Leistikow: 5 notable things Kirk Ferentz said about Hawkeyes' return to the football field

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Now that the Big Ten Conference football season is on and coming fast, 65-year-old Kirk Ferentz finds himself facing one of the most unique challenges of his long career.

The man with 162 wins as a Big Ten coach — only Amos Alonzo Stagg, Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler have more — has relied on discipline, fundamentals and precise execution over the past 21 years at Iowa. Those things require every ounce of practice time possible, but with so little of that time in the bag and a five-week sprint to the season opener either Oct. 23 or 24, Ferentz knows his team will have to find a new path.

“(It) dawned on me that this whole thing may favor teams with great genetics or experienced quarterbacks, and we don’t necessarily have either,” Ferentz said Thursday. “And really smart coaches.”

Then, he quipped: “So we’re 0-for-3.”

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Ferentz’s dry zingers were back, another sign that football is again top-of-mind.

Here are five things that stood out from Ferentz’s 30-plus minutes on a video conference with Iowa media.

Kirk Ferentz correctly noted that the last time his team was in pads was the Dec. 27 Holiday Bowl. He hopes they can have their first contact practice Sept. 30.

Ferentz again brought up the 2011 NFL lockout. Why is that important?

Because, Ferentz noted, an NFL strength coach told him there were an abundance of soft-tissue injuries (bruises, ankle sprains, hamstring pulls, etc.) in games in that 2011 season because of the rushed preparation and a preceding 4½-month period of football dormancy.

When Iowa talks about being “tough, smart, physical” … that last one takes time and has been integral to the Hawkeye approach. Ferentz said Iowa normally has “11 or 12” contact practices during spring ball; this year, Iowa got zero practices, period. It anticipates having its first padded workout Sept. 30, if the rapid-result antigen tests arrive by then. That’ll mark Iowa’s first contact experience since the 2019 Holiday Bowl.

“You can’t play this game sitting in a chair,” Ferentz said, comparing the many meetings the current pandemic has meant to contact practices. “It’s still not the same. Part of it’s the physical part. The body has to learn how to endure contact and deliver contact in a safe way. If you don’t do enough of that, that’s going to lead to soft-tissue issues.”

Ferentz said he anticipated a less-rigorous training-camp period (normally four weeks in August) than usual, because unlike a regular year, the players will also be in school.  

“If we’re concerned about a guy’s conditioning,” Ferentz said, “we’ll be smart with him like we would be at any time of year.”

Let's circle back to the “0-for-3” comment for a moment …

Ferentz is hardly dealing with an empty cupboard, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. In my opinion, he has the deepest set of receivers — Brandon Smith, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy Jr. — of his Hawkeyes career. The running backs are deep and talented, led by sophomore Tyler Goodson. Tight end Sam LaPorta looks like a keeper. And the quarterback, Spencer Petras, has been widely praised, including by Ferentz during a Big Ten Network interview on Wednesday.

“The only thing Spencer hasn’t done is play,” he told Dave Revsine. “But he’s done everything to win our confidence. The players really believe in him.”

So, in that sense, if Iowa has to try to navigate its nine-game season with a less-physical style than usual, it is almost better-positioned to do so than ever. Most of the offense that ran circles around USC 49-24 in San Diego is back.

“We’ll find a way to be ready,” Ferentz said. “It may not be perfect. And hopefully we’ll be competitive with a good football team at some point. Hopefully sooner than later.”

Spencer Petras is the unquestioned starter at quarterback, even though he has never played a meaningful college snap.

“Opt-outs” has become a common occurrence during the pandemic, but not yet at Iowa.

Ferentz did acknowledge that “a very small number” of players have expressed concerns about playing this season, but he was not ready to make an official announcement. My guess is Ferentz is holding out a little longer to let the player(s) in question be sure of his decision.

Overall, though, Ferentz said the opt-out issue “hasn’t been overly concerning. I think back a couple months ago, that was on a lot of peoples’ minds. In a general way, I think our players are really excited about this opportunity and excited to play.”

Jim Nagy, the executive director of the Senior Bowl, on Wednesday tweeted out a list of Big Ten NFL Draft prospects at each position that would benefit most by more college tape. He chose two from Iowa: Smith-Marsette at receiver and graduate transfer Coy Cronk on the offensive line. Iowa has a lot of players in that position — with definite NFL potential but needing to prove it — which should make for a hungry bunch of veterans.

There is no decision yet on whether the team will kneel for the national anthem.

In light of the racial-bias investigation over the summer, which was preceded by the separation agreement with longtime strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle, and the protests against police violence, the anthem is a hot-button topic. And it will be a continued source of speculation until perhaps the final minutes before the opening game.

On a related note, Ferentz dodged a question about whether his coaching staff has not had further diversity training. However, he said senior players have given him positive reports related to the program’s approach to being more inclusive while also maintaining high standards of behavior and performance.

“The feedback’s been very good,” Ferentz said. “But really the proof will be when the rubber hits the road. Now that we’re in a work mode and we’re going to be together more and working on a daily basis … what I’d say is come back in a couple months and see how we’re doing. But, so far so good.”

Ferentz's No. 1 factor in the shortened season being a success or failure: personal responsibility.

The team has experienced two coronavirus spikes. One was in June, when he said some players weren’t taking the pandemic very seriously. The other was after school began and the season was canceled. Ferentz said cases have leveled off since, but some players remain in quarantine.

Going forward, the Hawkeyes (players and staff) have to maintain a very low number of positive tests to be able to practice and play games. Even if one pocket of players gets a little fast-and-loose with social distancing, a small outbreak could ruin football for everyone else. The pressure and stakes are high.

“Once they leave (the football building), the choices they make, the decisions they make,” Ferentz said, “is really going to impact how things work out for them.”

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.