Leistikow: A passing grade for Brian Ferentz's Iowa offense in Year 1

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — How would you grade Brian Ferentz’s first year as offensive coordinator?

How should he be graded?

It totally depends on your curve.

If you think the Hawkeyes should be in, say, the upper half (top 65) of FBS offenses — not an unreasonable expectation, even with Iowa’s slower-paced, ball-control style — then you’re going to look harshly at Iowa’s 108th-ranked unit of 2017.

Brian Ferentz's first season as Iowa offensive coordinator saw mixed results. Overall, the Hawkeyes are ranked 68th nationally in scoring and 108th in total yardage. Those rankings were No. 95 and No. 121 in 2016 under Greg Davis.

If you think the 34-year-old son of head coach Kirk Ferentz should be judged on improvements over his predecessor, then you might have a more positive assessment.

As far as Brian himself?

With one game to go — the Dec. 27 Pinstripe Bowl against Boston College — he would tell you what we all observed: This season has been filled with ups and downs; highs like whipping Ohio State in every possible phase ... and lows like being beaten in every way by Big Ten West rival Wisconsin.

“This is a business full of surprises," Ferentz said Monday in his first news conference with Iowa media since early October. "If anything went the way you expected it in this business, it wouldn’t be much fun — it’d be pretty boring.”

If you want to talk numbers, then here you go:

The last time Iowa made a change at offensive coordinator, back in 2012, Greg Davis’ first offense produced 310.4 yards per game (117th out of 124 then-FBS teams), 4.7 per play (115th) and 19.3 points per game (113th).

By that measure, Brian Ferentz’s first year was a big step up: 340.3 yards per game (108th out of 130 FBS teams), 5.2 per play (102nd) and, most notably, 28.3 points per game (68th).

That said, it’s not far and away better than Iowa's 2016 performance, which led to Davis' January resignation: 325.0 yards (121st), 5.2 per play (104th) and 24.9 points (95th).

If you want to look beyond the Year 1 numbers, though, I think there’s a lot to like.

The tight ends have returned.

Sophomore Noah Fant set a single-season school record for tight ends, with 10 touchdown catches, and he’s only one-half of what was a potent duo. He and freshman T.J. Hockenson combined for 51 catches for 797 yards and 13 TDs.

My only complaint: They probably could’ve been more prevalent. And Ferentz agrees.

“We’re off to a good start with the tight ends, but I think we need to do more," he said. "I think we need to get them involved a little bit more. Get more of them on the field at the same time.”

If there’s one offensive skill position Iowa can recruit and develop, tight end is at the top of the list. The program is well stocked at tight end and nearly always has been.

Their presence led to another thing I liked about the Ferentz offense.

There's less predictability.

Lining up multiple, pass-threat tight ends — and throwing frequently out of such formations — makes Iowa’s play calls less predictable.

Notice I didn’t say unpredictable. There were still games in which Iowa was too run-heavy on first down — Michigan State and Northwestern come to mind — which put the offense into undesirable third-and-long situations.

But Ferentz did show a willingness to throw deep — certainly more often than Davis did in 2016.

That was evident from Week 1, when Nate Stanley hit Nick Easley for a long touchdown pass. And that trend spilled into the impressive comeback win at Iowa State a week later.

Even though Stanley misfired on some deep shots in Ames, that loosened things up for the underneath stuff that eventually led to Akrum Wadley’s game-tying touchdown reception in what became a 44-41 overtime win.

Lessons are being learned.

With two freshmen tackles, three true freshmen in the top five at receiver and a new starting quarterback plus a first-time offensive coordinator ... there were always going to be bumps in the road.

And don't forget: Iowa played one of the country's most difficult schedules (sixth-toughest, according to Sagarin), which included three top-10 defenses (Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan State) and another (Penn State) in the top 20.

Ferentz looks back at Iowa's losses and admits mistakes. The Wisconsin game, he wishes he had stuck with the run in what was a 17-14 game in the third quarter, instead of calling 28 Stanley drop-backs (24 attempts, four sacks) that netted four yards.

“You would’ve liked to maybe stay with (the run) a little bit more. But we didn’t," Ferentz said. "Part of that is the way the game went, and part of that is on me — just having a little bit more patience and being willing to grind things out."

Overall, if I'm the professor, I give Brian Ferentz a passing grade in Year 1.

He's a bright guy with a bright coaching future. He wasn't ready to fully assess his first year yet, noting there's still one more game ahead.

But no matter what happens against Boston College, the Brian Ferentz offense looks to pack some potential going into the 2018 and 2019 seasons with Stanley (25 touchdown passes) at quarterback.

Ferentz will face more scrutiny over the next few years as Iowa brings back a lot of young talent and as his personnel gets more comfortable with his approach — which, basically, is finding advantageous matchups and exploiting them.

“If it works, keep going back to the well," Ferentz said. "The only trick is: Don’t go back to the well too many times. In my experience, good plays, good thoughts, good matchups ... there’s not a shelf life on those things. There’s only so much they can do to adjust on the (other) sideline, too."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.