IOWA CITY, Iowa — Ken O’Keefe was the common sense replacement to renovate Iowa’s offense from a tractor on four wheels and two flat tires to one that at least advances the football without dragging as it chops down the cornstalks.
O’Keefe was Kirk Ferentz’s offensive coordinator from 1999 through 2011, guiding a unit that often chewed up defenses and sometimes hit for big passing plays. Hawkeyes quarterbacks were at least solid and often terrific. Then O’Keefe left in 2012 to coach wide receivers with the Miami Dolphins, and in his absence Iowa’s offense mostly sputtered and often stalled.
This spring, O’Keefe returned to coach the quarterbacks. His charge is the most important for Iowa’s upcoming season, and that’s to develop at least one quarterback for prime-time action. Combined, Iowa quarterbacks Nathan Stanley and Tyler Wiegers have thrown for 13 passes the last two seasons. Neither has emerged as the clear starter, and one must for Iowa to contend this season. That’s on O’Keefe.
It’s a major responsibility, but one for which O’Keefe is prepared. Ferentz gave him a 3-year, $540,000 annual contract, and there are few people Ferentz trusts more than O’Keefe. Both O’Keefe and previous offensive coordinator Greg Davis — who retired in January — have Ferentz’s ear on all quarterback decisions. O’Keefe’s track record means his word carries immense weight with Ferentz.
“You’re talking about two guys that are master coaches, really veteran guys,” Ferentz said. “Guys that thoroughly understand that position better than I pretend to. So I think that’s a real plus for us. That’s what, just as I mentioned teamwork, we have teamwork on the staff, too. Ken’s in the room with those guys [the quarterbacks] every minute. He’s the one in their ear all the time. He’s hearing the feedback. He hears things that the rest of us aren’t privileged to hear.”
Naming a quarterback is a collective decision, one that Ferentz ultimately will decide. But O’Keefe and offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz will influence that call. Sometimes it’s easy, like Drew Tate in 2004. Other times, it’s painful, like in 2015 when Kirk Ferentz and Davis elevated C.J. Beathard over two-year starter Jake Rudock. Outside of that decision, O’Keefe has been involved in every other quarterback call.
Perhaps the situation most resembling of the current competition came in 2008. Returning starter Jake Christensen, a junior, was embroiled in a challenge from sophomore Ricky Stanzi. There was no clear winner in the offseason and training camp. Both players saw action in the Hawkeyes’ first four games and alternated starts in the final two nonconference contests. Finally, entering Big Ten play, Stanzi earned the job.
“We couldn’t get that figured out until almost four games before it became apparent to us that who the guy was and where we’re going with it,” O’Keefe said.
That could happen this year, too. O’Keefe measures all the tangibles — completion percentage, quarterback ratings, etc. — to track the quarterbacks. The team hasn’t scrimmaged yet to simulate game situations. Chances are likely one quarterback earns the starting nod, but the depth chart comes with an ellipsis rather than a period.
“The defining element in all of this is what? What happens on game day,” O’Keefe said. “How do you perform on game day. We don’t know about that without preseason games or scrimmages against other people. It’s difficult to tell without getting them out there on that game field.
“Coaches are very strongly influenced by what they see every day at practice. It’s the best thing they can go on. So it’s not very subjective until you get out there in those other situations that I described [moving the football against a live defense] when we’re going against each other as a team. If that doesn’t separate itself, the only way it’s going to separate itself are those games. Then you’ve got to kind of find out where it’s going.”
Some inexperienced coaches might press for a faster decision. Ferentz — with O’Keefe coaching the quarterbacks — is content with making the right decision, whenever that comes. That allows O’Keefe to apply pressure every day but remain patient with the process.
“I don’t think it’s anything unusual. It’s very normal and we’re going to let it settle itself,” O’Keefe said. “We’ll just see how it all shakes out. We don’t have them right now as a ball club. We’re working hard to get there.”
In the past O’Keefe developed Kyle McCann and Nathan Chandler into nice quarterbacks in 2001 and 2003, respectively. O’Keefe coached Brad Banks to a runner-up finish for the 2002 Heisman Trophy and Stanzi to three straight bowl victories. James Vandenberg threw 25 touchdowns in O’Keefe’s final season in 2011. Under O’Keefe’s tutelage, Tate paced Iowa to the 2004 Big Ten co-title with a crippled running attack.
For what Iowa wants to do as Ferentz nears the coaching finish line, O’Keefe is the right guy to mold the quarterbacks. If he can do it again, he’s worth every sizable check deposited monthly into his bank account.