IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has coached the Hawkeyes for 18 years. Like all head coaches, he’s had both recruiting hits and misses.
In Part 2 of his interview with Landof10.com’s Scott Dochterman, Ferentz discusses the challenges of recruiting receivers to Iowa, the players that didn’t sign, and those who did. He also talks about how close Iowa was to playing Desmond King on offense this year, his thoughts on Brandon Scherff and Marshal Yanda’s toughness, and against whom he measures his program.
DOCHTERMAN: You really put a lot of efforts into recruiting wide receivers about 3-4 years ago in the ’13 class. You had six guys, three of which transferred. Damon (Powell) was a JuCo guy, Derrick Mitchell is now a running back. Does the attrition rate scare you and have you changed the way you recruit because of what happened there?
FERENTZ: “A lot of times, with every experience, you’re learning. I’ve said it publicly, I learned a lot last year and I think I learned even more this year. One of the things I’ve learned is what’s good is good. It doesn’t change a lot. Historically, we haven’t had a lot of lot of guys who were productive receivers who were receivers in high school. I think back to the last 15 years. I’m thinking about (Ed) Hinkel, Marvin McNutt, Kevonte (Martin-Manley) was a receiver. A lot of the guys, Clinton Solomon was a high school quarterback. We’ve done a pretty good job of projecting players overall in recruiting. It’s probably something we can do more of from the receiver position. The facts are the guys my sister could tell you are the really good receivers, they’re going to Ohio State. They’re going to Michigan. (Amara) Darboh, we knew him and we wanted him. But he drove right by us and kept on going. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of looking at the other positions. Maybe looking beyond the obvious, I think we can do more of that at that position. Matt VandeBerg was a really good player. He was available because he weighed 150 pounds. We weren’t smart enough to offer him in February, but we were smart enough to get him in by August, so we got that one right. You’ve got to learn from some of those experiences and maybe see a little bit more than other people.”
SD: As far recruitment locally, are you still going to try and stretch borders? Are you going to re-evaluate everything that happened with Texas? I know Florida, you’ve been in and out of here and there, Western Pennsylvania you’ve been out of for a while.
KF: “Pennsylvania, our ties there aren’t as good as they were 15 years ago. Joe (Moore) was here giving us some inside information on guys. Florida, I’m really comfortable with what we’re doing there. I think we’ve got the right formula. The Texas thing, in retrospect, probably a little bit predictable. Sometimes, if we’re real fishing in real deep waters and we land something in June or May, is it going to be available? Maybe we saw something ahead of everybody else and everybody jumps in there. That kind of attrition always takes place. It’s predictable. That’s part of our — maybe we’ve got to read into that in the evaluation process. We had a tight end, I think it was the ’08 Outback Bowl we found out when we were at, the kid was committed to us from outside Cleveland and ended up jumping to Ohio State. Those things don’t surprise you when they happen but maybe we should have seen it. But we thought Ohio State was done at tight end that year, too, so we didn’t see that one coming. But those are the things that happen in recruiting and any time you’re not in your state — not that it couldn’t happen with an in-state player — but with out-of-state guys, if there’s a prominent school near him, they might jump ship.”
SD: Matt Ryan mentioned that it came down to you and Boston College for a spot. I’m sure you look back now and go wooo….
KF: “That would have been nice. He was a class young man, too. He and his dad. Really good people. It turns out one of my really good friends was on the Atlanta staff for five years and (Ryan) told him the same thing, about how much he liked it here. But I wish I had a dollar for every one of those we had. The distance there (from Philadelphia meant it) was B.C. It’s a tough sell sometimes.”
SD: Is there a player or two that you were a bridesmaid in the recruiting race that took you some time to get past the rejection letter?
KF: “That happens. That was more so in the ‘80s when I got emotionally attached. I’ll tell you a funny one. I remember telling Joe Moore we never played against (Purdue’s) Drew Brees but I saw him on film. I said, ‘Boy, as I understand it, Brees visited here. It would be nice if he was here.’ (Moore) just started laughing. ‘You just be glad he’s not.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘Do you think Coach Fry would have retired if Brees was playing?’ I said, ‘Good point. You’re right. I wouldn’t be here.’”
