Leistikow: Reasons for optimism in Year 2 of Brian Ferentz's Iowa football offense
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Here’s a confident opinion: The Iowa football team’s offense will be more productive in 2018 than it was in 2017.
Confident? Sure. Bold? OK, you got me.
The Hawkeyes ranked 117th out of 130 FBS programs last year in total offense, at 329.5 yards per game.
There’s almost nowhere to go but up.
But there are signs — lots, actually — that the Hawkeyes in Year 2 of the Brian Ferentz offense should take a big step up.
As Iowa wraps up Week 2 of its spring practices (out of five), let’s take a closer look at this offense's potential: Why the spring optimism? What still needs to be fixed? And what constitutes a "big step" forward?
Five months out from the Sept. 1 home opener against Northern Illinois, here's an attempt to frame what’s happening inside the Iowa Football Performance Center and what's attainable in 2018.
A tangible precedent
The Iowa offense, as you know by now under 20th-year head coach Kirk Ferentz, isn’t going to suddenly shift to the spread or a breakneck, no-huddle pace.
So, that choice alone will always tamp down Iowa’s yardage totals. Ferentz can defend the ball-control approach by pointing to a 28-12 record over the past three seasons, despite an average national ranking of 103rd during that stretch. (By comparison, Iowa's average scoring offense rank is 72nd ... an indicator of opportunistic efficiency.)
Still, anyone inside the program would acknowledge there’s much room for improvement. Over the past seven seasons, Iowa’s best total-offense ranking has been 66th — and that came in a disappointing 7-6 season of 2014.
Here’s where the hope lies: The Hawkeyes have for months had recent visual evidence that owning a high-powered offense is within reach.
Because on Nov. 4, Iowa delivered a dazzling offensive display in a 55-24 rout of then-No. 3 Ohio State — 487 total yards, 7.0 per play, 24 first downs and 48 offensive points against one of the nation’s elite defenses.
Of course, it was only seven days later that Iowa’s offense went into hibernation — 66 yards (the lowest total of the Kirk Ferentz era), 1.3 per play and zero offensive points in a humbling loss at Wisconsin. (More on the Badgers later.)
So, there clearly was a consistency problem under first-year offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz.
That’s being addressed now.
'Way ahead' in Year 2
Players’ heads were spinning last March and April.
“Last year during this time,” tight end Noah Fant says, “we were just learning the basic language of the offense.”
From coach to player, the message is consistent: Progress is happening at an exponentially quicker pace.
“You don’t have to re-learn a language or learn something new,” quarterback Nate Stanley adds. “It’s all familiar stuff. The install has been a lot easier for a lot of guys.”
That was part of the long-term vision that Kirk Ferentz, Brian Ferentz, Ken O’Keefe and the offensive staff had in mind when methodically constructing what the post-Greg Davis Iowa offense should look like.
“Because when you're putting the playbook together — not that it was a wholesale new playbook — but you want to give everybody a chance to have a voice,” Kirk Ferentz says. “I think that's just a good way to do it.
"I think we're probably way ahead (of last spring) that way.”
Five weeks of pre-spring meetings were crisp, efficient. Instead of worrying about creating a new vernacular, establishing concepts and teaching them — coaches are able to focus on fine-tuning what’s already been established.
“It’s a little bit better operation,” Kirk Ferentz says. “Hopefully, it will translate to production on the field.”
When talking to Hawkeye players, you hear one word mentioned a lot.
“The conceptual knowledge of the offense,” Stanley says, “is a lot better at this point.”
OK, sure. Sounds good. But what do they mean by concepts?
Iowa players aren’t going to give away secrets. But generally speaking, they're talking about their intricate plan to identify mismatches.
For example, in the passing game: It's how a receiver reads a defense and adjusts his route, in conjunction with what the quarterback expects, to get himself open. Understanding concepts also can mean knowing how to draw a safety your way, in order to free up a teammate.
For a quarterback, mastering concepts means locating numbers advantages and then applying his decision correctly, all as the defense constantly tries to trick him with different looks.
It's complicated, and far more difficult than most of us realize.
You’ll probably remember a year ago that Stanley’s deep-ball timing with Fant (and others) was off, especially early in the season. That’s the type of stuff that gets better with time — which they have this spring.
There have been signs the concepts are clicking. Flash back to the Ohio State game.
In a 10-all battle the first quarter, Iowa’s passing game hadn't done much. (Stanley started the game 1-for-6, actually.) But on the first play of the second quarter, Fant directed his crossing route perfectly behind the linebacker and in front of the safety, and Stanley dropped in a ball with perfect aim and touch for a 20-yard gain to give Iowa first-and-goal at the Ohio State 9.
