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Overreaction Monday: In a world of sprinters, Kirk Ferentz runs marathons

Will Ferentz’s unique way to football prove tantamount in their ability to bounce back from offseason delays?

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Southern California vs Iowa Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In the aftermath of the Iowa Hawkeyes’ 49-24 victory over the USC Trojans, a storyline emerged from their media contingent: the more professional, prepared, and poised team won.

It was at this point where I realized just how good Iowa has it. Kirk and his staff are focused on every little detail. The best example from the above video is how Iowa will take every commercial break and use it to have the first- and second-string quarterbacks throw passes on the field. It’s incredible considering Iowa had a starting quarterback sit out meaningful time just twice in the last decade.

If there’s a team in college football which doesn’t need to have a backup throw 100 passes over the course of a game, it’s IOWA. And yet, they do.

While it may seem months late to write this intro contrasting USC’s constant focus on the short-term with Iowa’s detailed “what if” approach to preparation, they are the poster boy for myopia: every game is a 100-yard dash. Kirk Ferentz, by virtue of his tenure, is the rare college football coach who can look at a football season as a single race: the marathon.

Perhaps it has always been this way for Ferentz, but the marathon-view was never more polarizing than the 2016-17 recruiting cycle. There was plenty of tumult, highlighted by Eno Benjamin’s decommitment. If nothing else, it showed there were sprinters on Iowa’s staff who were willing to kowtow to a single teenager over hard and fast rules.

Despite Benjamin’s non-arrival amid the Texodus, Iowa’s recruiting class was highlighted by guys who operated the way Kirk Ferentz prefers. Kelvin Bell consistently referred to A.J. Epenesa as a five-star player with a two-star work ethic. Tristan Wirfs’ ability in the weight room is only exceeded by his on-field skill. Geno Stone was the latest DB to pass through Phil Parker’s position room with his eyes set on the NFL.

The group also includes returning starters: Djimon Colbert, Brandon Smith, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Matt Hankins, and Mark Kallenberger. They represent a foundation with a step up in talent while maintaining intangibles Kirk and company require to see the field. The recruiting since then has only ramped up in its focus on fit for a player in the Iowa Hawkeye ecosystem.

Iowa’s straight-ahead, professional approach was never more on display than last year. The Hawkeye staff never oversold the offense. They sold complementary football at the beginning of the season and nearly every step of the way. There was never any overreaction to what was playing out on the field as Iowa football stuck to the script.

Each game, another mile. Don’t worry about the mile prior, just push forward as planned and build for the finish line.

They certainly faced their share of hills in Michigan, Penn State, and Wisconsin. But they never wavered in the way they did things which resulted in a crescendo in San Diego, where their process and preparation was on full display.

It’s that process and preparation which gives Iowa a foundation to have a strong 2020 football season.

Without any spring ball due to COVID-19, the Hawks aren’t able to build any chemistry on the gridiron. But, they are not at a disadvantage as the Big Ten has delayed in-person team activities until the end of the semester. Ohio State and Wisconsin have already declared their summer classes (which extend through July) will be online-only. Many others are likely to follow.

What that means for football, exactly, is unknown. Kirk Ferentz is taking the right approach: don’t over plan. The most illuminating tidbit from his teleconference earlier this month was his assertion that 8 weeks is just about the minimum amount of time he’d want before playing a game. He added that OTAs over the summer would be optimistic.

The biggest key is making sure players don’t get sideways in their preparation. Some coaches are doing it by proclaiming “This Is Gonna End Real Soon” or whatever it was that Mike Gundy said, but Iowa is going about it the right way.

They’re being realistic. By working with players individually to understand what means they have available, building workout plans to those means, and tracking their progress, the strength and conditioning staff is continuing the professional approach through telecommuting. The biggest loss, of course, is potential weight. Only those in Iowa City (~20 athletes) are able to pick up food from the now-closed Hansen Center, and many others are yearning for vegetables.

Though Iowa loses out on the chemistry built in spring ball, it is not as if they are faced with refilling the pipeline with a ton of production: 7 of the Hawkeyes’ 8 top gainers from scrimmage will be back. Spencer Petras needs to replace Nate Stanley so there is value in no QB competition whenever practice returns. If there’s a positive about losing all the spring ball, maybe it means Iowa focuses on a less choreographed, chemistry-reliant, running scheme.

Defense may be a bigger challenge, with Epenesa, Welch, Stone, and Michael Ojemudia departing among others. At some key positions, the lost practice time gives Iowa 15 less opportunities to identify who’s the best for the roles available.

Yet the institutional knowledge which surrounds the program is at an all-time high with no staff turnover. and Kirk Ferentz has his head on the right way when attacking this challenge. Whatever plan he’s developing for the lead-up to 2020, it’s very likely going to put Iowa in the best position to have another successful football season. The players have shown, from recruitment into their last outing, they’re capable of executing it.

Though football pales in comparison to COVID-19, nobody has built a program as focused on the big picture as Kirk Ferentz. It’s that view, the marathon view, which gives Iowa as strong a chance as anyone at succeeding when we all return to normality.