Iowa Football

Iowa tight ends and receivers: Getting to the chain reaction

Yes, things might route through tight end Noah Fant and, yes, that should help everyone

Iowa Hawkeyes tight end Noah Fant (87) catches a pass while he is being photographed on the practice field at the Hansen Football Performance Center during the 2018 University of Iowa Football Media Day in Iowa City on Friday, August 10, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Iowa Hawkeyes tight end Noah Fant (87) catches a pass while he is being photographed on the practice field at the Hansen Football Performance Center during the 2018 University of Iowa Football Media Day in Iowa City on Friday, August 10, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — The goal is a chain reaction.

If the defense wants to take away Iowa tight end Noah Fant, something has to give. The something could be fellow tight end T.J. Hockenson, wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette, running back Ivory Kelly-Martin or who knows.

The goal is a chain reaction.

“If the defense is focused on me, it’ll open them up,” Fant said. “If the defenses focus on them, it’ll open me up. It’s team football and that’s really exciting for me. I totally believe my guys are going to get open and they’re going to catch the ball and they’re going to do what they’re supposed to do.”

Fant is the Iowa skill player with the profile. More often than not this season, he’ll be the one the defense has the eye in the back of its head on.

Fant, a junior, is 6-foot-5, 241 pounds and, last season, he demonstrated he knows routes, timing and can see the bigger concepts in what offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz wants to do with the offense. Fant set the school mark with 11 touchdown receptions to tie for the national lead among tight ends. His average of 16.5 yards per catch easily led the tight end category nationally and was third in the Big Ten, regardless of position. He finished with 30 catches for 494 yards.

“He’s always going to be able to run fast, he’s always going to be able to jump high (42-inch vertical this spring), he has real physical ability,” Brian Ferentz said. “The faster he picks up on the mental things and just the obvious things that will help him play faster, that’s where the growth will come.”

Fant earned his clicks on the opponent’s iPad when it comes to scouting Iowa. That happened last year. Part of what helped deliver a great season for Fant was the way Iowa moved him around and found matchups. Fant motioned left and all of the sudden a 5-11 corner is trying to defend him on purposely targeted high pass.

There’s no knowing that now. Everything is based on what the defense wants to take away. So the “motioning Fant” and the “finding mismatches” questions don’t get very far, but that is obviously something Brian Ferentz has considered and has already practiced.

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“I think we have to move him around a little bit to find those spots,” Ferentz said. “ ... It’ll be a constantly evolving challenge. I can see him being in one spot one week and a different spot the next, maybe in the same spot two weeks in a row. It’s going to be dependent on how we’re being played.”

In the spring, when the season was still a dot on the map, Ferentz added some specifics.

“If Noah Fant can go in there and be an in-line guy and be a serious blocker where they (the defense) have to respect closing down both C-gaps or putting him in a wing or bringing him out of the backfield, then it’s going to limit what they can do defensively, and certainly it’s going to make for more opportunity for him,” he said.

Fant even rolls his eyes at the Fant hype train. It’s been full speed all summer. When he gets the chance, he mentions Iowa’s other potential playmakers and he gets excited.

With Stanley, Fant, Hockenson, Smith-Marsette and wide receiver Brandon Smith, Iowa’s passing game has a chance to rise to weapons-grade this season.

“I can’t really make a prediction,” Fant said. “I feel good about the guys who’ve put the work in and really focused on getting better. I was mentioning those names before with T.J. and Ihmir and Brandon, I’ve seen those guys do some amazing things and I think they will do amazing things for us.”

Hockenson already has. Last season, he caught 24 passes for 320 yards and there TDs (13.33 per reception). He’s kind of stuck on the fact that, yeah, he and Fant have had the one big year. The grind is now for another one.

“We’re all trying to get better, that’s our big thing,” the Chariton native said. “We need to try to get better when we go out to practice. We can’t let a day slip away.”

Iowa is going to be TE centric this year. Last fall, Ferentz explained why Iowa is TE centric. Iowa has a proven track record for recruiting and developing tight ends. It was the crux of what got Fant to pass on Nebraska and move to Iowa City. When Iowa has excellent tight ends who can run, it can stretch a defense and attack anywhere it wants.

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Did the Ohio State game last season excite you? Fant and Hockenson combined on nine receptions for 125 yards and four TDs.

Good tight ends are tough for defenses to defend.

“Tight end is a position that’s unique, just like the linebacker and safety positions that have to cover them,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “If you get a guy like Noah Fant, who’s a tight end but has almost receiver-like skills, it poses some problems and forces you to make some decisions defensively, how you want to defend the guy.

“We can expect him to get a little more attention this year, not that he wasn’t last year. Hopefully, that’ll open some other things up for some other guys on the field.”

The goal is a chain reaction.

Huddle Up: Iowa WR/TE

WR — During Aug. 11’s Kids Day, head coach Kirk Ferentz said Iowa’s receiver rotation was basically four players. They’d love to add two more.

SPLIT END

Brandon Smith — The 6-3, 219-pound sophomore caught three passes last season. He got some good grades from WR coach Kelton Copeland in the spring. Brian Ferentz put a pin in that. “What Brandon needs to do is keep developing because I don’t know if he’s demonstrated he is a playmaker yet. If we can get him to become one, boy, that would be terrific.”

Kyle Groeneweg — Sat out last season after transferring in from University of Sioux Falls, a Division II school. Kirk Ferentz has said Groeneweg (5-10, 186) has impressed and is the front-runner for punt return.

SLOT

Nick Easley — The senior (5-11, 205) has some measurables that will open your eyes. He led Iowa with 51 receptions last season. He duplicates that and he’s among the best and maybe the best slot receiver of the Ferentz era.

Ihmir Smith-Marsette — Speed is there. Smith-Marsette has the inside track on kick return. He has a chance to become a big-play maker (as opposed to a big playmaker) and probably a player fans really love.

TE — It’s a S.W.A.T. team.

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Noah Fant — Don’t worry if he stays or jets to the money league. Enjoy the ride. “He’s a mismatch problem for a lot of different people,” QB Nate Stanley said. “He’s as fast as a receiver and he’s as big as a linebacker. He poses a lot of problems to a lot of different people.”

T.J. Hockenson — He does everything well. Strong blocker, good hands, sees the game the way he needs to. Keep doing what you’re doing.

Nate Wieting — The 6-4, 250-pounder is Hockenson-like. Blocking got him on the map. Injuries have kept him from getting a lot of looks in the receiving game. That should happen this year with good health.

Shaun Beyer — The 6-5, 240-pound Cedar Rapids Kennedy grad showed up and was targeted in the Pinstripe Bowl. His profile should start to move forward this season. Probably more Fant-like with some speed.

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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