Leistikow: A better understanding of Brian Ferentz's offensive philosophy
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Brian Ferentz divulged one of his football fascinations Tuesday afternoon.
The second-year offensive coordinator for the Iowa Hawkeyes — you know, that team that still uses a huddle, a fullback and as many tight ends as possible — loves to watch those “Air Raid” teams that throw 60 or 70 passes per game.
“I’m thoroughly enthralled,” he said, “with how they do things.”
Then, the 35-year-old Hawkeye revealed another well-kept secret.
“In fact,” he said, “I would argue there’s a lot of parallels between what they do and what we do.”
“Totally different philosophies,” Ferentz continued. “But those guys run about six plays. However, they have 11 guys on the field that understand, conceptually, what is going on with every snap. And they can make adjustments within those things.”
And that, in a nutshell, is where Ferentz sees his Hawkeye offense headed.
No, not a transition to an air-it-out, wide-open offense that continues to populate the college game.
Instead, a mastery of those same "Air Raid" concepts but with a more in-the-trenches design. Ferentz sees an Iowa offense that can put players on the field to create mismatches, then use the intelligence and talent from his quarterback to make defenses pay.
“When you talk about a passing concept or a run play for that matter," Ferentz said, "99 percent of it, to me, is conceptual understanding."
And in Year Two of his offensive system, there seems to be a growing comfort level of what is possible with the 2018 Hawkeyes.
For starters, Ferentz said: "We have a quarterback who's closer to the mastery of the system. With that, I think, is going to come some production.”
Nate Stanley is the entrenched starter with such an understanding of the offense that he’s advanced to working on ball placement instead of learning the playbook.
One teammate raved last week about how Stanley identified a corner blitz in a recent practice and swiftly checked into a perfect audible to beat it.
The Hawkeyes put a lot on their quarterback’s shoulders. As Ferentz put it, “we don’t just have everybody turn and look to the sideline and we hold up some super cool poster board” to figure out the play.
They let the quarterback assess things and make adjustments at the line of scrimmage because he's got the best seat in the stadium: on the field, looking into the eyes of 11 defenders.
Oh, and all the craze about RPOs — “run-pass option” plays for the quarterback to read and react?
News flash: The Hawkeyes are already doing that, too.
They just don't do it out of a shotgun formation.
“Boy, I’d say 50 percent of our run game evolves in RPO,” Ferentz said. “The difference between us and the Philadelphia Eagles? We’re doing it pre-snap. That’s just how we’re going to operate — we do it under center.”
The quarterback is key.
The mismatch kings at Iowa, though, are those beloved tight ends.
Ferentz is their new position coach. With the hyper-athletic Noah Fant and all-purpose T.J. Hockenson, two 6-foot-5 pillars, Ferentz’s hope is to create headaches and unpredictability for defenses.
When done effectively, the Hawkeyes can power-run out of two tight-end sets; they can throw short; they can even throw deep.
That blueprint — blending a smart, talented, established quarterback with ball-hawking, in-line blockers at tight end — should sound familiar.
It’s exactly how the New England Patriots have built their dynasty for years.
No surprise, that’s where Ferentz cut his coaching teeth — as the tight ends coach under Bill Belichick in 2011, working with an offense that featured Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski.
Nobody's comparing the Hawkeyes to the Patriots here, but the structure of the system is clearly similar. And so are the goals.
Ferentz stated Tuesday: He wants to help take Iowa back to the top of the Big Ten.
Getting there, he knew, wasn’t going to be easy after taking over for the retired Greg Davis following the 2016 season.
Ferentz’s first Iowa offense was wildly inconsistent in 2017. The Hawkeyes ranked 117th out of 130 FBS team in yards per game (329.5). And you can’t pin that lousy number on a slower style of play, because the Hawkeyes were almost as bad, 108th, in yards per play (5.12).
Yet Iowa managed to click on a few game days. It hung 50-plus points on the scoreboard in routs of Ohio State and Nebraska and finished with an 8-5 record, even a bowl-game win.
Clearly, though, Ferentz acknowledged he personally has lots of room for improvement.
“I think I learned that I’m not really as good at it as I’d like to be,” he deadpanned.
Ferentz didn't start Year One with a full toolbox. The wide receiver group was without a playmaker at this time last spring; there was a quarterback competition that went into late August, and then there was the loss of two fifth-year senior starting offensive tackles by Week Two. Plus, the offensive coaching staff was almost entirely new.
Now, the concepts — and the way they’re being taught — should be on their way to humming.
And, eventually, the goal is they'll be mastered by the players.
Ferentz finished his 30-minute press conference Tuesday accentuating that point.
Offensive coordinators are often the easiest targets of criticism. They get bashed for rotten play-calling, by fans and media alike.
But what the coordinator’s most important job really is, especially at Iowa: Figuring out what the players can do, then maximizing how they do it on Saturdays.
"There are the 11 guys that have to do it," Ferentz said. "And if they don't understand it and they don't know it, then it's not going to matter how great the system or the scheme is.
"I've seen a lot of really bad calls look really good because guys were executing and understood what to do. And I've seen a lot of great calls look terrible because the only guy that understood it was the guy that called it."
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.