Kirk Ferentz is not a man of many words. Whether talking about a second Big Ten championship or seventeenth arrest, he maintains his stoic demeanor, and never is that mindset more prominent than during a press conference. Ferentz can stonewall with the best of them; Dana Perino -- the future Mrs. Oops Pow Surprise, that is -- would be proud of his ability to equivocate, obfuscate, and outright dismiss the press.
That's not to say there is no relevant information in Ferentz's press conferences. Quite often, Captain Kirk gives plenty of information on the state of the program. You just have to be trained in how to read the tea leaves. Fortunately, years of hearing and reading Ferentzisms has blessed me with just such ability. Following are the five biggest stories from last week's pre-spring practice press conference.
1. Jake Christensen ain't going nowhere
As you might remember, there were a couple of weeks in November where Iowa was technically bowl eligible but, for all practical purposes, kaput. Because there was the possibility of a bowl appearance, the team was allowed to practice during those two weeks. Rumor had it that the lion's share of available snaps during those practices went to Arvell Nelson and Marvin McNutt. Of course, that gave rise to speculation that Jake Christensen was on his way out, and that gave the JC6 critics (for full disclosure, me included) hope.
Well, forget about it:
Q: What is your approach at quarterback? What do you want to see from Jake? Is it almost a healing process for him?
FERENTZ: I don't think so. He was a young guy who played a little young....I think given all of the circumstances last season, not that he couldn't have performed better, but we didn't have a lot of support out there. It probably would have been a better situation to have him out there with the 2002 offense that we had. It just didn't work out. I don't want to over-react, but with that being said, like every player on our team when you go back and look at the films, there are a lot of things that are correctable and things that we can do better. I think Jake would be right there with a lot of players and it will be important that he improves his performance and a lot of things that he can do better, footwork, reads, and what have you. The one thing that I was impressed with were the intangibles that he demonstrated consistently throughout the year. He is a guy who really works hard and is very serious about what he does. The questions is will this be the Matt Rogers story? I keep going back to that one because I was here in 1989 when Matt really struggled and again, a lot of similar circumstances I think. That story turned out pretty well and I am hoping that is the case, but we will have him compete with the other guys just like we do at every position.
Q: Could he be seriously pushed by anyone here now, like Stanzi or McNutt?
FERENTZ: We will give those guys that opportunity. It is like every position, outside of running back and cornerback where I think some newcomers are going to have to help us. Not necessarily start, but be in our two deep or three deep. It is really going to be difficult for a freshman quarterback to come in and play, but if they can then we will given them that opportunity. For the three guys on campus, it is their job to keep improving. It would have been nice to see them in December, but we didn't get that chance. It will be interesting to see how that goes and we will let them all compete this spring.
In other words, go fuck yourself. Ferentz doesn't get any clearer than that. Coach is of the opinion that the perceived problems at quarterback were in large part due to an inexperienced offensive line and depleted receiver corps. Jake is your starting quarterback, with Stanzi and McNutt fighting for the #2 spot, and Kirk is particularly looking forward to sticking it to everyone who doubted him and his quarterback.
2. Jevon Pugh might well be gone after all
As you well know, we're all rooting for Jevon Pugh; rarely has a player been given worse treatment by the Iowa media and coaching staff. Last week, we were worried to hear unsubstantiated rumors that Jevon Pugh did not return from spring break, and was not present for camp or the first days of spring practice. Kirk certainly didn't help stop those rumors.
Q: What are you doing at running back?
FERENTZ: We are thin there, obviously. It seems like it works this way every spring and I went back and looked at some old depth charts just to reassure myself....We are limited in numbers and obviously it is a concern for us with Albert and Damian graduating. Shonn Greene factors in that equation pretty strongly, but he won't be with us this spring. I am anxious to get a look at Nate Guillory and the other two guys too and then the new guys in the fall.
Q: Is that a place where a freshman could come in during the fall?
