It's one thing looking across the line of scrimmage and coming face to face with Jets offensive tackle George Fant. It's quite another thing trying to contend with a determined 6-5 wide body on the basketball court -- the place where Fant was first noticed and where he plied his trade for four years in college at Western Kentucky.
Though the Jets are only a couple of days into training camp as they prepare for the start of the 2022 NFL season, Fant and his teammates aren't bashful about doing a little extra ... on the basketball court.
And when asked on Friday who the Jets' version of LeBron James might be, the team's best hoops player, Fant did not hesitate: "No argument. It's me."
He could employ the exact same phrase now that Jets head coach Robert Saleh has anointed the veteran Fant, 30, as the team's starting left tackle -- even before the players put on the pads (that comes on Monday) and even before Fant has engaged in practice. He was only this week removed from the PUP list and placed on the active roster after having offseason knee surgery.
"It's just a vote of confidence from the team, and it's going to be nice to get back out there with the young guys," Fant said. "I've been playing football for seven years and that's the position I started at and I'm more comfortable there."
After Mekhi Becton, drafted as a left tackle, sustained what proved to be a season-ending knee injury in last season's opening game, Fant made the seamless shift from the right to the left side. This season, with the signing of the veteran LG Laken Tomlinson, Saleh and offensive line coach John Benton opted to shuffle the offensive line -- the two veterans on the left, the two young dudes (Becton and Alijah Vera-Tucker) on the right, with Connor McGovern in the middle at center.
"He's shown a consistency and trust to do his job, which is to protect the quarterback," Saleh said on Friday, referring to Fant. "He strains play in and play out, and that's the first thing I want out of a player. He is an athlete who can do a lot of different things and all the things we want him to do. He played consistently, didn't give up much in pressure and was good in the run game. So that's what opened up the discussion this year."
In 15 games last season (all starts), Fant took 90% of the snaps on offense, 887 snaps in total -- the most of his NFL career. In that span, he allowed only 18 total pressures (1 sack) over 594 pass-blocking snaps. His pressure rate of 3.03% was the third-lowest rate in the NFL among left tackles in the 2021 season, according to Pro Football Focus.
"I think our o-line has the potential to be really, really good," offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur said. "It's a mixture of high draft picks, a late bloomer in Fant, who has a basketball background, veterans and free agents. George has a lot of tread on the tires in terms of playing time. We have a good blend of guys who combined and together could be really, really special."
With Becton working his way back from injury, Saleh's coaching staff kept things fluid during the offseason whenever questions arose about who would be protecting QB Zach Wilson's blind side -- Fant or Becton. Saleh put to sleep any questions earlier this week when he unequivocally said that Fant would start next to Tomlinson. Fant said that the comfort level with Tomlinson is a definite positive.
"We talk a lot, watch film together," Fant said. "I can get to play next to another veteran who was in the same division as I was before and we've seen a lot of the same players and had the same o-line coach. I understand how he plays and what he does. There's a lot of communication going on. I'm very excited about the five guys in that room."
See the Green & White on the field during Day 3 of Jets Training Camp.
With the young guys, AVT and Becton, changing their addresses, Fant was asked if he had to talk to the third-year lineman from Louisville about the lineup move.
"We're all grown men," Fant said. "It's a business and it's a job. And just like he [Becton] said we just want to be on the field. Every offensive lineman dreams of playing a whole season clean."
For Saleh, the decision began and ended with what he believes is best for the Green & White.
"We made the best decision for the team," Saleh said. "George had a good year. Mekhi is a gifted guy, and right now he's young enough to make a transition like AVT. I like those two next to each other. It's a matter of finding what's best for the organization. If George is comfortable on the left and Mekhi can get back healthy and show his versatility, we'll be fine."
Fant's development and evolution as a football player took years and many adjustments after most of his athletic career was spent on the hardwood floor of basketball courts.
After getting a sniff as a tight end in college, the Seattle Seahawks took a flier on Fant, signing him as an undrafted free agent in 2016. They brought him along as an offensive lineman before the Jets signed him as a free agent in April 2020.
"I could talk all day about what it took [to go from basketball to starting in the NFL]," Fant said. "It really began to come together in the second year because the first year I was thrown into the fire. I had never really played football. I started 14 games [in 2016] and learned on the fly. Then I added more size and started to look like an offensive lineman. I got hurt, came back and played different positions. But I was tuned in to football and I've learned from different guys. So Joe [Jets GM Joe Douglas] came out and got me.
"I had an opportunity to get out there and last year it showed."