Leistikow: As spring practice ends, Kirk Ferentz lays down challenge for Hawkeyes

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — After Iowa closed its spring practices Friday night, Kirk Ferentz was naturally asked about what happened 24 hours earlier in the NFL Draft.

Two Iowa tight ends being picked in the top 20 of Thursday’s first round was quite the story — as T.J. Hockenson (No. 8 to the Detroit Lions) and Noah Fant (No. 20 to the Denver Broncos) were chosen before any running back, wide receiver or defensive back.

But leave it to the 21st-year head coach to articulate how his former tight ends' rise to millions applies to what's needed from the Hawkeyes' 2019 roster.

“A couple years ago, T.J. was a red-shirt scout-team player. It wasn’t that long ago,” Ferentz said. “Now he’s the eighth guy taken in the draft … and still had two years of eligibility.

“When I think about (Hockenson), I think about improvement. He’s improvement driven. That’s what our football team has to be right now.”

Kirk Ferentz addresses the Hawkeyes after their final spring practice Friday night.

Hockenson and Fant both left school after their third years.

And for this 2019 Iowa team to be a realistic contender for the stated annual goal of a Big Ten Conference championship, Ferentz laid down the challenge: Serious improvement is needed. 

The jump from sophomore to junior year, in particular — like with Hockenson and Fant — seemed to be top of mind for Ferentz.

During spring practices, he’s really liked what he’s seen out of junior offensive tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs. Same goes for junior defensive ends A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston.

The junior jump seems to be going well, too, for wide receiver Brandon Smith and safety Geno Stone. Smith made a wonderful catch in the end zone during Friday’s 11-on-11 action, and there’s quiet confidence that he’s ready for a big year. Stone will need to be a leader in Iowa's secondary.

But then there’s a guy like Ihmir Smith-Marsette. He was the Big Ten Conference’s return specialist of the year as a sophomore. But Iowa coaches clearly have been wanting more consistency out of the third-year wide receiver with electric speed and a love for the game. Smith-Marsette didn't have a single catch Friday night, while Smith and redshirt freshman Nico Ragaini were starring.

“He’s an explosive player. He’s demonstrated that. Statistically, it’s shown up on kick returns,” Ferentz said. “How can you translate that to the receiver position? To me, it really gets down to consistency. He’s got an ability to take it all the way. He’s also got the ability to have the ball out there and come flopping out … like it did in the bowl game.”

Ferentz is the media opposite of basketball coach Fran McCaffery, who freely heaps praise on his players before they’ve ascended to a high level. Ferentz shouldn't be mistaken as a 63-year-old curmudgeon, but he publicly (and privately) sets the bar high for his players. Constant improvement is necessary — and attainable.

The NFL Draft was a wonderful example of that.

Who could’ve possibly projected Hockenson would have gone from solid-but-unspectacular redshirt freshman to the Mackey Award winner as a third-year sophomore ... then to No. 8 overall?

“As you get in your third year of the program, you hope you learn how to demonstrate consistency and perform. That’s a big part of becoming a better football player,” Ferentz said. “If our older guys aren’t doing that, then we’re not going to have a good football team.”

Friday wasn’t the greatest practice visually.

Backup quarterbacks got a lot of time in 11-on-11, as coaches wanted to size up unproven players on both sides of the football.

We can't take much from it.

"Tonight was not the showcase of spring ball by any stretch,” Ferentz said. “Some good efforts out there, some good things out there individually. But to think that we’ll win any of our 12 games next year with that energy level is probably not going to be cutting the mustard."

The opener is Aug. 31 against Miami of Ohio.

As is the story every year with the Hawkeyes’ developmental approach, there’s a lot of stock that'll be put into these next four months.

It’s safe to say we don’t know yet how good this team can be.

Big pieces are in place, starting with senior quarterback Nate Stanley and the many juniors who seem poised to take the next step.

But more pieces are needed.

“We’ve lost a lot of really good players from this last year’s team," Ferentz said. "A really good senior class that was totally invested, then you lose four more (early-entry NFL) guys on top of it.

"On that topic, our seniors, that leadership group — they’re very visibly working on things. They’re trying to move the team forward. That’s a real good indicator. It doesn’t mean we’re going to win eight games, but at least we’re thinking right."

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.