SD: David Johnson said you sat and evaluated his tape with him and he didn’t give the right effort when he wasn’t getting the ball. What do you recall of that?
KF: “The same quote was attributed to Kenny Jackson, who was a first-rounder for Penn State. He played for the Eagles. A great player. The report on him was if the ball went the other way, he stood there. But that’s a great illustration. There’s a reason why we didn’t recruit Bryce Paup, Chad Hennings and now David. Other schools didn’t recruit them, either, obviously, or they wouldn’t have gone to Air Force (Hennings) and UNI (Paup, Johnson). Those guys could have played anywhere at any college, anywhere and done really well. You name it. Alabama is the standard right now and they would have been two-year starters at Alabama. That’s how good they are. But that shows you how tricky recruiting is. The converse of that is, how come nobody recruited Josey Jewell? We almost didn’t. How come nobody recruited Mike Daniels? You can go right down the list of those guys that we hit on. But it would nice if we could hit them all, and get them all right.”
SD: Is the David the one you look back on and go ‘God, I wish we could have got that guy?’
KF: “Yeah, I don’t cry over spilled milk too much but at the same I read about comments they make about him. Tom Moore compared him to Franco Harris. That would have been nice. Probably where it’s most evident was when he torched us out here on the field (237 yards from scrimmage, one touchdown in 2014). That was the day it was most evident.”
SD: Have you ever looked back at a player and thought maybe we did wrong by that guy, James Vandenberg as a senior or maybe even Matt Kroul, who switched over to the other side of the ball in the NFL and if he’d been a guard here as opposed to a defensive tackle?
KF: “Not necessarily. I’ll share this one. I always thought Aaron Kampman would have been an All-American center. He turned out pretty good at defensive end, too. It worked out for him. But he would have been drafted higher than he was in the fifth round. Boy, he had everything you’d want in a center. He was so smart, aware, leadership. All those things you’d hope to have. And he was over 6-1, which again goes against everything I stand for. A 6-1 center, I’m the champion of that.
“I’ve always looked at it as the NFL career is really a byproduct of having a good college career. Our deal is we want our guys to do what they can do here to help us win. Matt had an unbelievable career here. Both he and Mitch (King) were four-year starters. What they did was so, so good. It didn’t work out for him eventually. But they gave it ample time. I think it was a smart move on their part because a lot of those 330-pound, Daniels is the exception, but they want those 330-pound guys playing inside. Matt wasn’t going to do that naturally. But boy he had every attribute of a good football player at any level. I’m kind of surprised he didn’t make it, quite frankly. I don’t know who they had that was better. Rob Bruggeman was another one. I was surprised he never made it. He played good for us. Oooh.”
SD: What moment made you proudest on the field?
KF: “The Michigan game this year was pretty good for a lot of reasons. But those questions are so hard. It’s like picking your kids. Which one? There’s really no answer. We had some great moments. So, it might be us qualifying for the Alamo Bowl (in 2001), playing in that and winning that. That was a big moment for us. Certainly, winning up at Penn State in 2000 was a big one for us. That was where the statistics actually matched the win. We beat Michigan State out here (in 2000) but statistically it was lopsided. We ran back a kickoff, we had a screen that hit. But that (Penn State) game, we played better than they did for 60-plus. So there are so many moments that critical. And there are a lot of things that are away from football that are really significant and important, too. Desmond King was the first kid in his family to graduate college the other day. A lot of guys would have left (for the NFL) a year ago. So that whole package was a pretty good story. That’s what makes this job a whole lot of fun. You’ve got a lot of opportunities to see a lot of victories that guys have and experience, whether it’s academics, what they do in their personal lives, or the football thing. It’s something that they didn’t think they could do.
“(Senior tackle) Ryan Ward hasn’t started a game here but he’s practiced as well this month as anybody we have on our team. That tells you a lot about a guy. He’s going to be OK in life. I’ll never worry about him when he walks out of here. He’s a smart guy, he’s got a great attitude and he thinks right. He’ll be immensely successful in his life. You can just see that. Again, he never played a down when the game was on the line but what a young man he is. That’s the fun part of this.”
SD: What are the things that made you most disappointed?
