Leistikow: Time for Ferentz to make personnel changes?

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Kirk Ferentz agrees with you: Things need to change with this year’s Iowa football team.

But if you expect sweeping lineup changes Saturday at Minnesota, you haven’t followed the Hawkeye program for very long.

“Typically,” Iowa’s 18th-year head coach said Tuesday in the wake of another disappointing home loss, “we don't like to be reactionary with our decisions.”

He’s talking about personnel, about which there are legitimate concerns — most notably at left tackle and safety.

A recurring scene during Iowa's 38-31 loss to Northwestern: Hawkeye QB  C.J. Beathard (16) getting sacked by Ifeadi Odenigbo, with left tackle Cole Croston (64) getting beat.

Iowa coaches often dismiss their depth chart as worth less than the paper it’s printed on. But actions over 17 years speak louder than words. And, barring injury, once you’re on the No. 1 line in September with Ferentz, it’s rare that you’re demoted.

“If they're out there drowning in the ocean, you're going to try to throw a life preserver in there, for sure, and get a guy out of there,” Ferentz said. “But there are ups and downs in everything you do. And you have to work through those ups and downs.”

It would be easy for Ferentz to change the conversation from Iowa’s abysmal statistical rankings against below-average competition — 87th out of 128 FBS teams in rushing defense, 95th in rushing offense and 110th in total offense — by inserting some different faces in the lineup.

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Maybe slide Boone Myers or Ike Boettger to left tackle. Maybe give linebacker Aaron Mends a shot to show what he can do with consistent playing time. Maybe give fifth-year senior Anthony Gair or freshman Amani Hooker a look at safety.

But Ferentz isn't doing any of that yet, at least according to the unchanged depth chart and his comments Tuesday.

“There’s not a significant change we need to make,” right tackle Boettger said, an echo of the message coming from the top. “There’s a lot of little things we need to fix.”

For better or for worse, Ferentz is doubling down on the guys he’s got, trusting the evaluations his staff made from January to August.

Iowa fans have tenuous relationship on the personnel topic with the head coach. A lot of observers wanted Ricky Stanzi at quarterback over Jake Christensen in 2008, and many (me included) think the decision to stick with Christensen in the second half at Pittsburgh that year cost the Hawkeyes a key road victory.

The C.J. Beathard or Jake Rudock question raged throughout 2014, too, and we may never know if relying on Rudock was best for that 7-6 team.

This year, the flash-point positions for Iowa’s early-season inconsistency are at left tackle, linebacker and safety.

Cole Croston was visibly overmatched at left tackle in Saturday’s 38-31 loss, as evidenced by Northwestern’s Ifeadi Odenigbo (four sacks) being named the Big Ten’s defensive player of the week.

But Croston wasn’t being ripped apart by Ferentz or teammates Tuesday — not that you’d ever expect them to.

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“Some players have off days. I’m not saying he did. He played really good most of the game,” said Myers, who started at left tackle 10 times last season but was moved inside to guard during Rose Bowl preparation. “I make mistakes, too. I got beat. James (Daniels, the center) got beat. Everybody got beat.”

Trying to dig into Iowa’s defensive woes is even more confounding, considering eight guys with significant starting experience returned off a 12-2 team. Bo Bower has been decent but unspectacular at weak-side linebacker.

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Cryptic quotes about back-end tackling and communication point to needing more from junior Miles Taylor and sophomore Brandon Snyder, the starting safeties.

Against Northwestern, Taylor gave way too much cushion to top receiver Austin Carr on a key fourth-down play. And Snyder has had feast-or-famine moments; on Saturday forcing a Justin Jackson fumble, but later failing to stop him on a critical 58-yard touchdown run.

That prompted me to ask Ferentz about the possibility of Gair (who has three years of playing experience, including two starts and a game-saving interception at Pittsburgh in 2014) at safety. The answer was probably what you’d expect.

“It's not a knock on Anthony,” Ferentz said. “It's just that we feel like Miles has played better and practiced better.”

At one level, you have to admire Ferentz’s willingness to stand firm on eight months of evaluation. After all, he’s made it into Year 18 here by developing two-star recruits into All-Big Ten performers, especially up front.

At another level, you have to consider it an indictment that there’s not better backup options available at key spots like left tackle and safety.

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Ferentz and his players insist the biggest problem to the shaky 3-2 start is fixable fundamental mistakes.

“Talent disparities and all that kind of stuff … I don't think that's our issue right now,” Ferentz said. “Our issue is just playing more consistently; all 11 guys being where they're supposed to be on a given play.”

Saturday’s 11 a.m. game at Minnesota marks Iowa's halfway point of the regular season.

It’s fair to give the staff the benefit of the doubt this week — a litmus test to see if it’s really the fundamentals, not inferior personnel, holding the Hawkeyes back.

But if Iowa loses as a favorite for the third time in four weeks, it’ll be time to throw some life preservers in to the ocean.

“We just haven’t been playing like Iowa football lately. That’s just what we need to get back to,” Myers said. “Just get back to what we were doing, and what this program has been based off of.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.