Spring games and open practices are exhibitions and little more. They are not opportunities for coaches to open up the playbook, and even if a coach decides to go that route, that coach will never be Kirk Ferentz. We can admit that.
But while we're not going to see the bag of tricks emptied out or anything more than a shell of an offense, we do get to see what the base offense is going to look like, the bread and butter plays off which the constraint plays are built.
So we saw some of those plays this past weekend at the West Des Moines open practice. First play from scrimmage: 0-yard horizontal pass. Just like last year. Sigh. The rest of the practice didn't look a lot better.
Now, there is the distinct possibility that after several years of mediocre recruiting and retention issues (though aside from RB, that hasn't been a great concern on offense over the last couple of years), Iowa just doesn't have the personnel to be a successful Big Ten team, and that a more talented team could make Greg Davis' offense work.
To be clear: Iowa failed miserably running Greg Davis' offense in 2012. It was dead last in rushing yardage in the Big Ten, 11th in the Big Ten in total yardage and points, averaged fewer than 19 points in Big Ten play, and guided Iowa to its worst record in over a decade. James Vandenberg went from a 3,000-yard, 25-TD throwing QB to one of the least efficient passers in the nation, not even qualifying for the Top 100 in passing efficiency. He threw seven touchdowns in 389 attempts. Aaron Murray threw 36 touchdowns in fewer attempts that year, and he had to face SEC defenses.
And sure, maybe Iowa's personnel is a problem in Greg Davis' offense. But that doesn't mean it's objectively bad. In fact, Iowa's got the personnel to run an effective offense, and we don't have to look back very far to find a decent corollary.
Quick disclaimer here: there is no such thing as a perfect comparison, especially with football. We're sure you can find differences between these two teams. The similarities, however, caught us as striking and we're just talking about those.
If you want to see a team that had a personnel set on offense like Iowa's and made it work, take a look at 2009 Wisconsin. The Badgers went 10-3 that year, culminating in a 20-14 win over Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl (still the only sarcastic bowl name ever), and they scored nearly 32 points per game in the process. That is not a huge offensive output—it was 25th in the nation—but it was good enough to be first in the Big Ten. Also, Iowa's offense was slightly worse last year.
Let's look at the personnel and notice the similarities, shall we?
Wisconsin QB: Scott Tolzein (Jr.)
Iowa QB: Jake Rudock (So.) or someone else
You might remember Tolzein as the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award winner as the best senior QB in 2010, but in 2009 he wasn't exactly the first option in the Wisconsin offense. He threw 328 passes to Wisconsin's 581 rushes (backup Curt Phillips threw 12), which means Wisconsin was operating with a 63-37 run-pass ratio in 2009. And when you're only throwing the ball on one of every three plays (or nine of every 25 if accuracy's your thing), you're probably not throwing into the teeth of a dime secondary very often. Passing was Wisconsin's constraint.
Like Tolzein, Rudock is smallish, nimble QB with some zip and accuracy on his passes, but not a cannon for an arm. You can say that about every single QB Iowa has in its positional battle this year. There are incremental differences between the four contenders but by and large that's where we are. And you get the sense that if opponents so feared Iowa's passing game that a well-timed play action could get a tight end open over the middle, the QB would be able to get the ball there reasonably reliably. You don't craft the offense around this guy's arm, no damn way, but used situationally he could be fine.
Tolzein's efficiency that year was a decent 142.99, or just a couple points above James Vandenberg's 2011 season. In the right system there's no reason to believe Iowa would fail to have a QB approach that number, if maybe not reach it. Close would be fine.
Wisconsin RB: John Clay (So.), Montee Ball (Fr.), Zach Brown (Jr.)
Iowa RB: Mark Weisman (Jr.), Damon Bullock (Jr.), Jordan Canzeri (So.)
Okay, yes, Wisconsin had a future All-American and NCAA career TD record-breaker in its backfield, and with no disrespect to Mr. Canzeri and his abilities, Iowa does not. But remember that Ball wasn't very good that year, and this was a Clay-dominated offense. Clay rushed the ball 287 times, good for almost exactly half Wisconsin's carries, and Ball and Brown combined for 164 rushes and 670 yards. All told Wisconsin led the Big Ten in rushing, which is what should happen when your team rushes almost 45 times a game.
We know Weisman can tote the rock 30 times a game if he has to. Bullock has shown flashes of that ability too, but we're more confident in Weisman doing it 20-25 times a game every week. He can fill that role and come close to Clay's 1,517 yards and 18 TDs if he stays healthy. He was on that pace before injuries derailed his 2012 season. Bullock and Canzeri bring about as much to the table as Ball and Brown did in 2009, and while a proper distribution of carries might be a little more even with the Iowa backfield this year than it was for the Badgers in this comparison, a three-man total of 451 rushes and 2,187 yards is wholly reasonable.
Wisconsin TE: Garrett Graham (Sr.), Lance Kendricks (Jr.)
Iowa TE: C.J. Fiedorowicz (Sr.), Ray Hamilton (Jr.)