KF: “Outside of a discipline thing? It’s usually the most disappointing thing. Usually it’s in the context of wasted opportunities where if a guy doesn’t finish here, what a waste. To have an opportunity to be in college and get a degree from a school like Iowa or any Big Ten institution, is such an opportunity. We always we start with that. That’s the most important thing in our priority list with our players. If they forfeit that opportunity, that’s really sad. It’s even sadder if they leave and they don’t learn from it. That’s a bad thing. Anytime something happens like that, it’s not good.”
SD: With Desmond King, everybody was watching Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers. He’s playing running back, he’s playing 15 different positions on the field. And you think, ‘Why can’t Dez do that?’ You were pretty adamant all year long that you didn’t want to overdo King at his position and he also plays special teams. Was there ever a thought of, ‘Hey, let’s throw him out there and Wisconsin’s going, hey, we’ve got to watch out for this guy?’
KF: “Probably the only discussion we had would be throwing him out there and letting him do jet sweep action and not handing him the ball, just to see if he’d be a decoy. But the time it takes to invest in that and I know Michigan did it with Peppers. Basically, it was a wildcat package with him, that’s in essence what he did. I’ve got mixed emotions. It wasn’t a game-changer in our game, that package for (Peppers). The thing he did that was so unique in my mind was the way he played on defense. That was something I’ve never seen before, a guy like that playing down in the box, that’s kind of unique. The closest guy I can think of would be Blaine Bishop, who played for the Oilers and then the Titans. A Ball State guy, interestingly enough. What a guy he was. But then to be the return guy on top of it?
“Desmond has played super on defense. That part we kind of saw coming, developing. I will be the first to tell you I never envisioned him being so dynamic as a return guy, punt or kick. If you watch him practice, and I’ve talked about this, but the effort he puts into it, if he catches one, he’s running 60 yards down the field full speed. The guys only have so much tread on the tire during the course of a week, but if you start piling on offense, mentally can he handle it? Is it going to start taking away from his effectiveness as a defender? Or his effectiveness as a returner? That return part is a big thing for us right now because of our condition of offense right now. Those yards are really valuable, too. I guess in my judgment we’re doing the right thing with him and getting a lot of value from a really good player.”
SD: I see Dez as an Earl Thomas. He can play nickel, he can play safety, he can play corner. He hits, he’s not just a cover guy.
KF: “He’s really solidly built. He’s a strong guy. That’s unusual for a DB. I joke with, ‘There’s going to be a lot of NFL teams that won’t want you play corner because you tackle.’ That’s not a requisite in the NFL there if you’re a corner. But for a team that zones up a little bit and does that stuff, he could play safety. He could do a lot of things. I felt like Micah (Hyde), they’re not the same guy, but the productivity they have, they’re different builds and they play a different style of football, nonetheless, their value to a team is pretty good and they’re both great guys.”
SD: Josey Jewell, is he the football ghost of Mike Curtis?
KF: “I don’t think he’s punched anybody. … I could see that, yeah. It’s funny. I was a linebacker in high school and college so I used to get Sport Magazine and I had I guess nine pictures up on the wall and Mike Curtis was one of them. No. 32, right, with the Colts? (Willie) Lanier was up there, a couple of other guys from that era. He was a pretty salty player and Josey is salty for sure.
“The Decorah gene has been passed on. Brett Van Sloten was the same way (as Jewell). Brett had a certain way of how things were going to be done. He was not afraid to let people know.”
SD: We see you get emotional quite a bit. Of course your players see you more than we do. The public sees you and thinks in some case you’re stoic, like you’re not emotional. Do you think there’s a false impression of you because of the way you operate on the sidelines?
KF: “I’ve never worried too much about that one, either. But that’s a gene I got from my dad. Just it happens. When it happens, it happens. I guess that’s genetics, I never worried too much about that. I think all of us have to be genuine, no matter who we are. So whatever it is, your personality, your makeup, that’s what comes out. There’s definitely a private and a personal persona, I guess. Certainly players would know me a lot better for obvious reasons. That’s one of the neat things of being in sports or being in a family, your family stuff is in the house and then sports and the work that we do in this building and outside in the practice fields. But it’s totally different on game day.