FERENTZ: I don't think there is any doubt. You hate to depend on players that are not with you in the spring, but I think if you look at that position there is no doubt about it, we are going to have to get contributions. The nice thing about Shonn is at least we have seen him play against Big Ten competition, so that is reassuring. Now the key is where is he going to be at physically in making up that time and he still has work to complete before he is accepted. I think with both of our incoming players that we signed, they are both going to have an opportunity as well.
The "other two guys" are certainly walk-ons Paki O'Meara and Brian Mungongo, neither of whom figure to get much playing time. The pre-spring depth chart listed Guillory and Pugh as co-starters. For Ferentz to discuss Greene's role in the offense at length and not mention Pugh once tells the tale: Pugh might well be out.
3. Take all this "spread offense" nonsense and shove it up your ass
It's become the pipe dream of nearly every Iowa football fan: Spread the offense. For nine years (with the possible exception of the running back-less 2004 squad), Iowa has run the same one-cut-run-first, I- or ace-formation, short pass offense. It's boring. It's dated. It's been solved by opposing defensive coordinators. It's driven me to the verge of insanity.
Never before (again, with the possible exception of 2004) would a spread-like attack make more sense. The starting running back will likely be a JUCO in his first year on campus. The upshot of last year's receiver injuries is a glut of experienced wideouts (Brodell, DJK, Stross, Chaney, Sandeman). Our tight end, the Flyin' Hawaiian, has the size and athleticism to split out wide and wreak havoc. You would be reasonable to believe overloading the secondary with receivers and firing the ball around the field would be the most effective offensive philosophy this season.
You'd be wrong.
Q: How much examination went into the offense? Did you send coaches out to different places or anything like that?
FERENTZ: We have visited with folks, but first and foremost it starts with what we are doing. You are always looking at a couple of things. You are looking at schematic and system approach and then the execution of it. We will make some wrinkles like every year. I am still not sure what the spread is. I heard that being thrown around when Michigan played in their bowl game and it kind of looked like the same team that we had seen on tape other than they were throwing it around a little bit more. That is one of those terms that is being bandied about, but I think we are fairly comfortable with where we are at schematically. We will get through the spring and see what our personnel looks like and how things match-up and try to play to our strengths. I wouldn't say it was dramatically different than any other year. I would say the biggest thing was after looking at last year's tape was hopefully there are a lot of things that we can hopefully correct and improve upon. I think we are capable of it, but now it is a race against the clock to see where we can get.
I've never been one for the message board "heads on pikes" attitude toward coaches -- KOK excluded -- but this head-in-the-sand statement is damn near a firable offense. The rest of the conference is adopting spread principles (and you know what that means, Coach): Michigan hires Rodriguez, Illinois adopts the shotgun spread option, Northwestern continues to nullify the talent gap with its own version of the spread, Penn State is increasingly using the zone read option, and Minnesota is threatening to do the same.
Our coaching staff's opinion of the spread? The head coach denies its existence and the defensive coordinator requests its abolishment. That, my friends, is a recipe for disaster.
4. The secondary scares the crap out of him
Rule number one of reading Ferentzisms: If he goes out of his way to mention something in an otherwise unrelated statement, it's on his mind. So, when he repeatedly talks about the state of the defensive secondary while responding to questions about other positions, we had better prepare for the worst.
Q: What are you doing at running back?
FERENTZ: We are thin there, obviously. It seems like it works this way every spring and I went back and looked at some old depth charts just to reassure myself. I think it was in 2002, we went in with three tailbacks with Fred Russell being the starter. Marcus Schnoor and Jermelle Lewis were the other two guys practicing. We are kind of in a similar boat there. The corner position is the same way with Jordan not being out there. We are limited in numbers and obviously it is a concern for us with Albert and Damian graduating. Shonn Greene factors in that equation pretty strongly, but he won't be with us this spring. I am anxious to get a look at Nate Guillory and the other two guys too and then the new guys in the fall.
Q: Will it be hard to evaluate the position with so many players not arriving until the fall?
