This shit ain't working. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
We aren't going to really know what a Greg Davis offense will look like until Saturday, when Iowa takes the field against Northern Illinois. I suspect we're going to see a heavy focus on the tight end in the passing game. I suspect we're going to see the running backs catch far more balls than we're used to seeing at Iowa. I suspect we're going to see more horizontal passing and a considerably beefed-up use of the wide receiver screen game. I suspect we're going to see some different-looking routes in the passing game. I suspect we're going to see the wildcat --- wait, no, I don't suspect that at all. I suspect we're going to see more no huddle. I suspect (or at least hope) that we're going to see more of Vandenberg in the shotgun, easily his most comfortable formation. Ultimately, though, that's all speculation; I don't know anything about the offense yet.
But the mere act of hiring Davis and having him install his offense here is significant. Hiring Greg Davis was not an endorsement of the status quo, of "same ol' Iowa" -- it was a deliberate attempt by Ferentz to embrace change. Mind you, this is still Kirk Ferentz so "change" doesn't mean a radical overhaul. This is not Iowa hiring someone like Dana Holgerson or Mike Leach or Chip Kelly (or whoever the hot offensive coordinator version of those guys is now) and handing the keys to the offense over to them -- you have a better chance of seeing Ferentz spontaneously develop a third eye than seeing him do something like that. Kirk Ferentz makes almost four million dollars a year and drives a Suburban. If Ferentz was having a midlife crisis, he wouldn't buy a Porsche -- he'd buy a used Sebring convertible. (It would also be a tasteful, subdued silver and not candy apple red because red cars are for promiscuous young women and lascivious young boys.) That's just the kind of guy he is.
But it's still change. If Ferentz had wanted stability, if he'd wanted to maintain the status quo, there was an easy option available to him: promote Erik Campbell from wide receivers coach to offensive coordinator. Campbell's entering his fifth season at Iowa, so he's certainly well-acquainted with the way the Iowa offense ran under O'Keefe. And before he was at Iowa, he was groomed at Lloyd Carr's Michigan, Iowa's soulmate program in so many ways. (It's not exactly hard to look at those Carr-led Michigan teams and see an offense similar to the one Ferentz favored, only with superior athletes almost across the board.) Sure, there would have been some risk involved in that -- Campbell's never been an offensive coordinator at any level and he's never called plays -- but this is also football, not rocket science. At some point in time, every offensive coordinator has never called plays. And Campbell is no stranger to big boy football -- he's been a coach in the Big Ten since 1995. I have to think he learned a thing or two in almost two decades on staff at Michigan and Iowa and I have to think that if Ferentz had wanted to maintain the status quo he could have handed the wheel to Campbell and told him to keep the ship sailing in the same direction. But that's not what he did.
Of course, even as we get our first extended look at the offense in the Northern Illinois game, the truth is that it's difficult (if not impossible) to know how much this year's offense will resemble the offense Greg Davis really wants to run and how much is just the offense he can run with the hand he's been dealt. He's inheriting a senior quarterback in James Vandenberg, which has its pluses and minuses. The upside is that he's experienced, having started fifteen games now. He's also intelligent and (seemingly) very teachable. The downside is that he's experienced running the Ken O'Keefe Iowa offense, not the Greg Davis Iowa offense. He's been getting a crash course in the latter over the last seven months, but you'd have to think that it's a process that's still going to take some time.
He also inherits a running back situation that, while hardly atypical for Iowa these days, is far from ideal -- his top running backs are a sophomore who was playing wide receiver a year ago (Bullock) and a pair of true freshmen (Greg Garmon and Michael Malloy). Oh, and those three backs have a combined 10 carries for 20 yards at Iowa. (Yes, really.) On the bright side, these backs -- particularly Bullock -- may be better-suited to play a pass-catching role in Iowa's offense than several recent running backs at Iowa. He also has a bunch of receivers who may not fit what he wants to do on offense; he was openly critical of Iowa's lack of speed at the receiver position during spring practice.
The true indicator of what Greg Davis' Iowa offense will look like -- and how much of a change it represents from the Iowa offense we came to know and love (and, occasionally, loathe) during the KOK era -- will probably come in 2013 and beyond. For one thing, we know there will be a new quarterback at the helm in 2013 -- James Vandenberg will be out of eligibility after this season. The clubhouse leader is Jake Rudock, who redshirted in 2011 and figures to be JVB's primary understudy this season and who will have spent a full season immersed in Davis' offense. The wildcard is JUCO transfer Cody Sokol, who will have also spent a year immersed in Davis' offense and who also won't have any lingering memories of the KOK offense, if that matters. (It probably doesn't, but hey.) He'll also have returning stars (hopefully) like Kevonte Martin-Manley and C.J. Fiedorowicz who should both be well-versed in the offense and its rhythms after a year of playing in it, as well as several new faces who will have been exposed to nothing but Davis' offense. Hell, we might even have a returning starter at running back in 2013. (I know, I know, I need to lay off the bath salts.) 2012 figures to be something of a stopgap year, but 2013 is when things should start resembling the offense as it's meant to appear.
On the other hand... what if this all just the illusion of change?
