Leistikow's Final Thoughts: Why Sunday's Hawkeye practice had Kirk Ferentz upbeat
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Considering the game results of the past two years after Iowa’s bye week, Kirk Ferentz figured it was time for a change.
In 2016, the bye was followed by a 41-14 bludgeoning at Penn State.
In 2017, the bye was followed by a flat performance in a 17-10 overtime loss at Northwestern.
On Tuesday, Ferentz divulged that the meetings about how to shake things up took place in February. The plan this year: to treat the start of last week like a normal practice week. They practiced Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, with older players getting Monday off. Players then got Thursday through Saturday off and reported back Sunday.
“We didn’t have as much contact as we normally would, but we still wanted to try to push the team forward,” Ferentz said. “That gave us a chance to do that. And also work the younger guys more extensively.”
Ferentz acknowledged that he’s always felt bye weeks are tricky business. He joked that he’s “probably had eight different menus” over his 20-year tenure as Iowa’s coach about how to handle byes. Ferentz briefly considered giving the team an entire week off — like Mike Holmgren and Andy Reid have famously done with great success in the NFL — but realized that after only four games, that wasn’t the best approach for his team this year.
The early indication? Something is different, in a good way.
“The one constant (in the past) is normally I didn’t like what I saw the first Sunday we came back. We did break a trend that way. At least I thought we had a good practice Sunday,” Ferentz said. “I thought the guys were engaged, fresh and focused. That was kind of the goal. I don’t know if that’ll play out this week, but at least so far, so good.”
It seems like every week, there’s one injured Hawkeye player whose status isn’t publicly certain until pregame warmups. At Minnesota, that up-in-the-air player is probably Matt Hankins.
Iowa’s top cornerback left the Sept. 22 game against Wisconsin with an unspecified injury and did not return. Ferentz said Tuesday the sophomore was “not yet” good to go for Saturday’s game at Minnesota.
“He's got a good shot,” Ferentz said. “We'll see how it goes.”
The next man in would probably be true freshman Julius Brents, who assumed the No. 2 corner role against Wisconsin. But another rookie has made consistent progress in Iowa’s defensive backfield: Ankeny Centennial product Riley Moss.
Moss appeared on Iowa’s depth chart for the first time this week, as a co-backup (alongside Josh Turner) to right cornerback Michael Ojemudia. Starting free safety Jake Gervase hinted that Moss would be playing on defense Saturday.
“When he gets on the field, he seems to find a way of getting to the ball,” Gervase said, “whether it’s the passing or the run game. He’s got good instincts finding the ball. So, he’s someone we think can help us moving forward.”
Brents and Moss have impressed Ferentz with their “high effort” in practices. So far, they’re the only two true freshmen who are definitely burning a year of eligibility.
Ferentz historically hasn’t been afraid to play freshmen corners — Jovon Johnson in the past, Desmond King recently. Even if Hankins does return Saturday, his injury has at least helped solidify the coaches’ belief that Brents and Moss could be strong contributors for years to come.
It’s time to throw the ball to the running backs.
Ivory Kelly-Martin grew up in the Chicago area and enjoyed watching the likes of Matt Forte, a run/pass threat out of the Chicago Bears backfield for years. He said he’s most modeled his game after Marshall Faulk, one of the best pass-catching running backs in NFL history.
The sophomore has been billed as that type of dual threat out of Iowa’s backfield, too. But so far, the Hawkeyes have completed only four passes to their trio of running backs — two to Mekhi Sargent, one to Toren Young and one to Kelly-Martin.
“That’s something that … coaches know they’ve got to get the running backs more involved into the next (eight) weeks,” Kelly-Martin said. “We’re just trying to improve every single week. If we can get the ball to the running backs as a threat in the passing game, it’ll help us do a lot of things.”
That's a good idea. Akrum Wadley was a major threat on last year’s team and produced 28 catches for 353 yards.
The good news for Iowa is that Kelly-Martin should be fully unleashed soon. He said his injured left ankle, the one that forced him to miss games against Iowa State and Northern Iowa, feels much better after the bye week.
“It’s definitely feeling a lot better now,” he said. “The bye week was essential for all the guys. At this point, we’re all humming.”
No slight intended, but Amani Hooker stated from his experience that being inside games at Kinnick Stadium is a far more electric experience than games at Minnesota.
You’ll be reading more this week about Hooker’s Minneapolis roots and importance he has on this game as Iowa’s starting strong safety. The junior clearly never had the Gophers too strongly in his sights, though. When asked if he’d attended a Gophers home game before, he could only remember two.
“One was for a field trip,” he said. “The other one, I had free tickets or something.”
P.J. Fleck spoke with reverence and respect about how Iowa’s program operates during Tuesday’s Big Ten coaches teleconference. It’s that kind of sustainability the second-year Minnesota coach is trying to build in Minneapolis.
But when it came to year-over-year change, Fleck sounded most impressed with the growth of Iowa’s offense and quarterback Nate Stanley, compared with preparation for meeting the Hawkeyes last October. Iowa won that game, 17-10.
“Nate’s a lot better,” Fleck said, without hesitation.
He also had high praise for Iowa tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, who share the team lead with 15 receptions apiece.
“Probably the best two tight ends we’ll face all year,” Fleck said.
Ferentz doesn’t want his players sticking to sports.
Being active in politics is encouraged by the program, the Hawkeyes coach said Tuesday.
“Instead of complaining about things, go and do something about it,” Ferentz said.
In the spring, the program brought in a group called “Rise to Vote” — an idea the staff got from the Atlanta Falcons — to get Hawkeyes players registered to vote and to get educated about the political process.
Of course, Iowa players will be more focused on Purdue come the November midterm elections. But good on Iowa for teaching its players about more than football.
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.