FERENTZ: We are going to have to practice with the guys that are here and we are going to work extremely hard with them. I think all of those guys are capable of making contributions and we are certainly hopeful. That is one position where we are going to need some supplementation from guys that aren't with us. I think you could look at the cornerback situation and say the same thing. With Jordan not practicing, we really projected him competing for that starting job. We have Bradley Fletcher out there and after that, Jordan is not out there and we have a couple of guys coming in that we think will be in the mix. Drew Gardner is next in line and he will get a lot of work this spring and it will be fun to see how that progresses.
Q: Could [Christensen] be seriously pushed by anyone here now, like Stanzi or McNutt?
FERENTZ: We will give those guys that opportunity. It is like every position, outside of running back and cornerback, where I think some newcomers are going to have to help us. Not necessarily start, but be in our two deep or three deep. It is really going to be difficult for a freshman quarterback to come in and play, but if they can then we will given them that opportunity. For the three guys on campus, it is their job to keep improving. It would have been nice to see them in December, but we didn't get that chance. It will be interesting to see how that goes and we will let them all compete this spring.
That's three mentions of the problems in the secondary, coming during discussion of running backs and quarterbacks. If you needed a clear sign that the lack of experienced cornerbacks worries him more than anything else, you got it.
5. Bellanca might be right: The Iowa City Police Department sucks
The outside criticism of the program, from places as diverse as Sports Illustrated and Mike North of Chicago's 670 AM "The Score," is based not on the performance on the field but the off-field problems. Certainly, the Wild West perception of the program by outsiders is not helped by the City Boyz pictures or the sheer idiocy of some of the problems.
That being said, Iowa's not in the Top 10 in the Fulmer Cup (though they surely have their eyes on the prize), and Mike North should check his backyard and shut his ill-informed trap. And, while Ferentz takes the string of off-field problems surrounding the program seriously, he thinks some of it has been blown out of proportion due solely to the last three disappointing seasons.
Q: Do you ever think you battle a public perception problem in that you have said and done things that you really can't say in public?
FERENTZ: Those things have not changed a whole lot. Two things, I have drawn the parallel with 2001 and we had our share. Whenever you hit that point in the tally, you bring things upon yourself, which we have done. Whatever the last article I read, there is a scoreboard on there. That is what happens when you make decisions. As I said earlier, there are certain things that are going to happen on college campuses with student-athletes and non- student-athletes that you may not like, but you have to live with and work through. The thing I really struggle with are the repeat mistakes. It is like anything in life; if you do something twice then you are not learning or demonstrating that you are learning. That means you either have a problem or you just don't care or maybe you are too dumb to get it. We will work with guys that have problems. We have done that in the past, but if it is the two other categories that is a tough one. I am not sure that things have changed a lot, but we have gone through a period that is obviously concerning. The point I would emphasize are the dual mistakes. Those kind of things are concerning to you. I am optimistic that we will improve, but it is easy to talk and say, hey I am feeling good, just like you are optimistic about the team doing the work to get it done.
Q: Is there less of a tolerance right now with something that might have happened say two years ago?
FERENTZ: Yeah, no question. The scoreboard is valid and I am not contesting that. The other thing is that if you go back and look through every one of them, there is a big difference between say a PAULA and some other charge. I am not condoning any of them, but some are easier to understand and deal with than others. But, we have brought that upon ourselves. We have created a situation right now. It is kind of like having a losing season or a non-bowl season. When you create a situation there is going to be public perception. That is just the way it goes. You have to live with it and you have to work towards finding solutions, improving, and correcting. If we can't do that, and when I say we, I don't mean just the staff. It is everyone involved here and our players have to be accountable. If we can't do that, it is going to continue and we are not going to be successful in any regard. Our public image is very important. I think it is tied to winning, first of all. Selfishly, I believe that as a coach. This is a college football and there is a responsibility that comes with that.
Of course, he's right. Fans and media have a strange way of looking past disciplinary issues when they're happening to a winning team. Of course, if Ferentz wanted to win some games, perhaps he should start preparing now. My first recommendation would be to learn what a spread offense is.