fant played the first 25 snaps of Saturday’s game. He said no one told him that would be the case, but that he had gotten more reps in practice and sensed he was going to be used more.

He scored Iowa’s first touchdown, on a 9-yard mesh route in man-to-man coverage. He simply beat his defender, grabbed quarterback Nate Stanley’s pass and cruised into the end zone. It had been five games since he’d been there.

“It felt long-needed,” Fant said.

Fant later tellingly delivered some noticeable blocks. He pancaked one Illini defender to seal a wall for a 17-yard Toren Young run in the first quarter. He stood in front of Stanley and picked up a pass-rusher on a touchdown pass to Hockenson.

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Fant said he believes his blocking abilities are overlooked. But he also acknowledged the need for improvement there. He’s not at Kittle’s level in that aspect of playing tight end.

Stanley said he was happy to see Fant get back on the scoreboard. He was glad to have his blocking help as well.

“That just shows that everybody on the team is going to do what’s best for the team,” Stanley said of Fant’s timely pass-block. “Nobody’s out here being selfish about their playing time, about their catches, about touchdowns.”

Still, for the first time in a while, Fant had some of each of those in a Hawkeye uniform. Now, it’s a question of how much longer he’ll be wearing one.

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