Leistikow: In spring-opening comments, Kirk Ferentz sets high bar for 2019 Hawkeyes

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — One of the coolest things that the Iowa football Twitter account put out this month was a weight-room video that went viral.

In it, a crowd of hooting and hollering Hawkeye players watch 320-pound offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs hoist 450 pounds from his waist to his chest, then again … and again … and again. After the fourth rep in the “hang-clean” lift, Wirfs triumphantly drops the bending bar to the ground — and his teammates celebrate around him as if he just scored the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the 46-second video had more than 1.3 million views.

But the message from Kirk Ferentz about his two-year starting right tackle’s weight-room exploits provides an indication of the 21st-year Iowa coach's approach to the Hawkeyes’ 15 spring football practices, which begin Wednesday.

“If he can move defensive guys around like he’s moving weights around,” Ferentz said Tuesday, “that’s the next challenge.”

In other words, there’s a lot of room for even Iowa’s best players (let alone the newcomers) to get a lot better, if the Hawkeyes want to match or surpass the nine games they won last season.

Third-year starting quarterback Nate Stanley, who is 22 touchdowns away from breaking Chuck Long’s career record?

Kirk Ferentz, shown in this December photo, met with the media Tuesday in advance of his 21st session of spring football as Iowa's head coach.

Needs to take a big step forward this spring.

“Nate’s as aware of anybody, he’s got room to improve also,” Ferentz said. “There are throws he missed. Reads he missed.”

Junior defensive end A.J. Epenesa, who earned first-team all-Big Conference honors despite playing as a backup?

Needs to take a big step forward this spring.

“He’s done a lot of good things for us. Made a lot of good plays,” Ferentz said. “Now, the key is … the dependability."

A coach who just saw four tremendous underclassmen declare early for the NFL Draft clearly understands the urgency ahead.

WHAT'S NEXT?5 key questions entering 2019 after Iowa departures

Ferentz has to know he might only have Wirfs, an imposing third-year player at a premier position, for only one more season. It shouldn't be a surprise if second-team all-Big Ten left tackle Alaric Jackson (6-foot-7, 320) becomes an early-entry NFL candidate, too.

Epenesa (listed at 6-6, 280) is already being projected as a possible top-10 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, if he comes out early.

And Stanley, one of the few top juniors from Iowa’s Outback Bowl-winning team to return for 2019, is done for sure after this season.

Those are four guys at college football’s most important positions who give the 2019 Hawkeyes something to build around. The initial pieces are there to have a special season. No wonder Ferentz is setting the bar — this one figurative, not the one supporting 400-plus pounds — of expectations high.

“Certainly, we’re a totally different football team and have a lot of challenges moving forward,” Ferentz said during his opening comments of what became a 37-minute news conference packed with information. “What doesn’t change is for us to have a good football team, we’re going to expect and need our best players, our most experienced players, to continue to grow and develop.

“They’ve got to play their best football next year.”

So, the 450-pound hang-cleans are cool for social-media viewing. But they don’t translate into fixing a running game that averaged 3.95 yards per carry, which ranked No. 94 out of 130 FBS teams.

They don’t do enough to replace the lost production of T.J. Hockenson, Noah Fant, Amani Hooker and Anthony Nelson — four early NFL entries that the coaching staff at one point presumed would be a part of their 2019 plan.

Instead, Ferentz has had a different weight-room focus.

Tuesday, he talked about walking through Chris Doyle's laboratory looking for the next Nick Easley or the next Jake Gervase — former walk-ons who, in their final games, were major difference-makers in Iowa’s 27-22 Outback Bowl win against Mississippi State.

“Those guys were great stories,” Ferentz said. “Hopefully, we’ll have more of them coming as we move along. It’s going to be certainly necessary.”

Two years ago at this time, even devoted Hawkeye fans couldn't have known much about or expected much from Easley or Gervase.

Ferentz talked about how he saw Sam Brincks and Chauncey Golston emerge last spring. They became impact players on the 2018 defensive line.

Who’s next?

Iowa needs a lot of guys to come through, starting this spring. Football practice time is precious. New stories need to emerge soon. 

The receiving game needs to find a star or two, with the top three pass-catchers gone. The interior of the offensive line is probably going to feature a new cast of contributors. There's a major depth issue on the defensive line. Ferentz was curious to see who could break through at linebacker, which needs to go from serviceable a year ago to great. Finding a go-to running back would be nice.

Don't misunderstand Ferentz. He's not being a total curmudgeon about his best players. He's setting the bar high, because he knows the ceiling for this team is, too.

Overall, though, Tuesday's message was clear.: The 2019 Hawkeyes have a lot of work to do.

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.