What if this is all just a lot of sound and fury, ultimately signifying nothing? What if this is all sizzle and no steak? After all, as the story goes the offense that Iowa ran from 1999 through 2011 wasn't necessarily the offense that Ken O'Keefe wanted to run in his heart of hearts -- it was the offense that Kirk Ferentz told him to run. How much of the offense was Ferentz and how much was O'Keefe? We may never know. Was Ferentz the architect, handing a detailed blueprint to O'Keefe, the lowly contractor tasked with simply meeting his demands and realizing his vision? Or was Ferentz more hands-off, just telling O'Keefe "Yeah, I'd like a two-story house, four bedrooms, three baths..." while letting O'Keefe sweat the details. The overall offensive philosophy -- be balanced, run to set up the (play-action) pass, stretch the field, control clock -- certainly seems to stem from Ferentz, but how intimately involved he was in the week-to-week gameplanning and down-to-down playcalling remains unclear.
Is Ferentz merely trading one kindly old offensive coordinator-cum-puppet for a different kindly old offensive coordinator-cum-puppet (now with glasses!)? Has his offensive philosophy changed at all in ways we might be able to perceive? When you cut to the heart of the matter, what does "change" really mean to Kirk Ferentz when it comes to his offense? I don't know.
What I think is that Greg Davis was not brought to Iowa to be a puppet or to help Iowa continue Doing Things The Way They Have Always Been Done. Kirk Ferentz had other options if he wanted to keep doing the same 'ol, same 'ol. What I think is that Kirk Ferentz is stubborn when it comes to change, but that he's not totally inflexible. He's probably never been an early adopter of anything in his life, but he's not blind to possibility. What I think is that Kirk Ferentz has not been happy with the offense over the past few years. It's not a fluke when your offense struggles to find a rhythm, struggles to be consistent, and struggles to score points reliably, even against middling defenses. What I think is that Kirk Ferentz has seen the evolution of offense in college football over the last decade and realized that things need a little tweaking at Iowa.
Enter: Greg Davis. If Greg Davis proved nothing else during his time at Texas, he proved that he could be versatile. As Dave Miller wrote for the National Football Post:
Although Longhorn fans often derided Davis for his use of the bubble screen, he has proven that he could successfully build offenses around a wide variety of players. Major Applewhite became known for his gritty heroics after beating out the more heralded Chris Simms for the starting quarterback job, and Colt McCoy played to a Heisman Trophy level as well. When Vince Young was in Austin, Davis essentially turned the offense over to VY and utilized his athleticism in the spread option attack. As a quarterbacks coach, Davis helped develop the games of Applewhite, Young and McCoy. And while the running game began to falter in his latter years, he found success in the past with power backs like Cedric Benson.
Iowa could use a little bit of that versatility. As Pat pointed out in yesterday's preview post, under the previous coaching staff, the playbook had been winnowed to the size of a pamphlet (figuratively speaking) and attempts to think outside the box were few and far between. Probably the most celebrated example of some creative thinking when it came to creative playcalling was the use of the no huddle offense early in the season; it was wildly successful in Iowa's improbable comeback against Pitt, useful in the follow-up win over UL-Monroe, and an abject disaster against Penn State (although the problem there seemed to be less the concept itself and more the neutered way that it was utilized in the game), at which point we barely saw it the rest of the season.
But in the early years of the Iowa offense under Ferentz there was considerably variety and creativity. Iowa threw the ball heavily under Kyle McCann, used Brad Banks' scrambling ability to great effect in 2002, rode the legs of Fred Russell and a stout offensive line led by Robert Gallery in 2003, and turned the keys over to a spunky sophomore quarterback and the passing game after AIRBHG wreaked havoc in 2004. The offense has seemed far less adaptable since then; the hope is that the arrival of Davis helps bring a little bit of that back to the fold. In 2002 and 2008, when Iowa had better talent at offensive line, running back, and tight end than most of the teams they faced, it didn't matter if they were predictable or inflexible -- if no one can stop what you want to do, just keep right on doing it. Iowa doesn't figure to be outclassing their opponents this year in terms of offensive talent, so the onus is going to be on them to out-think and out-scheme them.
Of course, Davis isn't the only new face on the offensive coaching staff. There's also that guy who shares Kirk's last name, who just spent the last few years of his life doing his graduate work in coaching theory under some guy named Belichick. Bill Belichick happens to be one of the more innovative minds in all of football and a coach who's incredibly well-versed at reconfiguring his offense to make use of the best tools available (see: last year's New England offense, led by the twin tight end tandem of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez). He also happens to be Ferentz's last boss and one of the men he respects most in the game of football. On the other hand, Brian Ferentz is an offensive line coach at Iowa and while he was the tight ends coach at New England last year, there's no indication that he was involved in designing or calling plays. Nor does it take a rocket scientist to look at two tight ends with the freakish physical abilities of Gronk and Hernandez and say, "Hey, we might want to make these guys a big part of the offense." So, no, I don't expect Iowa's offense to look like a carbon copy of the Patriots' formidable attack and, yes, there's a very real danger of overstating Brian Ferentz's impact on the Iowa offense. That said, it's still an interesting wrinkle to things.
Ultimately, we'll find out soon what "change" really means to Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa offense. Is it just a matter of throwing a coat of fresh paint on the old body? Or is it a matter of actually rebuilding the engine? Like I said, I don't know. But it should be incredibly fun to see how things play out this season.