From that point on, the Buckeyes were on their heels. Stanley finished 20-of-31 for 226 yards with five TD passes. It’s that kind of consistency and rhythm an offensive coordinator dreams about when he puts together a gameplan.
“All of our plays and our concepts, they rely on everybody to do their job,” Stanley explains. “So everything is intertwined, whether it be the receiver or the offensive line or the quarterback or the running backs. Everybody needs to be doing their job at the same time for us to be successful.”
Got it? Let's continue ...
The QB is in place
Stanley is the on-field conductor, in charge of orchestrating Iowa's offensive concepts. A savvy, decisive, talented quarterback is the biggest advantage a college team can have.
Last spring, when he was still just a college freshman, Stanley was trying to learn a new offense and battle Tyler Wiegers for the starting job.
Now, Fant says, Stanley has advanced to the point where "he's focusing on the minor details, like where he’s placing the ball." He adds that the leadership Stanley (voted a team captain) has shown is “definitely going to progress our team a lot faster than we think.”
In the fall, Stanley and the offense stalled against blitzing fronts. Michigan State did it. Wisconsin did it. Even Purdue did it, to the tune of six sacks in a demoralizing Hawkeye home loss. (One of the only teams that didn't blitz a lot? Ohio State.)
That’s the biggest area where Stanley must grow — showing that he can consistently identify, and beat, pressure. There's confidence he should be much better at that in Year 2. As Stanley says, time will tell.
“I feel like those could be big advantages for us if defenses keep (attacking),” Fant says, “because now our guys have a little bit more experience, a little bit more knowledge how to beat those things. And they could end up being really big plays for us."
The last time Iowa had a talented second-year starting quarterback, it lacked healthy playmakers around him. C.J. Beathard, who would become a third-round NFL Draft pick, was helpless at times in 2016. He threw for 80 or fewer yards in three of the last four games of his college career.
But in Fant and T.J. Hockenson, Iowa returns versatile, 6-foot-5 pass-game targets who caught 14 TD passes a year ago from Stanley. Senior Nick Easley (team-high 51 catches) brings back reliability at receiver, while sophomores Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith offer potential.
"Those guys are freaks of nature," Fant says. "I feel like they’re going to be really good."
Ferentz likens the jump he hopes to see from Smith (6-3, 219), in particular, to that of Fant — who played sparingly as a true freshman but then became the Big Ten's top TD-scoring receiver (11) as a sophomore.
And even though the planned running-back tandem is young, Ferentz says this of power back Toren Young (5-11, 221) and elusive Ivory Kelly-Martin (5-10, 200), both sophomores: "We think both our running backs have a chance, in their own way, to be pretty impactful. But they've still got to take that step."
So, the potential is there. What's realistic, though?
A suggested benchmark
The stated goal for Iowa's program: Winning a Big Ten Conference championship.
That hasn't happened since 2004. To have a chance, though, you first have to get to the league title game in Indianapolis. And, for Iowa, that means taking down Wisconsin.
The Badgers, like Iowa, run a methodical, ball-control offense. They just do it better. In assembling a 13-1 record last year, their per-game averages were 415.0 yards (51st nationally) and 33.8 points (28th). Good numbers, but not world-beating ones.
For Iowa to match that in 2018 would require increases of 26 percent in yards and 20 percent in points. That uptick is not unreasonable.
Not in Year 2 of the Brian Ferentz offense, with a more experienced quarterback and a more versatile set of playmakers. The pieces are in place. But progress must take place, starting with this spring.
“Hopefully it's going to look a lot better in September,” Kirk Ferentz says. “Because we will not look like world-beaters in April. I will make that prediction. I think we're 19-for-19 on that one.”
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.
Iowa's offense, by the numbers
A look at the past seven seasons (with offensive coordinator) of Iowa's offensive statistics.
Year (coordinator; W-L record) — Total offense (FBS rank), scoring offense (rank), yards per play
2017 (Brian Ferentz; 8-5) — 329.5 (117th), 28.2 (66th), 5.12
2016 (Greg Davis; 8-5) — 325.0 (121st), 24.9 (95th), 5.20
2015 (Greg Davis; 12-2) — 386.1 (72nd), 30.9 (54th), 5.77
2014 (Greg Davis; 7-6) — 400.1 (66th), 28.2 (71st), 5.47
2013 (Greg Davis; 8-5) — 376.9 (85th), 26.3 (79th), 5.26
2012 (Greg Davis; 4-8) — 310.4 (117th), 19.3 (113th), 4.70
2011 (Ken O'Keefe; 7-6) — 372.5 (76th), 27.5 (58th), 5.60