“Game day is their day. It’s their day to perform, their day to be out there. Also, as a coach I’ve believed your role is to be thinking and at least have some idea of what’s going on and try to take the information in and try to communicate it in a way that’s beneficial for everybody you’re responsible for. You’ve got to try to keep a clear head during that, I think. I know if I fly off the handle, I’m not thinking too clearly. I learned that at a young age that sometimes you’ve got to control that a little bit. I think the way you operate just gets down to your perception of what’s necessary for whatever environment you’re in. For us, practice is a very different environment, a different thing at that point. We’re trying to get there instead of trying to perform. So, players see a different side of that.
“I don’t want to appear to be a jerk, I’m not saying that; that is important to me. I think what’s important is the people I work with, how do they see me? What do I project to them? How do I come across to them? I think more about that. Out in the public, I don’t want to be a jerk, but I’m not there to entertain. That’s not my job to entertain. My job is to try to help our football team be successful in competition.
“You’ve got to be your personality. If you’re a really vivacious, outgoing guy, then that’s probably what you should be out there doing, too. That’s what resonates.”
SD: When I covered the NFL draft a few years ago, I remember Brandon Scherff was downgraded by a few scouts because of his ‘lack of mobility’ in certain games his senior year. Yet, it was because he played just a few days after knee surgery. I asked, is he seriously getting penalized for being that tough?
KF; “I don’t know how the Redskins are going to do. I hope they do great. I’m pulling for them. They drafted him purely for who Brandon is and what he stood for and the fact he was out there a couple of days after getting his knee scoped. That spoke volumes about Brandon. To me that’s why they drafted him because they’re trying to build something in there, you have to have players in there who have a strong core beliefs if you’re going to be successful. If you don’t have those guys on your team, it’s hard to imagine having a winning culture so that’s what that was all about. If he could play tackle, guard, that stuff is almost irrelevant compared to getting a guy … which is why the Ravens continue to pay Marshal Yanda such good money. Which is unusual for a guard but there’s a good reason. It goes well beyond what he does on the field.”
SD: Yanda switched sides because he had a bad shoulder?
KF: “Nobody does that, except for him. But they value that and they understand that and value that whereas some organizations might not. You wonder why they’ve been winning so much historically? They’re smart guys out there.”
SD: I looked at Brandon Scherff in his junior year as dominant as any player I saw, regardless of the position. The unfortunate part of it is media has no experience with line play, it’s all about reputation and it carries through to voting. I’m not suggesting Brandon didn’t deserve the Outland his senior year, but he did deserve it his junior year.
KF: “It’s hard thing. That’s what’s neat about the Joe Moore Award. They do look at film. But a lot of stuff, especially with the linemen, there’s a lot of subjectivity in there. It’s kind of the nature of things. The good news is when you are a player like that, there’s a lot of satisfaction. What players really enjoy is watching the tape and seeing good performance. They know when they’ve done a good job. Certainly, Brandon was aware that he was playing at a pretty high level.”
SD: Is there a program that measure yourself against and has it changed over your duration because of the way the Big Ten has changed?
KF: “When I got here, we were looking up at Wisconsin. That was pretty obvious. It was interesting that our next-to-last game, when they clinched the Big Ten, (Ron) Dayne set the (NCAA career rushing) record. It was a pretty thorough trouncing (41-3). I told our players afterward that it’s actually good that we’re here because we got to see what it is that we want to be and what we aspire to and what we’re trying to get to and what level. We saw firsthand the steps we were going to have to take or at least the gap that we were going to have to try to close. I think those things change, if you stay one place certainly. I’ve always admired programs and teams that I think are well-coached and really maximize what it is they have. There are a lot of examples of that nationally. You’re always kind of looking over the fence at times at other places and what they do.
“I’ll mention one, Nick (Saban). I worked with Nick (in Cleveland) and everybody can say (Alabama has) the best players, but the level of excellence that they’ve been able to maintain, that’s easier said than done, too. There’s so many variables that can throw you off the tracks. That really speaks well to what they’ve done down there, to play with that kind of consistency. So whether it’s that … you look at what they did at Colorado this year. That’s so impressive because they were a bad football team four years ago. Those stories I think are fun for fans or people who cover it or work in it. There’s a lot of good stories everywhere.”