Leistikow: How Kirk Ferentz is adjusting (or not) to transfer portal, early NFL entries

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Kirk Ferentz joked this week that the only thing he knew about the NCAA’s new transfer portal was how to spell portal.

Then, the 21st-year Iowa football coach even hesitated about that claim.

“Is it ‘E-L’ or ‘A-L’? I don’t know. Really don’t care,” Ferentz said Thursday during a post-2018 season, catch-all news conference in Iowa City. “I haven’t looked at it all.”

Ferentz, a former English literature teacher and the fifth-winningest coach in Big Ten Conference history, obviously is a smart guy. The amusing exchange, though, underscored how passively he’s pursuing the new world of open transfers in college football.

If you’re as new as Ferentz to the transfer portal, here’s the gist: Any Division I athlete who wants to explore a transfer to another school can put his/her name in an online database, at which point coaches from other institutions can make NCAA-permitted contact with that athlete. It’s been used already in major ways at places like Oklahoma, which acquired former Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts; and at Ohio State, which nabbed former Georgia quarterback Justin Fields; which in turn led Buckeyes quarterback Tate Martell to transfer to Miami of Florida.

To borrow a Ferentz term about recruiting, it’s like the Wild West. And it’s a scrum that the Hawkeyes coach isn't eager to join.

Kirk Ferentz, shown at a pre-Outback Bowl press conference, wants to find the next Josh Jackson in his program: Somebody who has untapped potential and ready to emerge.

“That’s probably not a place I see us going shopping real extensively,” Ferentz continued. “We have other guys looking at it. That won’t be the first store we go to, I guess, if we do go shopping. Which, I don’t do much shopping.”

It’s an interesting topic, for sure, especially considering the other major topic of Ferentz’s 32-minute interaction with reporters: Early roster departures, especially to the NFL.

Iowa doubled its record, from two to four, with early NFL Draft entries Noah Fant, T.J. Hockenson, Amani Hooker and Anthony Nelson. 

Combined with graduation and transfers, the Hawkeyes have gotten suddenly thin at defensive line and tight end.

So, wouldn’t combing the transfer portal be a wise plan?

Ferentz wasn't so sure.

He thinks there might be more risk in taking on a disgruntled player from another institution. Building a fully invested team culture is how Ferentz sees a program like Iowa’s being successful. Disrupting that makes the 63-year-old dean of the Big Ten Conference a little nervous.

To illustrate his concern, Ferentz told a story about wandering into his office on a Saturday in 1997 while an assistant with the Baltimore Ravens. To his surprise, head coach Ted Marchibroda was interviewing a candidate to replace tight ends coach Pat Hill, who was headed to Fresno State.

“I said, ‘Coach, I didn’t even know we had a candidate in here.’ He wasn’t too worked up about it,” Ferentz recalled. “He said, ‘I learned a long time ago, it’s not about getting the best one. It's about not getting a bad one.'

“I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that. We want to make sure if we bring someone in, we have a good picture of their whole story.”

Again, deferring to Ferentz’s words here: He feels like his program’s best chance at filling those roster gaps is usually through coaching and developing players already on campus.

If there’s a clear deficiency, though, Ferentz has shown an occasional willingness to get outside his box. Iowa grabbed one impact transfer in each of the past three summers — punter Ron Coluzzi in 2016, running back James Butler in 2017 and running back Mekhi Sargent in 2018.

This year's glaring need seems to be at defensive tackle. After Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff, backups in 2018, there’s not much else. Maybe freshman Noah Shannon.

We’ll see what happens with Iowa and the portal, but it sounds like it'll be more outgoing mail than incoming.

And that brings us to the NFL early departures — clearly another growing trend. Ferentz certainly wishes all four early-departing players well, but he didn’t resoundingly endorse their decisions. He used the word “interesting” three times in reference to how much of an impact enticing agents can have on third-year college students.

"There’s a lot of misinformation, unfortunately, that gets thrown around,” Ferentz said.

The biggest and latest argument that has become prevalent is that by turning pro now, a player can get to his second — and more lucrative — NFL contract sooner. For example, former Iowa cornerback Desmond King just made $555,000 in an All-Pro season with the Los Angeles Chargers and still has two more years on his rookie deal. The argument is, King would be one year closer to that giant payday he’ll likely get had he not returned to Iowa for his senior season.

But, as the Wall Street Journal reported in 2016, most players don’t reach their second contract. NFL teams will only pay up for special talents. Therefore, Ferentz’s pitch is that a player stay in school to shine his resume as much as possible. Offensive lineman Brandon Scherff was rewarded with that strategy, as he went fifth overall in the 2015 draft, after staying in school as a senior. He has averaged more than $5.5 million per season in his rookie deal, and will be paid more than $12.5 million in 2019.

But, like with the portal, it’s a changing world.

These guys are here and gone. It's a scary thought for developmental programs like Iowa's.

Ferentz has to know that defensive end A.J. Epenesa and offensive tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs, for starters, will have an opportunity to leave after their junior years for the 2020 NFL Draft.

“It’s another trend in college football that we’ll learn to deal with,” Ferentz said, “and adjust.”

His immediate approach has been to challenge his current players to become the next Josh Jackson — who was largely unknown until breaking through as a red-shirt junior when he became a consensus all-American cornerback, an NFL early entry and a second-round pick of the Green Bay Packers.

“Those are the kinds of stories and opportunities that are out there right now,” Ferentz said.

For better or worse, it's clear that Ferentz is largely betting Iowa’s 2019 fortunes on his coaching staff and current players.

“We lost some really good players. But we also have some guys, I think, that are really good players right now,” Ferentz said. “And we also have some guys that I hope are Josh Jackson, that a year from now we’re saying, ‘Boy, what a story that was.’ When we have good teams, that’s how it works."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.