In the twenty years since Kirk Ferentz joined the Iowa football program, there have been a number of ups and downs. While the Hawkeyes have become synonymous with 8-4 with an Outback Bowl win during his tenure, his legacy will largely be defined by the peaks of 2002-2004 with three straight top-ten finishes, the 2009 Orange Bowl Season and the 2015 undefeated regular season in the pro column and the valleys of 2006-2007 and the abysmal 2012 season.
As we approach what is sure to be the twilight of Ferentz the elder’s coaching career, it seems pertinent to ask what fans should expect down the home stretch. Will it be another series of 8-4 seasons? Will the wheels fall off a la 2012 and Kirk leave not of his own accord? Or will he be able to ride off into the sunset with new highs and the program set up for a future Hawkeye fans have been dreaming of?
The opportunity is there for any of those outcomes, but the window of opportunity for door number three is closing more and more with every year. That kind of success requires catching lightning in a bottle, something this staff has been able to do on occasion, but never to its fullest capability. Doing so requires getting all the right bounces of the ball, all the right scheduling quirks and all the right players on campus to take advantage of them.
For twelve games in 2015, the Hawkeyes were able to do it. Last season, despite having the talent of a pair of tight ends who became the first teammates at the position to go in the first round of the NFL Draft, two other early entrants to be drafted, a slew of talented underclassmen who didn’t leave early and a schedule that could have aligned much better if the staff had hand-picked it, we didn’t see that lightning in a bottle. We got 9-4 and an Outback Bowl win.
As we set our sights on the immediate future, things don’t look great for a rapid improvement. The schedule for 2019 is certainly more difficult, including crossover games with Penn State and at Michigan, as well as trips to Ames, Madison and Lincoln. The Hawkeyes will be facing that stiffer competition without those aforementioned draft picks.
So is 2019 destined to be another middle-of-the-road season? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
There has been pretty restricted access to the Hawkeyes this spring. Not that Ferentz is known for being an open book, but even the annual
spring game open practice was a no-go this year and fans have been left without much to cling onto until August rolls around.
For a select Iowa journalists, that all changed on Friday night as the Hawkeyes held their final practice of spring with the doors open to the media. Since then, reports have been piling up with everyone giving their assessment of where things stand.
As you’d expect and typically see this time of year, the defense is ahead of the offense by all accounts (insert “it’s not just the time of year” joke here). Perhaps the most interesting thing about the defensive assessments is more around the scheme and the personality the defense seems to be taking on.
Historically under Ferentz, which is to say largely under Norm Parker, Iowa ran a fairly plain vanilla defense. For years, Hawkeye fans complained about linebackers being matched up with slot receivers or running backs in space (I will not insert a clip of Christian McCaffrey, I will not insert a clip of Christian McCaffrey) and a lack of pressure via the blitz.
When Phil Parker took over the defense he, for the most part, left well enough alone. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. But over the years, Phil has taken to tinkering with that Norm Parker defense and things seem to be undergoing a bit more change this offseason. Just because it ain’t broke, doesn’t mean it can’t be better.
That seems to mean a commitment to this 4-2-5 look on defense for the most part. Obviously when Wisconsin gets drunk and sends 7 offensive linemen out there for an entire game again, Phil will likely utilize a more traditional looking Iowa defense. But otherwise it seems having an additional defensive back in the game to cover the slot or someone speedier on the interior will be the new normal.
While Amani Hooker is now a Tennessee Titan, Indianapolis-native D.J. Johnson has been impressing and seems poised to star in the “cash” position this year. He’ll pair nicely with Matt Hankins and Michael Ojemudia on the outside (although it’s still possible OJ moves into that cash role - he could do quite well there) and Julius Brents seems like he’s going to be a great one after them. There are also rumblings that freshman Daraun McKinney may be next in line behind them.
We know what Geno Stone brings on the back end and we seem to have an answer as to who will join him. Kaevon Merriweather joined the class of 2018 late in the cycle and was a division 1 basketball prospect, now he’s poised to be a starting safety in Phil Parker’s defense. Hawkeye fans should feel good about the secondary for 2019.
That secondary should have some opportunities to make plays with the defensive line Iowa returns this year. A.J. Epenesa is getting all the hype, and it’s much deserved. The kid led the Big Ten in sacks last year while playing a fraction of the snaps of most starters. But that success is likely to lead to more defensive attention this season, which should free up the rest of the defensive line.
By all accounts, Chauncey Golston is ready to take advantage. In a normal year, he’d be finishing his spring with a lot of hype, but Iowa doesn’t have an A.J. Epenesa in a normal spring. The question now is how much help the two defensive ends will get up the middle. Cedric Lattimore and Brady Reiff are good players and they’ll do well with the two edge defenders in the starting lineup. But behind them are a couple of relatively new guys who could make an impact.
