Brian Ferentz poked fun at himself Wednesday night. Because when the Iowa football assistant coach has something he wants to say … he’s about as helpless as a kitten up a tree at biting his lip.
“If I don’t say something inflammatory or controversial,” Ferentz quipped as our live radio Q&A wound down on KXnO in Des Moines, “it’s probably not going to be a good interview.”
Ferentz’s jocular remarks were an acknowledgment that a year ago during his spring appearance on Hawk Central radio with the Des Moines Register, he unforgettably took swipes at “the guys in Ames” and “the new guys in Minneapolis” for what he viewed as questionable recruiting practices. He didn’t stop there, later digging at a program “a little bit west of Omaha” for touting an NFL pipeline that’s recently been running dry.
(Several months later, incidentally, Iowa would go 3-for-3 against Iowa State, Minnesota and Nebraska.)
This year’s radio zinger was less-pointed and aimed in a different direction — east, and toward the media that covers the Ohio State football team that the Hawkeyes blasted, 55-24, on Nov. 4 in Iowa City.
Ferentz pointed out that he read an article from (without naming him) Cleveland Plain-Dealer writer Doug Lesmerises following Ohio State’s April 14 spring game. The article examined the three-way battle in Columbus to succeed Big Ten Conference legend J.T. Barrett at quarterback.
“I know the world’s not real big outside of Columbus. I understand that,” said Ferentz, entering his seventh year on Iowa's staff and second as offensive coordinator. “But they mentioned that there are eight top quarterbacks in the Big Ten. They mentioned three of them are at Ohio State. And then they mentioned five other guys that I don’t recall.”
(The non-Buckeyes Lesmerises listed: Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson and Wisconsin’s Alex Hornibrook from the Big Ten West; Michigan’s Shea Patterson, Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke and Penn State’s Trace McSorley from the East.)
“I really feel strongly that Nate Stanley is a very good football player,” Ferentz continued, touting his own returning quarterback who threw for 26 touchdowns a year ago (five coming against Ohio State) against six interceptions. “And he was not mentioned in the top eight. Which surprised me.”
Finally, Ferentz added: “That’s as close as you’re going to get to me stirring up trouble again today. I guess what I’m saying is, the Cleveland writer was wrong. And I think Nate Stanley is at least the eighth-best quarterback in the conference out of 14.”
No, this wasn’t Ferentz on an anti-media vendetta.
Lesmerises is a gifted writer, a respected journalist in Big Ten circles.
It was just Ferentz’s way of demonstrating that he sees Iowa’s junior quarterback as undervalued in the Big Ten conversation. He went on to praise Stanley’s constant growth since becoming the starter in August, and said: “At no point did I really feel like he took a step backwards.”
For Hawkeye fans, that’s an encouraging comment surrounding 2018's prospects.
Especially when you begin to understand just how much responsibility Ferentz’s offense puts on its quarterback.
Remember, the son of Iowa's 20th-year head coach cut his coaching teeth under Bill Belichick with the New England Patriots. Before coming to Iowa in 2012, Brian Ferentz worked on that Patriots staff, ultimately coaching a tight-end group that included Rob Gronkowski.
For four years, he digested the calculated way the Patriots operate. Which, as anyone who watches the NFL closely probably knows, is primarily by building around the right arm (and sharp mind) of quarterback Tom Brady.
As long as he's got a say at Iowa, Ferentz said, “We’re going to put a lot on our quarterback, and ask him to direct traffic and really be making those decisions that are going to affect winning and losing.”
Ferentz went on to explain some fascinating intricacies (and simplicity) of Iowa’s offense.
That it (basically) only has three running plays. Maybe five.
That it schemes to get its best players the football, regardless of position. (See last year: Akrum Wadley and the tight ends.)
And that it doesn't ever alter the system — only the way the system is presented.
Just like the approach New England has taken under Belichick, who has taken the Patriots to eight Super Bowls (winning five) since becoming their coach in 2000.
“There’s kind of a myth that they change offensive systems every week and (that) they look different every week,” Ferentz said. “And they do look different every week. But I assure you, they’re running the same plays every week. They’re just doing it out of different sets and changing tempo.”
it's that type of attacking philosophy and concept mastery that Ferentz, 35, is trying to establish at his alma mater.
“What you’re trying to do offensively, if you’re any good, is to create some indecisiveness and uncertainty on the defensive side of the ball,” he said. “And New England does that better than anyone.”
So yeah, Ferentz confirmed, there’s a good bit of Patriots DNA in the Hawkeye offense he's continuing to build.
But being effective at it starts with having versatile personnel to keep opponents off-balance. At Iowa, that currently centers around the tight ends.
Ferentz legitimately sees the possibility of trotting out three-tight end sets, and throwing out of them. A deep and diverse position group of Noah Fant, T.J. Hockenson, Shaun Beyer, Nate Wieting and Drew Cook give the Hawkeyes that opportunity.
Going into his junior year, Noah Fant could be one of the college football's top tight ends. Chad Leistikow/The Register
He is bullish on the development at wide receiver, where Nick Easley, Brandon Smith, Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Kyle Groeneweg are the top four. (“I think our receivers are better than people imagine or expect,” Ferentz said.)
He thinks despite losing two senior running backs, sophomores Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin form a starting-caliber tandem that “has a chance to do some good things.”
In New England, where the weather can be similar to that of Big Ten country, there are some Sundays the Patriots come out throwing every down. Other times, they'll consistently hand off with that week's running back du jour.
But the one consistent piece?
And, in addition to making news by saying he would call plays from the sideline next season, Ferentz made it extra clear Wednesday: He thinks the Hawkeyes have a good centerpiece in Stanley.
“If you don’t have the right quarterback, none of that is going to matter," Ferentz said, before later adding one final bit of dry humor about Stanley's Big Ten stature. "We’re just trying to get him into the top half by the end of the year.”
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.