You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, the saying goes. For the longest time, that has seemed all too true. While many regard Kirk a Ferentz as a very good, consistent coach who has been a wonderful fit in Iowa City, a common criticism is his perceived stubbornness.
Whether it be outside zone into the boundary, the senior starter over the more dynamic freshman or the 4th down punt in plus territory, fans have decades of evidence that Kirk Ferentz simply knows what he likes and isn’t going to change. But that has come into question over the years with the advent of New Kirk and New Kirk 2.0 and several patches since then.
The most recent installed update, New Kirk 2.19, came with some added enhancements to the operating system we’ve come to know and love/hate. Among them, we’ve seen freshmen in positions that touch the ball. Like, a lot.
That included a redshirt freshman touching the ball on every play after switching from the defensive side of the ball. The Tyler Linderbaum experience has perhaps changed the way fans and the coaching staff alike think about what a center should look like at Iowa. Linderbaum wasn’t a guy who was athletic in high school and showed great promise for lateral movement in a zone blocking scheme and a high football IQ to diagnose protections, he was a badass who showed great promise in beating up defenders and running their noses in it. And it worked incredibly well. Now we’re seeing the staff hit the recruiting trail looking for similar traits in Linderbaum’s replacement, who is likely to be needed sooner than later given the likelihood the Solon native ends up on the Tristan Wirfs plan for winning friends and making millions.
The staff seems to be in a similar situation at other positions. Like linemen, freshmen almost never see significant time at running back under Ferentz. You wouldn’t want to trust some 18 year old to keep your senior QB clean on a blitz pickup in crunch time and there’s always that risk they will just fumble the ball away doing some ridiculous spin move instead of going high and tight through contact to live and fight for third down.
Except, that old dog Kirk went ahead handed over the keys to the Benz to a dynamic freshman in Tyler Goodson. Not only did they trust him and get rewarded with tremendous production (Goodson finished his freshman campaign with 638 yards and 5 rushing TDs on a 4.8 ypc average), but Ferentz went totally off script in getting Goodson to Iowa City in the first place.
After years of focusing recruiting efforts on the Midwest with some Florida, Texas and New Jersey sprinkled in, the Iowa staff took note of the immense amounts of high school talent in Georgia and made a concerted effort to break into the state. They went so far as to hire running backs coach Derrick Foster in part because of his track record coaching and recruiting in the south. Then, despite having a 4-star back from the Midwest ready to commit, they made the dynamic playmaker from Georgia the priority.
The results spoke for themselves as Goodson became Iowa’s starting running back and has Iowa fans as excited about the position as they’ve been since they found out just how much impact a player like Akrum Wadley could have. And the staff trusted him down the stretch.
They’ve done something similar at receiver. After being a weakness of the Ferentz approach to football for years and years, Iowa found a blueprint in 2019 that has opened eyes for both fans and recruits alike. The Hawkeyes have their prototypical Ken O’Keefe receiver on the outside with Brandon Smith, who isn’t going to win every foot race, but will our jump anyone and has the size to be an excellent possession receiver. They have their prototype slot guy in Nico Ragaini, who can go over the middle and take hits while still using enough quickness to make something out of nothing on short and intermediate routes.
What was different about last year’s group, however, was the other two major contributors. We’ve know for a while that Ihmir Smith-Marsette is a speedster. He showed that as a prospect. But in 2019, we saw Iowa lean into that speed and look for ways to get ISM the ball other than simple fade routes and kick return. We saw jet sweeps and a variety of screen packages and a reasonably full route tree. Beyond that, we’ve seen on the recruiting trail that Iowa likes what they’ve found is ISM.
They also clearly like what they have in Tyrone Tracy. A hybrid WR/RB who did it all at the high school level, it was assumed Tracy would be more of a slot guy at Iowa and he would have to compete with the aforementioned Ragaini for snaps. Wrong. Iowa has created a role in the offense unique to Tracy that puts him all over the field.
And again, the staff is out on the recruiting trail trying to replicate that. The class of 2021 features three WR commits currently. Each seems to fit almost perfectly into the roles of Brandon Smith, Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Tyrone Tracy. And it’s not just a hunch - recent commit Keagan Johnson, whose father won a pair of national championships catching passes for Nebraska in the 90s, said flatly that staff is recruiting these guys telling them the speicific role they’ll play. More importantly, they’re excited about it. It’s something totally new for Iowa at WR, and these guys should be excited about it.
As impactful as each of those changes has been, and there are clearly many more (going for it on 4th down or fake punts/field goals, anyone?), perhaps the most unsung change Kirk Ferentz has made with the installation of New Kirk 2.19 is the willingness to utilize transfers.
Over the last several offseasons, Iowa has taken at least one transfer in basically every class. And the Hawkeyes aren’t just taking guys and stashing them, they’re getting transfers at positions of need and plugging them right into starting positions.
This started a little less than five years ago. Coming off a 2015 season that saw Iowa run the table in the regular season, the Hawkeyes were in need of a punter. Senior Dillon Kidd had graduated and while there were three punters on the roster, none were older than a redshirt freshman.
Enter Ron Coluzzi, graduate transfer from Central Michigan.
Coluzzi came in and took the starting job in fall camp. He went on to average 41.1 yards per punt and proved that punting truly is winning. Kirk Ferentz was sold.
The next year, Iowa went out and got themselves a graduate transfer running back in Nevada product James Butler. In 2019, the Hawkeyes went back to the transfer market and grabbed another punter in Michael Sleep-Dalton.
This year, Kirk Ferentz and staff have tapped the transfer market for a pair of players. First it was offensive lineman Coy Cronk of Indiana, who figures a virtual lock to step in for Tristan Wirfs. Now, Iowa is back with the addition of defensive tackle Jack Heflin from Northern Illinois.
Like Cronk, Heflin is going to be a contributor. He comes in with a game-ready body for a defensive line unit that needs game-ready bodies.
That’s exactly what you would hope for out of a grad-transfer: someone who can contribute right away. Despite the general stigma of stubbornness, it seems Kirk Ferentz has caught on to the trend. Much like the change in recruiting or the general philosophy on playing younger players, Ferentz has adapted to the times. It seems you can teach an old dog new tricks.