Daviyon Nixon is a giant human being. But beyond that, he’s quick and athletic. He brings something physically that simply can’t be taught. It sounds like the lightbulb is starting to go off for him on the scheme and technique. If he can find consistency by fall, look for him to be a force on the defensive front, which would do wonders for Iowa in the run game and help free up the pass rushers off the edge.
Speaking of pass rushers off the edge, a number of people reported being impressed by Jayden McDonald. The redshirt freshman is a linebacker, but with depth in front of him it sounds like Phil Parker is looking for ways to get his athletes on the field. For McDonald, as well as senior Amani Jones (who was out on Friday), that means lining up on the edge in a standing position and pinning your ears back.
That’s not something we’ve seen much before from an Iowa defensive coordinator. It seems strange to think you’d be looking for more ways to pressure the QB with Golston and Epenesa on the field, but Phil is apparently experimenting. He’s also apparently experimenting with more blitzes, which is not something you expect to hear in spring practice. If that’s to be believed, this could be a really interesting season for the Iowa defense.
On the other side of the ball, Nate Stanley is back for his third season under center. He has all the tools to be the next Iowa quarterback to make the league. The question is whether he can find his touch on the deep ball and consistency when the heat is on.
He’ll come into this season without his favorite targets from a season ago. With Hockenson and Fant going in the first round and Nick Easley headed to Buffalo as an undrafted free agent, the Hawkeyes need to find production in the passing game for 2019. Fortunately, they return one of the most physically gifted receivers in recent memory with Brandon Smith, as well as one of the quickest with Ihmir Smith-Marsette.
It’s hard not to like the potential on the outside despite the questions on consistency. Inside, Iowa may have found their Nick Easley replacement during the spring. Redshirt freshman Nico Ragaini has emerged as the next in a long line of under-recruited slot receivers who runs good routes, has sure hands and will eventually get a look in a rookie camp.
To pair with Ragaini, Tyrone Tracy seems to have had the light come on as well. He oozes potential with all sorts of athleticism. He’s a bit of a hybrid with the potential to lineup in the backfield, but enough burst to blow by anyone on the inside. Iowa will need the pair to take some of the lost production from the tight ends. Regardless of how good anyone proves to be, it will be impossible to replace Hock and Fant.
Shaun Beyer is set to try. He’s another one on the hype train. He has all the measurables and enough nasty in him to become a poor man’s T.J. Hockenson. There’s likely nobody to replace the athleticism of Fant and it’s unlikely Iowa will try. Look for less reliance on the tight end this upcoming season unless something changes on the depth chart before fall camp.
One thing that will need to change by then is the running game. It’s one of the major factors in Iowa’s final record a season ago. Despite the schedule and the talent, the Hawkeyes struggled to run the ball and it hurt them.
That all starts up front and there are still questions there. The tackles are rock solid with Alaric Jackson and Trisn Wirfs both potentially leaving early for the draft a year from now. But the middle is more fluid. Iowa is breaking in a new center. And when I say breaking in, i mean converting a defensive tackle into a center.
That showed on Friday with some struggles out of shotgun, but Tyler Linderbaum has shown enough to all but secure the job according to Ferentz in his most recent press availability. It’s hard to know if the defensive line is that good or if the injuries and inexperience up front hurt the offense that much, but the number of people reporting they were impressed with Iowa’s running up the middle on Friday was 0.
If that’s the case in August, this could be an underwhelming year. It’s a shame given the talent in the backfield. Toren Young is a banger and Ivory Kelly-Martin has the burst, but it sounds like Mehki Sargent has secured the starting job and looked more patient in his reads this spring. Behind the trio, freshman Shadrick Byrd of Alabama opened some eyes on Friday. He’s only been on campus a few months, but has picked up the offense and shows a nice combination of vision and speed. It will be interesting to see how much run he and fellow incoming freshman Tyler Goodson get with the three returners ahead of them on the depth chart currently.
At the end of the day, there are more questions than answers coming out of spring football. That is always the case to some extent - there’s still nearly two dozen players that will be on this team and aren’t on campus yet. It seems even more the case this year.
That may be due to the limited access in a year without a truly open practice or it may be the turnover in some key spots and the more difficult schedule. Regardless of cause, fall can’t get here soon enough so we can get those questions answered.
This year marks what figures to be the beginning of the end of the Ferentz era. How this year goes could dictate how we remember the final years. An outperforming year could spur the kind of run we all dream of. A setback could set in motion the events that we have nightmares of. Anything in between is likely to feel like just another year with lost opportunities.
Happy Monday. Enjoy some spring footage to get you through the week.