As the Broncos head toward training camp, DenverBroncos.com is again taking a detailed look at several members of this year’s rookie class. And aside from Denver’s coaching staff, who better to call than their college coaches? These players honed their techniques while at school, and their coaches know better than most what to expect from these rookies.
This year’s series begins with Kirk Ferentz, Iowa’s longtime head coach who worked with first-round pick Noah Fant for three years in Iowa City.
Aric DiLalla: Could you offer me a scouting report on his game?
Kirk Ferentz: “He was a guy that really jumped out to us in recruiting. Pretty obvious he was a good talent, and he was a really good high school football player in Omaha and, actually, a multi-sport athlete. But pertaining to football, he was a really good tight end prospect. We also thought he was a really good defensive end prospect. The obvious part of that is his speed. He can use that to his advantage. He was a two-way player in high school, did a really nice job and when he came here, we were thrilled that he decided to come to Iowa — and more thrilled when he showed up and started playing for us.”
AD: How do you think his game translates to the NFL level?
KF: “Well, the thing that really separates him from not [just] most tight ends I’ve been around but probably all tight ends I’ve been around is just his speed. I have no idea what the record for the Combine would be for the fastest 40[-yard dash] by a tight end, but I can't imagine there have been many guys that run faster than Noah does or are as capable of running. I would also say, his 40 time that he did have at the Combine is good. It’s really fast. But it’s probably not reflective. To me, he’s faster than the [4.5] 40 time I saw posted. He’s got really exceptional speed, and that’s the first thing that jumps out about him. In the NFL, speed is at a premium at any position. To be able to move, I think it really differentiates players as they move up the ladder. He certainly has that ability. That really can cause problems for a defensive team.”
AD: What made him so good for you guys in the red zone?
KF: “Two things. He can run, but there’s not as much room down there. But he’s got size and extension, good reach. So again, it’s unusual to have a guy with his size that can run like he can run. That ties back to the question a minute ago. He’s a good blocker, as well, so it’s not like he’s just a receiver who lines up at tight end. He’s a very capable blocker.”
AD: At what point did you realize that Noah was a guy that could go in the first round of the draft?
KF: “I’m not going to say we knew it three years ago, but it’s pretty obvious. When you recruit guys, it’s like the draft, it is a projection. We have a lot less information than the NFL people do, so there’s a little bit of a leap of faith. He was pretty easy to evaluate on film, but until a guy gets in your program and you’re on the field with him, it’s still a little bit different. Pretty much when we got started back in ’16 with him, it was pretty obvious. When a really good player walks into your program with a real unusual skill set, that kind of jumps out at you. I don’t know that any of us would’ve signed a contract saying that he was a first rounder, but I think all of us would’ve signed anything that said this guy could be a first rounder in three years. I don’t think any of us would’ve refused to say that, because he had that kind of potential. And then the most important thing is he worked hard to use that potential. I think as the numbers show, he did a heck of a job. He was very productive for us. But it was a process. His first year, he didn’t play all that much or have that much production, but one critical thing I remember is that he made a big conversion for us. We were going in against Nebraska in ’16 and I’m pretty sure it was a fourth-down conversion — like a fourth-and-6 or fourth-and-7, something like that. For me, that’s a moment I remember, because it was one of the first times he’s kind of in a critical situation and he made a good grab. He got open, made a good grab and allowed us to continue to take it in and score. That to me is like a passage moment, like, ‘OK, this guy is getting ready to go now. We can trust him. He’s on the varsity.’ That type of deal.”
AD: What was it like to see him and T.J. Hockenson become the first pair of tight ends from the same school to be drafted in the first round?
KF: “That in itself just tells you. It’s never happened before for a reason. It’s just really rare. Especially [because] typically you play with one tight end. We play with multiple tight ends. So that minimizes the chances of it. And then you think about it. They’re both three-year guys. Noah played as a freshman, T.J. redshirted. They both have had different paths and they’re different players. The first thing you think about [with] Noah is his receiving ability and his speed. With T.J. you think about [how] he’s a little bit more of a blocker. His speed is good, but compared to Noah it’s not as good. Noah’s blocking is good, but if you compare it to T.J.’s it’s not as good. But the bottom line is they’re both really good players. You don’t go in the first round if you’re not a really talented player. And the other thing is they’re both really good guys. So they have some similarities yet they both have had different paths and they have a different set of strengths and skills. … In a perfect world, I would’ve loved to have staggered them. We did redshirt T.J., so it would be great if he was coming out next year, but if you only had one of the two, no matter which side of the coin it came up — heads or tails — you’d be really thrilled. They’re both really good players and great people.”
AD: If Noah’s got to work on one thing at the next level to be a successful player, do you think it’s that blocking element, or is it something else?
KF: “I think two things. Every player, whether you’re a third-year guy or a fifth-year redshirt player, no matter who you are, when you go to the NFL, it’s another step forward. It’s typically a sizable step from high school to college. Typically most guys, they experience that and have to transition. And there are very few guys in the NFL that just walk in and play like they belong there. I was in Baltimore when Johnathan Ogden and Ray Lewis came, those guys transitioned pretty quickly, but they both went into the Hall of Fame [on the] first ballot, too. So that’s unusual. So, No. 1, the transition that every player has to go through, that’s going to be a part of it. And then I think the other thing that’s really working in his advantage — and I can say the same about T.J. — is being younger guys, their best football, just naturally, is probably two or three years down the road for them. Because they’re still young guys. Making that transition and letting their maturity continue, I think that’s the nice thing about getting a guy that’s an underclassman. You know you’re getting a guy on the rise. I don’t think there’s any one thing necessarily, although you know, I think blocking is the biggest challenge for any tight end that comes into the National Football League. When they’ve got to block an NFL defensive end, that’s not easy. I’ve sat in a lot of meetings where that was discussed, and it’s always a problem. So that’s always going to be a challenge.”
AD: What should Broncos fans expect from Noah the person that you’ve been able to get to know?
KF: “He’s a likeable guy. Good personality. Good teammate. That part is all good, and they’re going to like his ability to make big plays on the field, too. Everybody likes that: fans and coaches. So those are neat things, and when you have a guy at tight end that has that kind of speed, it just increases your opportunity to hit the big play — doing it off play-action and things of that nature that can suck a defense up a little bit. And then all of a sudden he slips free and instead of a 15-yard gain, he might make it a 30 or a 40 or take it to the house. So that’s a neat thing. You can’t coach that, and it’s great to acquire when you have that opportunity."