Leistikow: Seeking personnel to fit Brian Ferentz's first Iowa offense
IOWA CITY, Ia. — To get an idea of what Brian Ferentz’s offense aims to look like in 2017, cue up your DVR (or memory) to Iowa football games from 2015.
The plays, which remain in the “to-be-determined” category, might look different.
But the production levels and balance obtained by that Rose Bowl team was the early benchmark set by the head coach as spring practice began this week.
“The kind of balance we had in '15 really is what we'd like to have,” Kirk Ferentz said Monday, as he entered his 19th session of 15 spring practices as Iowa’s football coach. “It may not look exactly like that. (But) we were at a pretty good place offensively in '15, where we could run and throw, do some good things that way.”
The 2015 offensive numbers got the job done: 30.9 points and 386.1 yards per game, and also 5.77 yards per play.
Those stats ranked 54th, 72nd and 55th nationally — acceptable when you run a huddle-up, ball-control offense. It's also acceptable, considering it helped produce a school-record 12 wins.
And let’s say extremely acceptable when you realize the 2016 offense ranked 95th, 121st and 104th out of 128 FBS teams in those bellwether categories.
But is a repeat of 2015’s offensive numbers possible? To figure it out, we must first examine personnel.
Such was the biggest difference between 2015 and 2016.
The schemes each season were basically the same under then-offensive coordinator Greg Davis, who retired in January.
“We had two good running backs last year, (a) pretty capable line,” Ferentz said, a nod to the first same-season 1,000-yard backs in school history in Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels Jr., plus the Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line. “Our running game was going pretty well. But the passing game was lagging behind a little bit.”
(Pause, as Hawkeye fans insert a mental laugh track at “a little bit.”)
Now, insert Brian Ferentz as offensive coordinator.
If you know the missive is to replicate the 2015 offense’s numbers, how do you find the missing yardage?
As the former run-game coordinator (a position that no longer exists), he knows the yards-per-carry numbers from 2015 (4.48) to 2016 (4.45) were consistent.
But, despite having the same quarterback in C.J. Beathard at the helm for every game, Iowa’s yards per pass attempt sharply dipped from 7.8 in 2015 to 6.4 in 2016.
It follows that Iowa’s total number of plays run went from 937 (42nd in FBS) to 812 (117th).
If the chains aren't moving, neither are the yardage totals.
And for Iowa, restoring 2015 production means finding solutions through the air, to achieve Ferentz's desired run-pass balance.
So, about the personnel …
Let’s look at all four skill areas, comparing what Iowa generated in 2015 and what it'll take to repeat it in 2017.
Sight unseen, I think Iowa is fine here. Although he had been in the program three years, C.J. Beathard was a first-time starter in 2015 and ended up being one of three finalists for the Chicago Tribune Silver Football as the Big Ten Conference’s MVP. I won’t predict the same accolades for Nathan Stanley or Tyler Wiegers, but with Ken O’Keefe back as the Ferentz era’s first dedicated quarterbacks coach, expect whoever is taking snaps to be well-prepared.
In 2015, the show was led by senior Jordan Canzeri. Now, it’s Wadley's senior year. Both are breakaway backs who can also catch the ball out of the backfield (Canzeri had 20 grabs in 2015, Wadley had 36 last fall). If Wadley stays healthy, this position is in good hands.
The 2015 team’s leading pass-catcher, Matt VandeBerg, is back after missing all but one game of the 2016 Big Ten season after breaking his foot. He’s a third-down-conversion machine and was sorely missed. But who will replicate the 2015 production of Tevaun Smith and Jacob Hillyer? Good question. Iowa absolutely needs at least one of Jerminic Smith, Devonte Young or Adrian Falconer to take a lead role; then hope to find an emerging talent among the newcomers via junior college (perhaps Nick Easley, already No. 2 on the depth chart) or the freshman class (Brandon Smith, who has college-ready size).
Ding-ding-ding! We’ve uncovered the biggie. In 2015, Iowa had two tight ends that could both block in the run game and gain yardage in the pass game (combined 55 catches) in Henry Krieger Coble and George Kittle. A year ago, after Kittle got hurt midseason against Purdue, it had zero. It’s paramount that Brian Ferentz, a former tight ends coach with the New England Patriots, and position coach LeVar Woods get two guys up to speed over the next 5½ months. The upside of three second-year players in their first Hawkeye springs is intriguing: Noah Fant (6-foot-5, 232 pounds), T.J. Hockenson (6-5, 243) and Shaun Beyer (6-5, 222).
Fant played as a true freshman (nine catches, 70 yards); Hockenson was a record-setting receiver in high school; Beyer is a fantastic athlete.
“Noah, Hockenson and Beyer are light-years ahead of where I was,” Kittle said during Outback Bowl preparations, “when I first got here.”
It’ll be fun to see what schemes Brian Ferentz might be drawing up as a first-year coordinator. But it's most important to find and develop the right personnel.
And spring is the best time for that.
"The biggest thing for us as a coaching staff is to go into it with an open mind, let our players compete," Kirk Ferentz said. "Let them do what they're going to do over the next 15 practices."
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.