Garrett Graham was the best tight end in the Big Ten and one of the best in the nation. Lance Kendricks was a physically gifted second option who spent a lot of time on the field as part of 2-TE sets, and in tandem they were lethal in the passing game, combining for 80 catches, 980 yards and 10 TDs.
Sounds a little familiar, doesn't it?
Fiedorowicz is almost incontrovertibly the most talented tight end in the Big Ten, and if he doesn't have a monster year in 2013 it will be one of the great failures in Hawkeye history. He is massive, athletic, and can do anything a tight end should be asked to do.
Hamilton, meanwhile, will see the most playing time of his career as Iowa continues to use multiple-TE formations and Zach Derby has moved on to
the NFL going pro in something other than sports. He's a former 4-star recruit who has the strength and athleticism to be a major factor on offense if he can just stay on the field.
Tight end is no less than a major strength of the Iowa offense, probably the single biggest strength, and there's no reason not to have both CJF and Hamilton showcase their abilities. Play to your strengths, for crying out loud!
Wisconsin WR: Nick Toon (So.), Isaac Anderson (Jr.)
Iowa WR: Kevonte Martin-Manley (Jr.), Jordan Cotton (Sr.)
Martin-Manley made 52 catches in 2012; Toon made 54. Martin-Manley had 571 yards; Toon had 804. The difference is usage, plain and simple, and there's really no good reason for someone of Martin-Manley's athleticism to be putting up lines like six catches for 31 yards, which is what he did against Northern Illinois in the season opener. No, he's not a burner, but if anyone's going to be a credible downfield threat that keeps safeties from crashing the line of scrimmage on every snap, it's Martin-Manley.
Anderson was fine as a second wideout, but Wisconsin's offense asked little of him, to the tune of 30 catches and 480 yards on the season. Again, we see a WR used in deeper routes as the constraint, keeping the secondary away from the line of scrimmage and opening up the edges for the more dominant running game. Cotton has that athleticism, if his routes aren't great and his hands are average. Even in Iowa's "3 yard outs and a cloud of dust" offense, he averaged over 14 yards a catch. Imagine him in an offense where he can get open downfield.
Wisconsin OL: Gabe Carimi (Jr.), John Moffitt (Jr.), Peter Konz (Fr.), Kevin Zeitler (Fr.), Josh Oglesby (So.)
Iowa OL: Brandon Scherff (Jr.), Conor Boffeli (Sr.), Austin Blythe (So.), Andrew Donnal (Jr.), Brett Van Sloten (Sr.)
If there's a most significant departure in talent between the two teams, it's here; that is a line of absolute mashers for Wisconsin. The first four went on to the NFL with an average draft position in the middle of the second round, while Oglesby was betrayed by knee issues during his stint in Madison and went undrafted.
Ironically, Oglesby was the only elite recruit of that line; he was a 5-star tackle, per Rivals. The other four were 3-star prospects with the exception of Konz, and Konz's offer list wasn't that great. The point is that offensive line is the most development-intensive position in all of college football, and these five linemen were developing into some of the most feared linemen in the Big Ten at the time.
But Iowa's not far behind. There's more experience on this line than Wisconsin had on its own, Scherff is destined for a draft pick right up with the best of anyone on that Badger line, and Blythe and Donnal have bright futures too. Even Van Sloten is in that Kyle Calloway mold, a giant road grader that may not stick in the NFL against elite DEs but who can reliably push the point of attack forward in a setting like the Big Ten.
Moreover, isn't offensive line development still Kirk Ferentz's thing? He's got his experience with the position, he's got a pretty good track record, and he's got Chris Doyle leading the charge of shaping these guys into linemen. And for all you can say about Iowa's mediocre recruiting, again, this is the line; recruiting stars are just about incidental here.
Scherff is a monster at LT. Van Sloten is a suitable bookend. Donnal showed serious potential last year, and Blythe is probably a step up from James Ferentz in terms of raw ability. You'd like him to be bigger in a power running game—Konz was a legit three bills at center even back in '09, and Blythe probably doesn't have the frame to get there—but he's got no problems with technique. Boffeli has loads of experience in Iowa's zone blocking scheme, though he hasn't been able to crack the starting lineup thus far and that's usually not a great sign.
Wisconsin's man blocking scheme fits its size and helps facilitate its heavy power-run approach. Mash the guy in front of you, let the big guy get a head of steam and fall forward for 6 yards, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, touchdown. A zone scheme with smaller blockers (not much smaller, but 20-30 pounds across the board is not insignificant) is more susceptible to being beaten 1-on-1 at the point of attack, but it's "smarter" (as long as the tailback can find the crease) and lends itself to fewer disasters. Or so you'd hope, anyway.
Iowa's line is big enough for what it needs to do. Maybe if Ferentz wanted a man blocking scheme his blockers would be encouraged to bulk up more. If that line can do its job at a competent level, though, and if it can wear down a defense over the course of four quarters to the point where a power rushing attack imposes its will and salts games away, Iowa could find itself on the right side of the points scored/allowed ledger.
Or, you know, more zone left and 3-yard out patterns in the name of "balance." Whichever works.