IOWA CITY, Iowa — In one big swoop Monday afternoon, the Ferentz family extended its influence over Hawkeyes football.
Only three days removed from Greg Davis’ official notice of retirement as Iowa’s offensive coordinator, head coach Kirk Ferentz promoted his eldest son, Brian, from offensive line coach to offensive coordinator. The move hardly was unexpected, especially with Brian’s resume to go along with his pedigree.
Brian Ferentz had opportunities to leave Iowa for jobs beyond a position coach. It was only natural that his next step forward was in black and gold. For Kirk Ferentz, it was essential, and not just because he wants to see his grandchildren on a regular basis. It was a deliberate, but decisive, move.
“Selfishly, whether he’s my kid or not, I don’t want to lose good coaches off our staff,” Kirk Ferentz said. “There was no bargaining. I thought about it, and like I always do: I move like a tortoise, but you know, this made a lot of sense to me.”
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A myriad of questions remain in Hawkeyeland, ranging from who will coach quarterbacks and the offensive line to whether more staff members are leaving (extremely likely). The details will take time to sort, and the NCAA’s expected addition of a 10th assistant coach allows for additional flexibility. The answers are likely to come after the NFL playoffs and national signing day.
But what doesn’t change and remains imperative is Brian Ferentz must tackle a sputtering passing game with the same enthusiasm he displayed Monday afternoon. He’s young (33), self-assured and confident. He was trained by the best minds in all levels of football, from his time in New England with Bill Belichick, Bill O’Brien and Dante Scarnecchia to his Iowa days under Joe Philbin and, yes, Kirk Ferentz. Brian Ferentz is ready for his opportunity, but his honeymoon period ended five minutes ago.
“Certainly, offensively we didn’t execute to the standard we hoped to this year at all times,” Brian Ferentz said. “There was some good mixed in with the bad. I think it’s hard to win eight games with all bad.”
As a former Iowa player (2002-05) and offensive line coach (2012-2016), Brian Ferentz served as run game coordinator with a sampling of success the last two years. Iowa rushed for 170 yards a game this year to rank 68th nationally. Considering the opposition and style of play, that’s not a horrendous number. The Hawkeyes are about ground acquisition, tight splits and attacking defenders in violent bursts, not with slash-and-dash techniques that look like pick-and-rolls in basketball. It’s about smacking the taste from your mouth, not annoyingly flicking your earlobe.
Brian Ferentz reiterated his reliance upon a power running game yet again Monday. But he shared his philosophy directly in a small, quaint interview session in 2015. Here’s a hint: He doesn’t differ from his old man. Nor should he.
“Yards per carry is a critical statistic in my opinion,” he said in 2015. “I think for us to have a healthy offense, you’ve got to be looking for somewhere in that 5.0, right in that region. If you’re averaging 5.0 yards per carry in this offense, I think you’re running the ball very effectively. Not, ‘Hey, we’re running well enough to win.’ We’re running well enough to win a championship. When you go back and you look at us over the years, our best football teams are right around that number and our best football teams were over that number.
“What are we trying to do? We’re going to try to be the most physical football team on the field. That’s a goal. When we are, the results are good. When we’re not, they’re not.”
Iowa rushed for 35 touchdowns in 2015. Two running backs exceeded 1,000 yards apiece this year for the first time in school history. With leading rusher Akrum Wadley sticking around, the running game shouldn’t be a problem — provided everyone stays healthy, of course. That always comes with an asterisk at Iowa.
But under Davis, the passing game was like a worn-out snowblower in the middle of a blizzard. Sure it fired up once in a while, but I’ll be damned if it never worked when it was necessary. The passing game stalled in Davis’ first year, when Iowa’s 10.09 yards per completion was the program’s lowest since 1946. In yards per attempt, the Hawkeyes’ 5.8 was 116th in the country. Quarterback James Vandenberg had seven touchdowns that year after throwing 25 in 2011.
In many ways, 2016 was worse. Much worse. In three of Iowa’s final four games, the Hawkeyes failed to surpass 80 passing yards and they still won two of the sub-80 games. This was with quarterback C.J. Beathard, who most believe is an NFL-caliber quarterback. The 30-3 Outback Bowl disaster had Beathard and true freshman Nathan Stanley completing only 7 of 24 passes for 55 yards and three interceptions. Iowa couldn’t complete a big pass by accident against Florida’s secondary, and everyone had a month to prepare for it.
The scheme was lacking, as was the talent. So was the receiver development. Once Matt VandeBerg went down with a broken foot, the entire passing game cratered. That’s even with a quarterback like Beathard.
This is where Brian Ferentz comes in. He’s never coached quarterbacks before, so he’ll need to work with a new position coach on a schematic philosophy. That probably includes a new receivers coach, too. Kirk Ferentz promised to give Brian Ferentz room to formulate a game plan, but as headstrong as Brian Ferentz is and as stubborn as Kirk Ferentz is, the process likely will result in creative friction. That’s something that should move Iowa forward. For the legacy of both Ferentzes, it can’t afford to go backward.