A peek inside the March 29 practice in Iowa City. Chad Leistikow/The Register
IOWA CITY, Ia. — A few times each year, the Iowa football program allows media members to watch about 25 minutes of a normally closed practice.
Wednesday was one of those times.
No joke, here’s the first offensive play I saw around 7:50 a.m.: Quarterback Nathan Stanley fakes a handoff to Toks Akinribade and gives the football to wide receiver Nick Easley for an end-around.
Welcome to the Brian Ferentz Era.
Don’t expect constant razzle-dazzle and spread formations from Iowa’s new offensive coordinator. That level of change isn't happening.
But there is an undeniably different feel and energy in the Hawkeye football program through Practice No. 4 of 15 this spring.
How to know? Ask the defense. They’re the ones facing Ferentz’s offense in practices.
Instead of basically knowing every formation and tendency of the offense to start the spring, the defense is scrambling.
“It felt like the Monday of a game week,” safety Brandon Snyder said, “trying to learn a whole new offense.”
What’s different, exactly? Well, we won't know a ton until the Sept. 2 season opener against Wyoming.
They'll open practice for 25 minutes, but the Hawkeyes aren't giving away the playbook.
But, considering my post-Outback Bowl column called for offensive change, I liked what was said by players and assistants Reese Morgan and Seth Wallace, the two position coaches Iowa made available Wednesday.
Safety Miles Taylor pointed to “a lot of different things” he’s seeing in the Brian Ferentz offense, including new formations.
Defensive end Parker Hesse has observed “some minor wrinkles, the way they block certain plays.”
Tight end Peter Pekar noted: “There’s all different kinds of routes.”
Predictability is bad for college football offenses. One of the less-flattering images of Iowa’s 8-5 season in 2016 was that of Penn State defenders pointing to the holes where the Hawkeyes were going to run telegraphed short-yardage plays.
We don’t know yet how a game called by Ferentz (who, incidentally, celebrated his 34th birthday Tuesday) will look when compared with one called by Greg Davis over the past five years.
My guess is it’ll look more like a game called by Ken O’Keefe, who is back in the fold as a first-year quarterbacks coach.
“What Brian’s doing with the offense … it certainly has a lot of the same flavor as what it's been in the past," said Wallace, the linebackers coach. "It's got more flavor with Ken being back and some of his thoughts that have gone into it.
“What it's done for us, defensively, is probably made us think as at a faster rate. … We’ve had to adjust to it.”
It’s been an adjustment for the offense, too.
There’s new lingo, something even 35-game starting offensive lineman Sean Welsh needs to learn.
“It’s different. You would think being an older guy, you’ve got all this experience and it should be easy,” Welsh said. “I actually think it’s the other way around; the younger guys have a little bit of an edge on us.”
Change can be good. And in this case, after finishing 121st out of 128 FBS teams in total offense, it was necessary.
But it also usually means there will be a lot of bumps along the way — especially with a new quarterback and unknown receiving options.
As you'd expect, the defense, with eight returning starters, has the early spring edge.
“You know the offense is going to have ups and downs,” Snyder said. “They’re trying to learn a whole new system, new coaches. And there’s some young guys over there, too.”
Ferentz has a hyper-competitive reputation. So does defensive coordinator Phil Parker.
Fiery iron sharpens iron.
“You've got Phil Parker and Brian Ferentz. Come on, now,” said Morgan, the defensive line coach and an 18-year assistant. “If they were playing ping-pong, somebody's going to come out of there a winner.”
Morgan went on to rave about the hires of O’Keefe, offensive line coach Tim Polasek and wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland as immediate hits.
Wallace talked of the resulting energy in the Iowa Football Performance Center, stemming from the new offensive coordinator.
“You've got to be internally motivated. He's certainly got that,” Wallace said. “I think you're seeing it already. I think our players are starting to see it already. It's been a good transition.”
What does it all mean for the offense come September?
All indications are this will still be a typical approach in Kirk Ferentz's head-coaching tenure — with the aim of a 50/50 run-pass balance.
Pekar probably gave the best summation of what fans should expect to see.
“There’s a lot of old plays, a lot of new plays (and) a lot of new plays based off old plays,” Pekar said. “We’re all learning as it goes.”
Added Welsh: “We’re only four practices in, but I think we’re really excited to see how it’s going to pan out.”
Join the club.
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.