[Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series.]
The urgency in preparations for Iowa’s 2019 football season is about to get cranked up to 11.
Players report Thursday for the 21st fall camp of the Kirk Ferentz era, with their first practice set for Friday. The four-week push is on before the Aug. 31 season opener against Miami of Ohio.
This is a crucial time for the offense to find a rhythm, for the defense to find cohesion and the coaching staff to find out who they can depend upon to carry the team’s Big Ten Conference title hopes.
There's a feeling that this Hawkeyes team has the pieces to make a championship run in 2019. With the arrival of fall camp and Ferentz about to start his third decade at the Hawkeyes’ helm, it feels appropriate to size up how championship-ready the Hawkeyes are actually built.
As the Big Ten West Division gets stronger, how will Iowa hold up this year? In future years?
Because there’s so much to digest, this question will be answered in three parts. Let's call it a "championship checklist."
Today’s Part 1: The coaching staff.
Keep your eye out in the coming days for Part 2 (the defense) and Part 3 (the offense). As you’ll see, special teams are incorporated in today's report.
The offensive staff
A massive overhaul began following a 2016 season in which Iowa had division-title expectations but delivered C-minus results. A group now largely in its third year together needs to take a next step.
Personnel:Brian Ferentz (third-year offensive coordinator; tight ends), Ken O’Keefe (third year, quarterbacks), Derrick Foster (second year, running backs), Kelton Copeland (third year, receivers), Tim Polasek (third year, offensive line).
What’s to like: The Brian Ferentz offense has rediscovered the tight end (see: NFL Draft) and been excellent in scoring efficiency (despite ranking 92nd out of 130 FBS teams in total yardage in 2018, the 31.2 points per game ranked 44th and was the program’s highest average since 2002). Foster and Copeland have been major recruiting and culture upgrades over Chris White and Bobby Kennedy (ousted after 2016), helping Iowa gain traction in talent-rich Alabama, Georgia and Florida. Improved pass protection (16 sacks allowed in 2018, best in the Big Ten) has been a highlight under Polasek.
What needs work: The lack of a consistent rushing offense (104th and 94th in yards per carry in Ferentz’s two years as OC) is the biggest separating factor between Iowa and the top of the Big Ten West. For a program that puts so much emphasis on running the football, recruiting (or developing) a big-time running back has been a shortcoming. Ascending offenses at Minnesota, Nebraska and Purdue puts urgency on Iowa to keep up the pace.
Looking ahead: With four of the five coaches in their 30s, there’s upside, energy and growing stability. It’ll be interesting to see how much longer O’Keefe, who turns 66 on Aug. 18, will continue coaching; he signed a three-year contract to come back to Iowa in 2017. If Brian Ferentz one day succeeds his father as Iowa’s head coach, Polasek would be a natural fit as offensive coordinator (he held that title at North Dakota State).
The defensive staff
Reese Morgan’s retirement announcement in March made replacing a legendary recruiter and teacher one of the program’s biggest offseason storylines.
Personnel: Phil Parker (eighth-year defensive coordinator; defensive backs), Seth Wallace (fourth year, linebackers), Kelvin Bell (fourth year, defensive line), Jay Niemann (first year, assistant defensive line).
What’s to like: Parker and Wallace are passionate, fiery coaches who are leading Iowa’s charge into the 4-2-5 era after 19-plus seasons in a 4-3. Parker’s ability to develop NFL-caliber defensive backs is uncanny. Niemann was a smart hire. The Hawkeyes have become a magnet for takeaways (their 41 interceptions the past two years ranks No. 1 in FBS), and that stems from playing technically sound defense that forces quarterbacks to throw into tight windows. It's a repeatable system that, when executed properly, keeps Iowa competitive with almost anybody.
What needs work: The next step for a program that has finished in the top 20 nationally in scoring defense five of the last six years is to improve the defensive-tackle position. Bell, a former Hawkeye defensive tackle, has a chance to put his imprint on this position in taking over for Morgan as the leader of the D-line.
Looking ahead: Wallace, 40, is a rising star in the profession; an FBS program would be wise to hire him as their defensive coordinator. Although he’s been at Iowa for the entire Ferentz era, Parker is only 56 and can lead this defense for years to come.
