TEMPE, AZ - DECEMBER 30: The Iowa Hawkeyes huddle up around quarterback James Vandenberg #16 during the Insight Bowl against the Oklahoma Sooners at Sun Devil Stadium on December 30, 2011 in Tempe, Arizona. The Sooners defeated the Hawkeyes 31-14. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
This has the capacity to be the most interesting Iowa football team in a decade.
There's the new offense, which for all we know could be exactly the same as the old offense. Or it could be the single wing. Or it could be something else. Greg Davis might be predictable within a system, but nobody is saying his system is predictable. We have two limited scrimmages to go from, and we know virtually nothing.
There's the new defense, which everyone assumed was going to be the same as before. Now, it's potentially a bigger adjustment than anything being done offensively. There's man coverage and blitzing and zones that aren't a variation of cover 2 or quarters.
There's the suddenly open Kirk Ferentz, apparently willing to sit in your kitchen and tell you secrets of football if you just ask. The coach of last year, the obtuse-bordering-on-curmudgeonly get off my lawn Kirk Ferentz, hasn't been around this August. His replacement: A jovial, focused, hungry Kirk Ferentz, the Kirk Ferentz that we haven't seen -- at least like this, for this long -- since 2004, flanked by a coaching staff starved for success like it hasn't been for longer than that. This is his kind of staff. This is his kind of team.
Iowa football is now quite clearly working on a five-year cycle. Iowa has built its program on a policy of turning tight ends and linebackers into cogs of the machine and then fully expecting those cogs to do exactly as they are supposed to do and be exactly where they are supposed to be at all times from the moment they're plugged in that machine. You can build athletes in the weight room from whatever raw material your recruiters bring in, but those athletes don't become football players -- at least not in the Kirk Ferentz sense of the word -- until ten, twenty, maybe thirty games of experience are under their belts. For Iowa to win in the future, youth must be served in the present.
And yet, 2011 was not a "youth movement" year at Iowa. Only six underclassmen -- three on offense, three on defense -- started the Hawkeyes' final game, and three of those -- Coker at halfback, Miller at free safety, Rogers at fullback -- were at positions where game experience has, in the past, had the lowest correlation with player success. On the offensive and defensive lines, where anecdotal evidence from the recent past here and statistical evidence from around the country indicates experience is most important to overall success, this season wasn't marked by a youth movement but rather by career backup upperclassmen.
This is the youngest Iowa squad in twelve years. In pure personnel terms, it might even be younger than that. Ferentz listed just 11 seniors in his opening two-deep, and that included a backup punter, a third-string fullback, and Greg Castillo. There are 23 upperclassmen in a depth chart with 52 names; just 14 of those are non-special teams starters. Iowa is starting three guys who haven't even earned a letter before (Austin Blythe and whichever two of the defensive tackles get the nod), and that number could jump to six or seven by the end of the season.
It's younger than 2007, when the defensive front seven included six upperclassmen and 15 upperclassmen started in the first week. It's younger than 2001, which was driven by a junior-laden offensive line and defensive front. Even the 1999 and 2000 teams, which took the lumps so that 2002 could happen, relied more heavily on upperclassmen in the two-deep, if not at the starting positions.
This team isn't just young in player age and experience, though. Which goes to another theory: Iowa's staff had been together so long that they'd paralyzed themselves with caution. Take a look at a 2003 game and count how many times Bob Sanders was in the backfield chasing the quarterback -- SPOILER ALERT it's all the time -- compared to our more recent setup. Watch the punt block Iowa used to run on, oh, 2003 Michigan, and compare it to the non-extant punt block of recent times (the last punt block of note, Adrian Clayborn in the 2009 PSU game, wasn't even on a punt block call). Ferentz lamented to Morehouse at 2010 Media Days that he'd sent Amari Spievey out to return a punt late in the first half of the Indiana game with instructions to make a play. Spievey fumbled, leading to an Indiana touchdown. Now Micah Hyde is so cognizant of fumbling punts that he returned just two of seventeen punts in October last season. The conservatism extended to all facets of the game: The 4-3 Cover 2 in all situations (brought about because it prevents the big play better than any other standard defense), the predictable offensive playcalling, the emphasis on "execution" above strategy.
I'm not saying the new coaching staff is "young" in literal terms -- Greg Davis is old as hell, and it's not like Phil Parker just fell off a turnip truck. But they don't have the same biases. They don't have the same fears as the old guard did. They aren't playing "Fool me once" with every play in the playbook. They aren't throwing out entire sections of the past Kirk Ferentz Strategy Guide like The Anal Retentive Chef. They have lessons to learn, which gives them the freedom to call a punt block, or a fake, or something that might have ended in a bad result once or twice before. The staff is new and, at least institutionally, young, and hopefully it frees up Ferentz to be young again, as well.
This is the situation we expected when last season ended. The youth movement is in full effect, and Ferentz the Teacher gets to go back to work. They could not have been handed a better draw for this type of team, a back-loaded conference schedule and lack of BCS-level opposition in the non-conference (aside from ISU, of course). Most importantly, the Hawkeyes don't play a true road game until mid-October. It's a schedule built for maximum confidence headed into the heart of the Big Ten season, so long as Iowa can take advantage of it.
This isn't a particularly good team, yet. There's nothing of consequence at halfback, the receivers are slightly suspect, the defensive line could be potentially ghastly, and everywhere else is crawling with inexperience. The key word is the last one, though: Yet. This team could be good, and soon. It's the five year plan. The build is on for 2014, and the foundation is 2012.