IOWA CITY, Iowa — Noah Fant arrived at Iowa with the physical foundation to become a full-service tight end.
Fant’s gifts were too appealing to ignore and he wasn’t redshirted in 2016. He stood 6-foot-5, weighed 220 pounds, possessed wide receiver speed and a large frame that overwhelms defenders. Like most freshmen, Fant made mistakes last season, but he was so gifted that teammates saw something unique about him.
“Noah is a guy with special abilities, and he’s going to be an incredible player,” said Iowa tight end George Kittle in 2016. “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 and he did a really good job today with those reps. Just trying to build trust with him and he’s a guy you can count on right now.”
The San Francisco 49ers drafted Kittle last April and he put up a 100-yard game on Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams. It’s rare for a senior starter with NFL potential to say something so positive about a freshman. Then again, most freshmen weren’t built like Fant.
This season, Fant became the Big Ten’s most productive receiving tight end, and perhaps the most productive in all of college football. Among tight ends, Fant tied for the national lead in touchdown catches with 11, which ranked 11th of all pass catchers. Fant averaged 16.5 yards per catch, far more than any other tight end. He caught 30 passes for 494 yards and was Iowa’s greatest weapon in the passing game.
“He is a tremendous player,” quarterback Nate Stanley said after Fant’s 116-yard, 2-touchdown performance at Nebraska. “Obviously he can make explosive plays, and when he does it just makes the defense respect another almost wide receiver that can go out and make plays like he can.”
Fant came on so fast this season that All-Big Ten voters weren’t prepared to vote for him. Both the coaches and media selected him for third team despite Fant boasting numbers that dwarfed the other two tight ends. But that’s not going to happen next season, and Fant knows it.
In Iowa’s 27-20 Pinstripe Bowl victory against Boston College, Fant hauled in an 8-yard touchdown from Stanley. Fant ended his season just one score shy of Marvin McNutt’s Iowa record of 12 touchdown catches. McNutt set that mark in 2011 when he was named the Big Ten’s top wide receiver. Fant, of course, is a tight end.
At Iowa, tight end is a premium position. Kittle was the ninth tight end drafted under coach Kirk Ferentz and others have signed free-agent contracts. If you start as an Iowa tight end, you get a shot at the league. If you excel as an Iowa tight end, you start in the NFL.
Fant knows the hype is coming. It’s a given he’ll be preseason All-Big Ten this summer. It’s even likely he’ll be a preseason All-America tight end. It’s possible his image and likeness will adorn preseason magazine covers in May and June.
“You know what? That’s something that’s really cool to think about, but also I look at that as a big motivator,” Fant said. “I feel like if I do get that stuff or it does happen, I don’t want to let anybody down. I don’t want to underperform. I know this offseason I’ve got to work harder than I ever have. The biggest thing [is] that I look at it as a motivating factor. I’m definitely excited about it.”
Fant put in the work for this season’s success starting last January. He gained around 16 pounds, from 222 to 238. At Iowa, tight ends must block to play consistently. The extra weight allowed Fant to battle opposing defensive ends and linebackers without giving ground.
“I felt like I got a lot faster from that transition from my freshman year to my sophomore year,” Fant said. “Being able to put on pounds like that but also get faster and more athletic at the same time was something that was really special.”
Against Ohio State, Fant caught 2 touchdown passes, including one where he beat Buckeyes safety Jordan Fuller on a fade for a 25-yard score. As a native of Omaha, Neb., Fant’s 116-yard performance at Nebraska was meaningful. In the third quarter, Fant ran a short out route and then outraced Huskers defenders up the sideline for a 68-yard touchdown. He scored a 45-yard touchdown on a long crossing route against Minnesota. He added a 41-yard reception against Illinois.
With All-America accolades and NFL prospects in his future, Fant will attract plenty of attention for the upcoming season. But with his work ethic, character and physical prowess, he just might exceed the hype rather than fall victim to it.