IOWA CITY, Iowa — Tight end Noah Fant flexed about 5 feet outside of Iowa left tackle Boone Myers but inside of two wide receivers on third-and-goal at the Purdue 5-yard line.
Fant, a true freshman, drove hard to the goal line, then sprinted for the end zone’s left corner. Fant broke past Purdue safety Navon Mosley, and Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard flung a pass near the sideline. Fant caught the ball at the edge of play and shuffled his feet.
Officials ruled the catch was out of bounds. Then replays showed Fant stepping down with his left foot before his right foot landed outside the boundary. Touchdown.
That catch gave Fant his first career touchdown and pushed Iowa’s lead to four touchdowns midway through the third quarter. It was a good route, a nice catch and a score in a blowout game. It also provided a glimpse of Fant’s potential for both this year and the future.
“A guy who made a really nice effort today, Noah Fant, with that touchdown catch there,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said after the game. “That was a good sign.”
An emerging second tight end is vital for Iowa’s chances of repeating as West Division champions. In recent years, Iowa has used two or three tight ends in starring roles. This season, senior George Kittle is a prime-time performer but Iowa’s other tight ends have combined for 4 catches — all of them from Fant. Three of Fant’s catches have come in the last two games.
Fant, who stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 220 pounds, left Omaha, Neb., shortly after high school graduation and moved to Iowa City. He developed a rapport with quarterback C.J. Beathard during summer workouts, which impressed Ferentz. There was nothing guaranteed about immediate playing time but the opportunity was available.
“They could see him potentially earning some time,” said Chris Fant, Noah’s older brother and the Omaha South High School head football coach, “but it would have to be something that he would really earn and work his butt off to do. A Big Ten school, a kid coming in as a true freshman and playing right away, they were very upfront with him that this task was a pretty big task to live up to. They told him that possibility was there, but it would be completely up to him, whether he could learn the offense enough and put on enough weight to be able to play at that level.”
Fant played in Iowa’s first game and has caught 4 passes for 21 yards and a score. He saw extended action against Purdue after Kittle suffered a foot injury. Like many true freshmen, the results were mixed.
In a communication mix-up, Fant blocked the wrong player, which led to a vicious sack of Beathard. Fant sat out for a while, then returned to play much of the second half. He finished with 2 catches for 15 yards.
Both Beathard and Kittle like Fant’s potential. He’s still growing as a complete tight end, as his blocking shows. But his receiving abilities make him a threat.
“Noah is a guy with special abilities and he’s going to be an incredible player,” Kittle said after Fant caught 1 pass for 4 yards at Minnesota. “He already is an incredible player. He’s still learning things and he’s incredibly fast and he can do about anything he wants. We’re just trying to get him involved and give him some reps.”
“(Fant is) a good matchup guy,” Beathard said before the Purdue game. “He can run really fast, he runs good routes, and he’s got good hands as well.”
Fant has a chance to make a real impact in the season’s final month. He put himself in that position with a competitive streak to be the best and a work ethic to match, Chris Fant said.
“It sounds a little cliché to say, yeah, I kind of expected (Noah to have early success), but I really did,” said Chris Fant, who is 10 years older than Noah. “A young man like that with that athletic ability, he was blessed and with that work ethic, the sky’s the limit for him.”