New opportunities

Ferentz begins 19th season as Hawkeye head coach

T-R PHOTO BY THORN COMPTON • University of Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz responds to a question during Saturday’s annual media day event at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.

IOWA CITY — As University of Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz approached the podium on Saturday to address the crowd gathered for media day, he walked with the calm, cool nature of someone who has done this show a time or two.

Ferentz enters the 2017 campaign as the longest-tenured coach in the NCAA, having spent the last 19 years at the helm of Hawkeyes football. During his opening statements, Ferentz said though this isn’t his first time around the block when it comes to starting a season, this year does come with some unique challenges.

“This is my 28th year now at Iowa, 19th as a head coach,” he said. “It’s like every year, every time you start a new season, you have new challenges, new opportunities. It’s a different equation, certainly than any other year, and the trick is to put it all together. That’s the beauty of college football in my mind. It’s probably why it’s such a popular sport with the fans.”

Ferentz and the Hawkeyes definitely have an interesting conundrum on their hands when it comes to running their offense, as Iowa is looking to fill the quarterback position and break in a new offensive play caller at the same time.

Taking over the offense in the coach’s booth this season is Brian Ferentz, Kirk’s son and former offensive lineman for the Hawkeyes.

Kirk said, though this will be his son’s first year calling plays for Iowa, his experiences both coaching on the staff for the last five years and coaching for the New England Patriots give him all the tools he needs to be successful.

“A lot of that goes back to his time spent in New England, worked on both sides of the football,” Kirk said. “That’s a pretty cerebral outfit up there, certainly, with their quarterback starts there, Bill O’Brien as coordinator, and then Coach Belichick. He’s run some guys. I think he’s very inquisitive that way.”

As for what he will try to bring to this program, Brian said he definitely doesn’t want to reinvent the wheel when it comes to Hawkeyes football, considering the success he’s seen throughout his time with the team.

“The tenants of Iowa football are the tenants of Iowa football. I have been through the program as a player, I was in the program as a coach and shoot I was through the program as a fan when I was a coach’s kid,” Brian said. “I have seen Iowa football in the ’80s, the ’90s, the 2000’s and now in this decade. The keys for us don’t change, we are going to be tough, we are going to be smart, we are going to be physical, and most of all we are going to compete in all that we do. And I don’t mean ‘oh we are just going to be competitive’ we are going to go out there and compete and we are going to try to win. We don’t care who lines up, we are going to attack every snap and do the best that we can.”

On the quarterback end, the job has narrowed down to two candidates in sophomore Nathan Stanley and junior Tyler Wiegers. While Kirk said the team has yet to make a decision on who will start behind center when they host Wyoming in week one, he did say both guys are showing well in the first couple of practices.

“Certainly the quarterback competition is something that’s going to be of interest to everybody. The good news right there is both Nate and Tyler are doing a nice job competing,” he said. “They’re making good strides. They’ve made strides since the spring, certainly, and improved in the last couple days as well.

“Both those guys are getting first-team reps. I hate to talk for other people, but I think all of us as coaches and players feel good about both guys and feel like they both can lead us to good results. So I’m happy with what we’re seeing so far.”

A big factor in bringing both of those quarterbacks along so far is the return of quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe, who spent 13 years coaching the Hawkeyes before his most recent stint with the Miami Dolphins from 2012-2016.

Ferentz said having a coach like O’Keefe return to the program, a guy who has experience picking starting quarterbacks for this team, is a great asset for this season and beyond.

“The one time Ken wasn’t involved Greg (Davis) was involved, 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 team work, we have team work on the staff too. Ken’s in the room with those guys 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.”

Though O’Keefe has experience working on Ferentz’s staff, it can still be difficult for him to transition back into the program having missed the last five seasons. Ferentz acknowledged that, but also said his familiarity with the program should speed the integration process along.

“Ken’s just got a tremendous attitude,” Ferentz said. “He’s got experience in the program. He’s seen the highs, the lows. He understands what the challenges are certainly, and what our advantages are. So having that expertise, that wisdom, it’s tough to get that anywhere else. I mean, that’s insider information, if you will, that nobody else probably could have had.”

Standing pat

One thing that will help along the transition at quarterback and offensive coordinator is the continuity the Hawkeyes possess in other parts of the offense.

Every projected starter on the offensive line this season had at least seven starts last year, while senior running back Akrum Wadley ran for over 1,000 yards in 2016.

During media day, Wadley said he is actually embracing the change in the play calling.

“You just gotta love this man, it’s all about the process and you gotta embrace the process,” he said. “We have coach Brian Ferentz doing a great job taking over everything and he is giving everybody great looks.”

Taking over the offensive line on the coaching end this year is first-year coach Tim Polasek, who spent the last five years as offensive coordinator at North Dakota State. He said having the consistency in the offensive line this season is a great way to start his tenure with the Hawkeyes.

“Here at Iowa it will always be about moving people up front and taking care of the football,” he said. “Defensively we have been really good, we only gave up around 20 points per game last year. Those things are important, special teams, moving the ball with the run, taking care of the football and playing great defense.”

With seniors Boone Myers, Sean Welsh and Ike Boettger and juniors Keegan Render and James Daniels all essentially penciled in as game-one starters on the line, it seems as though the competition for positions could stagnate a bit on the offensive front, but Polasek said that is far from the case.

“I think we have some natural competition for some backup spots and who is going to be the sixth and seventh guys who get into the rotation,” he said. “Let’s be real, it is hard to get into a Big 10 schedule and not have to rely on your sixth and seventh guys. If there is one thing we know around here it’s that it takes the whole village, it ain’t about one guy.”

Though not a starter last season, sophomore tight end Noah Fant enters 2017 with a year of experience under his belt and a full offseason of work with the coaches. Ferentz said Fant has some potential to be explosive this season, especially now that he knows what to expect come game day.

“Last year Noah had really big guy eyes, and most guys coming out of high school are like that. It was really big for him, but this summer, this spring I think helped him,” Ferentz said. “This summer, you see him — just in general life, acting like he felt more comfortable. Like, hey, I’ve done this before. I can handle this and all that. It’s carried over to the practice field too. So we’re encouraged with what we’re seeing right now. We really are.”

Fant echoed his coaches statements later on the practice field, saying in general he feels much better heading into his sophomore year.

“Freshman year was a little bit tougher, but you know this year, it’s a little bit easier because I’m in my setting,” he said. “I am set, I am moved in and stuff, so that’s a good thing. When you have everything in order it gives you a freedom to play looser on the field.”