The special teams
LeVar Woods, in his third year as special-teams coordinator and 12th year on staff overall, has had wonderful results in some areas of his new role but needs improvement in others.
What’s to like: The NCAA’s addition of a 10th full-time assistant coach in 2018 allowed Ferentz to devote Woods solely to special teams, a smart shift. Woods keeps a notebook of ideas for fakes on his nightstand, and that obsession has shown up in some brilliantly successful trick plays. Woods also has embraced the importance of sports psychology, which was credited with Miguel Recinos’ strong place-kicking the past two seasons. Woods also has been creative in directional kickoffs and in 2018 coached the Big Ten return specialist of the year in Ihmir Smith-Marsette.
What needs work: A program that puts such a premium on field position should never get the punter wrong, but Iowa has been agonizingly bad in that department the past two seasons. Arizona State grad transfer Michael Sleep-Dalton must provide Woods a stop-gap solution.
Looking ahead: A former Hawkeye and NFL player, Woods loves Iowa and the program. If he continues to develop as special-teams coordinator, he could have further coaching opportunities … if he wants them.
The support staff
In its latest media guide, Iowa lists 48 staff members in addition to its 11 full-time coaches. The two most prominent areas we’ll discuss here are two biggies: strength/conditioning and recruiting.
Notable personnel: Chris Doyle (21st year, strength and conditioning coach), Tyler Barnes (fourth year, director of recruiting), Broderick Binns (fourth year, director of player development), Scott Southmayd (sixth year, director of player personnel), Max Allen (sixth year, director of new media), Paul Federici (16th year, director of operations), Austin Showalter (fifth year, director of analytics).
What’s to like: It’s not a stretch to say Doyle is the most important figure of the Iowa football program; and yes, that consideration includes Kirk Ferentz. It’s impressive how much advanced technology that Doyle not only uses but develops in the name of, well, development. That’s the bedrock of the Hawkeye program. Doyle is deserving of being the nation’s highest-paid strength coach. On the recruiting front, Iowa has been acquiring a different level of player since the class of 2016 (which will one day be remembered as one of the best ever under Ferentz). Barnes and Southmayd are now essentially leading Iowa’s recruiting efforts, and they put a high premium on finding pure athletes who are culture fits.
What needs work: Although Iowa’s ability to churn out NFL offensive linemen, tight ends and defensive backs is off the charts, the program still hasn’t consistently mastered landing/developing NFL talent at the two highest-profile skill positions: running back and wide receiver. Iowa State found a David Montgomery; Wisconsin found a Jonathan Taylor. It's not an impossible ask.
Looking ahead: At only 51, Doyle can do this for a very long time if he so desires. A prerequisite for Iowa's next head coach would be keeping Doyle at the center of the program.
The head coach
Kirk Ferentz used the word “healthy” to describe his program in a December interview with the Register, and I agree. The Hawkeyes have won 37 games over the past four seasons and continue to be a consistent factor in the Big Ten West.
What’s to like: If you care about this kind of thing — and I think most Hawkeye fans do — there’s a real pride that comes from watching Ferentz win games while going about it in a highly ethical way. Ferentz’s embrace of analytics shows he’s willing to adapt and change with the times. Yielding to a 4-2-5 defensive system was a smart move to combat the wide-open nature of today’s game.
What needs work: Game management still can be puzzling at times. A mentality of punishing opponents, rather than keeping games close, would be a welcome change.
Looking ahead: The call for one more question came out at Big Ten Media Days, and I spent it by asking Ferentz: “How many more of these are you going to do?” After a few moments of side-stepping the question, he offered, “Who knows? Who knows?” And his time in Chicago was done for the year.
Ferentz seems to be enjoying his life and the challenges of his high-turnover profession, but at some point, the fifth-winningest coach in Big Ten history will move on. Ferentz turns 64 on Thursday and doesn’t have designs on coaching into his 70s. What’s next?
This season could be an important barometer for the Ferentz legacy — and perhaps set the timetable of his eventual exit. Is Iowa’s prime chance to win the Big Ten West secured or squandered? It seems like the coaching staff, from top to bottom, is in as good a place as it’s been in at least a decade. Maybe ever.
Now it’s time to get it done on the field, too.
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.