In a recent episode of the Hawk Central podcast, Des Moines Register Columnist Chad Leistikow conducted a sprawling 3+ hour interview with Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz that touched on nearly every facet of Iowa’s offensive play calling. One of the many nuggets of information divulged by Ferentz during the interview was the extent to which opposing defenses keyed in on Ihmir Smith-Marsette during the 2020 season. While many fans expressed frustration about the coaching staff’s inability to get the speedy senior more touches, Ferentz noted that defenses prioritized taking the deep ball away and took extra care to ensure that Smith-Marsette was not able to beat them over the top.
Opposing defenses keying in on important offensive players is hardly a new concept and is one that Hawkeye fans should be very familiar with over the past few years. Defenses focused their attention on Akrum Wadley in 2017 and Noah Fant in 2018, which often created opportunities for other players to shine thanks to diminished attention from opposing defensive coaches. However, opponents continued to stick with their denial strategy for one reason—the knowledge that, if the ball is in the hands of Iowa’s most electric offensive players, they would always be a threat to break the game open on a single play.
With Smith-Marsette in the NFL, running back Tyler Goodson, a player who benefited as much as anyone from opponents’ focus on taking away the deep ball last year, will be the top priority for opposing defenses looking to out-scheme the Hawkeyes in 2021. Goodson was a First-team All-Big Ten selection as a sophomore who led the Hawkeyes with seven touchdowns and 914 yards from scrimmage through seven games. Given Iowa’s commitment to running the ball and Goodson’s explosiveness, one can safely assume that stopping him will be item #1 on every team’s agenda list this fall. History shows that Iowa’s coaches often fail to maximize the talent on an offensive skill player when they become the primary focus of the defense; Wadley’s average yards-per-play fell from 6.8 to 5.2 during in 2017, Smith-Marsette was invisible in the vertical passing game until the final contest of 2020, and the underutilization of Noah Fant was a constant source of frustration for Hawkeye fans throughout 2018.
For Iowa’s offense to succeed in 2021, the Hawkeyes must find a way to make Tyler Goodson “scheme-proof.” The talented junior running back is simply too dynamic for the Hawkeyes to deny touches to him even in a world where opposing defense are clearly dialed in on stopping him from impacting the game. If Goodson is struggling to produce due to the attention he is getting from the defense, the onus should be on Iowa’s coaching staff to find more inventive ways to get Goodson involved in the offense.
Why is it so essential for Goodson to emerge as the focal point of the Hawkeye offense in 2021? Goodson has game-breaking speed and is capable changing a contest on a single play. No offensive player on the Hawkeye roster has shown themselves capable of matching Goodson’s dynamism with the ball in his hand; perhaps Tyrone Tracy or one of Iowa’s young wide receivers will flash as similar level of ability this season, but Goodson is clearly the Hawkeyes’ most dangerous proven commodity when it comes to burning opponents in space. Whether he is beating an opponent in a foot race,
making them miss,
Goodson is a legitimate threat to score every time he touches the ball. If the Hawkeyes allow the crux of their offense to shift away from Goodson, they are giving their opponents a tremendous gift and making their job significantly easier.
Fortunately, there is reason to believe that Goodson might be slightly more scheme-proof than some of Iowa’s primary offensive weapons of years past. Perhaps the best way to ensure that Goodson gets adequate touches is to snap him the ball directly, something which Iowa’s coaches did periodically last season in a serious stylistic departure from the traditional Ferentz offense. Goodson saw several interesting looks from the Wildcat formation: he ran QB power plays with a fullback lined up next to him in the backfield;
read option plays with a running back or wide receiver on either side of him;
and running plays with Goodson as the sole player in the Hawkeye backfield.
The Wildcat package not only increases the number of plays in which Goodson has the ball in his hands, but also gives him the opportunity to read the defense and assess in real-time whether he has an opportunity to make a play before deferring to one of his teammates. If Iowa manages to dial up even one or two clever pass plays with Goodson out of these formations, it could open up an entirely new realm of play calling possibilities and will prevent the defense from singularly keying in on the run when he lines up behind center.
Furthermore, Goodson has the luxury of being a legitimate weapon as a receiver. The junior tailback can catch the ball out of the backfield
or line up as a wide receiver.
If opposing defenses are able to successfully key in on stopping Iowa’s running game, that should be no excuse for Goodson not getting his touches, as the coaching staff can look for opportunities to involve him in the passing attack. Akrum Wadley was arguably underutilized as a receiver during his last year at Iowa, despite several of his most noteworthy plays that season coming in the passing game. The Hawkeyes cannot afford to make that same mistake again and should make sure Goodson is heavily featured whether Iowa is running the ball or throwing it.
Iowa’s coaching staff has too often allowed opposing defense to dictate the terms of engagement when it comes to involving its best offensive skill players in the gameplan. With Tyler Goodson’s talent, versatility, and clear importance to the Hawkeye offense, the coaching staff has no excuse to make that mistake in 2021. If Tyler Goodson is healthy and failing to produce at an all-conference level, the coaching staff simply isn’t getting creative enough.