Football

Mark Story: WKU's George Fant latest to try to go from undersized hoops power forward to football tight end

In this photo taken Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015, Western Kentucky basketball player turned tight end George Fant (44) works with special teams during NCAA college football practice, at L.T. Smith Stadium in Bowling Green, Ky. (Austin Anthony/Daily News via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
In this photo taken Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015, Western Kentucky basketball player turned tight end George Fant (44) works with special teams during NCAA college football practice, at L.T. Smith Stadium in Bowling Green, Ky. (Austin Anthony/Daily News via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT AP

You may not have noticed, but the NFL has figured out exactly where to find elite tight ends.

It is in the lane during college basketball games.

The transition from undersized college power forward to pass-catching NFL tight end has become something of a trend. Julius Thomas, Jimmy Graham and Antonio Gates are three current pro football star tight ends who were undersized battlers on college basketball front lines.

In Bowling Green, George Fant has noticed the trend.

Last March, Fant, listed as a 6-foot-6, 250-pound power forward, wrapped up a stellar four years of hoops at Western Kentucky University. The former Warren Central High School star ended his career as Western's 13th all-time leading scorer (1,621 points), eighth all-time rebounder (894) and as a member of two NCAA Tournament teams.

Like most accomplished college hoops players, the NBA would have been Fant's ultimate career goal. Yet one does not see an abundance of 6-6 four men in the NBA.

"So I sat down with my family, with the people who are important in my life and looked at options," Fant said Wednesday.

The NBA Development League might have been a possibility. A player of Fant's skill could have landed a contract to play professional basketball overseas.

Yet as he mulled his situation, Fant says he started getting feelers from NFL teams. This even though he hadn't played in an organized football game since he was a tight end and defensive lineman as an eighth grader.

"You look at what some of the guys who played basketball have been able to do in the NFL, it gets your attention," Fant said.

Once he got serious about the thought of football, Fant could have pursued an NFL free agent contract. However, he had another route into football available. The NCAA grants athletes five years to play four seasons. But it also will allow players to use their fifth season of eligibility in a sport other than the one they played for four years.

Fant says when he met with Jeff Brohm to broach the idea of playing football at Western in 2015, the WKU head coach "was excited. But he just wanted to make sure, if I decided to do this, I was fully committed to playing football. He just said I had to be all-in."

Fant's reply must have been convincing. When Western Kentucky distributed its football roster for 2015, George Fant was No. 44 (his basketball number) and listed as a 6-6, 270-pound senior tight end.

Western returns seven starters from an offense that averaged 44 points a game during 2014's 8-5 season. Last year's starting tight end, Mitchell Henry (32 catches, four touchdowns), is not one of them.

Senior Tyler Higbee (15 catches, four TDs) is expected to step into the starting role at tight end for WKU. Behind him, "that's really, in my opinion, our slimmest position right now as far as depth and guys who have played," Brohm said. "... That's a position we need to get better."

Whether Fant can work his way into a viable tight end option for a Western team picked over Marshall at Conference-USA Media Day to win the league's East Division championship is to be determined.

So far in WKU practices, Fant says he has struggled with the timing and precision required in an intricately designed college offense.

"I'm the new guy, everybody on the team has played football more than I have," Fant said. "So, right now, I'm just trying to take one step at a time, practice-by-practice, and learn and get better."

The big question when a basketball player switches to football is how they will respond to getting hit. For someone aspiring to play tight end, that subject takes the form of how they will bounce back the first time they go across the middle and a 230-pound strong safety launches into them like a guided missile.

"Yeah, that hasn't happened to me yet," Fant said.

Tim Riley, who coached Fant during the player's all-state basketball career at Warren Central, says there's no need to worry over Fant's toughness. "People ask how he will respond to taking a big lick," Riley said. "Trust me, he's as tough as they come. George can handle being hit."

Whether Fant can become the latest undersized basketball power forward to transition into a high-level football tight end will be one of the more intriguing story lines of the 2015 college football season in Kentucky.

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