Seahawks line coach Tom Cable on how rapidly rookie LT George Fant has improved

Seattle Seahawks offensive line coach Tom Cable talks with the media Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016, at team headquarters in Renton.
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Seattle Seahawks offensive line coach Tom Cable talks with the media Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016, at team headquarters in Renton.
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Seattle Seahawks

From hoops to Seahawks starter in a year: George Fant’s astounding success

By Gregg Bell

gbell@thenewstribune.com

November 16, 2016 09:27 PM

RENTON

For his latest trick of molding mud into masterpieces, Tom Cable presents George Fant.

The undrafted rookie college basketball player has been so good so quickly, the Seahawks are making him an exception to previous proclamations guys can’t lose their starting jobs because of an injury.

Following Wednesday’s practice for Sunday’s home game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Cable, the Seahawks’ veteran line coach, said veteran Bradley Sowell is returning this week from his sprained knee to compete with Garry Gilliam for the starting job at right tackle — not for the job Sowell had for the first 5  1/2 games of his season before he got hurt.

That job is now Fant’s. He will remain the left tackle he became when Sowell got hurt.

“We are competing at right tackle with Garry and with Brad,” Cable said.

“And George will continue to grow.”

So will the legend of how he got here.

Fant said Wednesday he thought by now he might be in Poland. That was one of the places Fant said he was considering playing basketball professionally, after his college hoops career at Western Kentucky ended.

That was 19 months ago.

How in the name of Walter Jones has Fant gone from a basketball player through the spring of 2015 to this: the starting left tackle for the Seahawks (6-2-1)? How has he become an undrafted rookie who just nailed every one of his blocking assignments in Sunday night’s win over the New England Patriots?

Four weeks ago Cable was just trying to ensure Fant knew how to properly line up at left tackle. Fant said he hadn’t started a game on an offensive line since he was playing for the Lincoln Heights Tigers when he was growing up in Cincinnati.

That was in Pee Wee league.

Three games later, Fant just got done playing the perfect game schematically — and against the AFC’s best team on its home field, the mighty Patriots. Coach Pete Carroll said Fant did not miss one of his 70 assignments in Seattle’s win Sunday night. The Seahawks haven’t been able to say that many times about their veteran blockers the last few years.

“A quick emergence,” Carroll called it.

Ya think?

Cable’s had some remarkable reclamation projects in his six years coaching the Seahawks. Until now, Cable turning J.R. Sweezy from a college defensive tackle into a $32.5 million right guard in three years had been the biggest.

But Fant is even more unlikely.

He played college basketball for four seasons at Western Kentucky. He was convinced he would be playing professional basketball right now. So convinced, when some NFL teams wrote to WKU in the spring of 2015 asking if he’d be interested in trying pro football, Fant threw the notes in a garbage can.

“A couple teams actually contacted my coaches. And I just threw it away,” Fant said before Wednesday’s practice.

“I was like, ‘I’m playing basketball. I’m not playing no football.’

“Then a couple of my friends that play football at my school talked me into it and said they’d teach me.”

One was Tyler Higbee, a fourth-round draft choice by Los Angeles this spring. He now plays tight end for the Rams. The other was Devin Scott, a WKU tight end. They and Hilltoppers’ tight ends coach Ryan Wallace basically taught him how to play football.

At tight end.

That’s the other way Fant learned how to play football — from a tight end who was also a college basketball power forward at the University of Miami almost a decade ago.

“I studied Jimmy Graham tapes,” Fant said.

By then, Fant saw football, not basketball, as a surer way of providing for his wife and their newborn son.

As they prepare for this past spring’s draft and free-agent signings, Seattle’s scouting staff had zero game tape of him at Western Kentucky. Carroll and Cable said all they saw on his was some grainy videotape as if shot off a Super-8 camera. Like the kind featured on America’s Funniest Home Videos or something.

The Seahawks signed him to a free-agent deal in May based off a pro day workout in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Fant wowed Trent Kirchner, the Seahawks’ co-director of player personnel, with his athleticism and his 6-foot-5, 296-pound frame. Fant worked out at linebacker, defensive end, defensive tackle, tight end and tackle. Seattle signed him off that one workout, intrigued by his size, athleticism — and his audacity.

When he arrived to rookie minicamp in May, the Seahawks moved him to offensive tackle. Then he had to get used to playing a new sport at its highest level on one of its best teams — with 45 more pounds on his 6-foot-5 frame. He played power forward for WKU basketball at 260 pounds.

He spent this summer as a preseason backup. Then on Sept. 3, he was in a car riding around the Seattle area with fellow rookie offensive lineman Germain Ifedi. Ifedi is the polar opposite of Fant, a heralded, multimillion-dollar first-round draft choice Seattle selected 31st overall this spring.

Fant didn’t care where he was going. He just wanted to pass time and get his mind off cut day to end the preseason — and perhaps his dream.

“Oh, man!” he said Wednesday when reminded of that day.

They were on their way to Gilliam’s place that Saturday afternoon when Fant got the call from the Seahawks that he had made the 53-man roster to begin the regular season, based on his athleticism and potential.

He immediately called his wife. Fant and former Western Kentucky basketball star Chastity Gooch had their first son, Jayden, shortly before that March tryout that wowed the Seahawks.

“She was happy,” Fant deadpanned.

Yet you knew as much as the Seahawks coaches did on how he’d actually play in a real NFL game. Sowell was the starting left tackle, with Fant backing him up in practices, for the first five games.

Then in Week 7, during Seattle’s overtime tie at Arizona on Oct. 23, Sowell sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee. Fant entered in the fourth quarter that night and played all through overtime. He made his first NFL start the following week at New Orleans. All of the Pacific Northwest feared for the well-being of quarterback Russell Wilson.

And, yes, the beginning had the expected rough patches. He had huge clipping penalties that ruined drives in each of his first two starts. He had false-start penalties, joining the rest of Seattle’s iffy line. He missed assignments. He didn’t get out to edge rushers that sped around him.

But Wilson lived. Not only that, the quarterback is now as healthy as he’s been since he sprained his ankle in Week 1. And Seattle has gone 2-1 in Fant’s three starts to climb to second in the NFC behind Dallas (8-1).

Fant says now he was not patient enough initially. He was leaning out and reaching to block rather than keeping balance with his feet under him and his arms close to his body.

“Then the game started to slow down for me,” he said.

It apparently just about stopped for him against the Patriots. He aced his biggest test yet, stonewalling the kingpins of the AFC.

He says pass blocking is “very similar” to playing one-on-one defense in basketball: Moving his feet and body quickly and knowingly in anticipation of the coming move in a certain direction.

“We are really excited about that he’s doing about as well as we can expect of him right now, for his understanding and his experience,” Carroll said. “We know that he is really applying himself and achieving at a high level.

“And he can get measures better as we move down the road here.”

Better, yes.

But what’s ahead can’t be more interesting than the road Fant’s traveled to get here.

Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle