If you can assume for a moment that a 2020 college football season will be played in some form (even if it doesn’t start until 2021), who might have an edge coming out of the cancellation of spring football?
Kirk Ferentz, in isolation at his Iowa City home like the rest of us during this COVID-19 pandemic, has had time to mull that question.
“If there’s any advantage that’s going to be gained by this delay or loss of time we’ve had on the field, it would really be an advantage if you have an experienced quarterback,” the 21st-year Hawkeye head coach said during a Zoom video conference Wednesday, which would have marked the 10th of Iowa's 15 permitted spring practices. “(For example), if you had a two-year starter coming back. I heard some NFL teams talk about that (in the lockout-shortened offseason of 2011).”
That’s a fair point. If Iowa was, say, going to take the field on Sept. 5, 2020, against Northern Iowa with just three weeks of on-field practices since the Holiday Bowl, you’d feel better about Nate Stanley handling the first snap.
But whenever Iowa plays again, it’s guaranteed to be breaking in a first-time college starter — probably redshirt sophomore Spencer Petras.
To that point, Iowa is at a significant experience disadvantage. Ferentz thinks quarterback play is one of the most important pieces of spring development that was lost. A look at Iowa’s four trophy-game rivals is a sobering starting point. Each returns a quarterback entering Year 3 as a starter: Iowa State’s Brock Purdy (21 starts; game currently scheduled for Sept. 12), Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan (19 starts; Sept. 18), Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez (21 starts; Nov. 14) and Wisconsin’s Jack Coan (18 starts; Nov. 28).
Even the teams with second-year starters — think Ohio State (Heisman Trophy finalist Justin Fields) and Penn State (Sean Clifford, who beat Iowa in Kinnick Stadium in October) — are far better-positioned in the QB-experience conversation. In total, nine of Iowa’s 12 opponents bring back QBs with a full season of starting experience. Michigan State, Northwestern and Purdue are the exceptions.
Iowa feels very good about what Petras has done as Stanley’s understudy, but whenever football resumes, he will more than likely look rustier than he would've been otherwise.
But one area on offense should compensate for Iowa's QB inexperience.
Even as we prepare to watch Tristan Wirfs be chosen as a top-10 NFL draft pick next week, Iowa’s offensive line should be well-positioned to protect Petras and keep even a less-practiced offense moving forward. The Hawkeyes will return a bevy of experience up front, starting with fourth-year left tackle Alaric Jackson. Center Tyler Linderbaum provides a tenacious anchor in the middle. Mark Kallenberger and Cole Banwart provide experienced starting points at guard (with a slew of young challengers, including Cody Ince and Justin Britt, expected to challenge them).
And then there’s graduate transfer Coy Cronk.
Cronk started 40 games at Indiana and the good news, per Ferentz, is that the 6-foot-5, 325-pound tackle was proceeding nicely with his recovery from a significant ankle injury. Ferentz was anticipating Cronk (who is back in his home state of Indiana) to be full speed for spring ball.
Even though Cronk is missing valuable time learning the Hawkeye offense, his familiarity with the game should assist his on-field transition — whenever that occurs.
“It sounds like his rehab has gone very, very well,” Ferentz said. “… He knows his way around the Big Ten field, if you will.”
Ferentz remains concerned about fast-tracking college's offseason.
He still views eight weeks as the bare-bones minimum (four of strength and conditioning, three of on-field practices plus a game week) to prepare for a first game, but there are scenarios being floated in which the window between reconvening and Week 1 is six weeks and possibly four.
Yes, the 2011 NFL season had an on-time start and full 16-game schedule despite the 132-day lockout extending to July 25 that year.
“I guess they got back in four weeks,” Ferentz noted. “But there’s a big difference in pro athletes and college athletes.”
Very few college players are NFL-ready in college. To accentuate his point, he compared the development of NFL all-pro Desmond King (who started 51 games in his Iowa career that ended after the 2016 season) to current sophomore D.J. Johnson (who will compete for a starting cornerback job).
“Yeah, we could get Desmond King ready to play in four weeks,” he said. “D.J., I’m not so sure. That’s not realistic.
“The quality of play is going to be compromised a little bit with every cut that gets made. What we really need to be careful of is compromising the players’ well-being. It doesn’t do any good to push as hard as you can to be ready in Week 4, then have a bunch of guys hurt in Weeks 6, 7 and 8 because you weren’t taking a smart approach.”
Yes, we all want to see football … even bad, fast-tracked football. But Ferentz makes a good argument that bad football could come with high injury price without proper lead time to a season.
The CEO mentality of Ferentz shines during the COVID-19 isolation, including with the team book.
Ferentz doesn't think schematic meetings over video calls would have much benefit for players. So his mentality is to focus on areas that can make the most impact.
No. 1, the coaching staff is stressing academics. Taking a full load of online classes requires discipline, just like it would if 100-plus athletes were walking or driving from the football building to the lecture hall. Coaches have been diligent about checking up on scholastic progress; this time without football activity is a great opportunity to post strong grades.
No. 2, there is a high priority on fostering team culture. This year’s team book is “Legacy” (as it was in 2016), which delves into the values instilled by the All Blacks of New Zealand, the world’s most successful rugby franchise.
There are six teams in this year’s “Hawkeye Championship,” and those teams have been encouraged to keep each other accountable in all areas — including their workouts and life choices — during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“From a football standpoint,” Ferentz said, “that might be as important as anything we’re doing right now.”
Stanley has said that the 2019 team culture was the best of his four-year career at Iowa, and it may have rivaled the 2015 season that saw an over-achieving collection of players win 12 games and reach the Rose Bowl. Continuing that type of togetherness into 2020 is a bigger challenge now while in isolation.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.