Leistikow: 3 things we learned from Iowa coordinators Brian Ferentz, Phil Parker and LeVar Woods

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

In recent years, Iowa football has made its coordinators available for press conferences once during the regular season — usually on the team’s off week.

In this compressed 2020 schedule, there are no weeks off. So, Thursday — at the midpoint of the eight-game regular season, and 48 hours before Saturday's 2:30 p.m. game at Penn State — became that day.

Here are some of things we learned from the Hawkeyes’ three coordinators.

Fifth-year seniors Mekhi Sargent, left, and Alaric Jackson (77) are playing their best football for the Hawkeyes and have been excellent for Brian Ferentz in the running game.

Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz can be proud of his running game, so far.

Just once in Kirk Ferentz’s previous 21 years as Iowa’s head coach have the Hawkeyes averaged at least 5.0 yards per carry for a season. And your best guess would be correct, that it happened in 2002 (at 5.04, led by Fred Russell, Jermelle Lewis and Brad Banks).

That’s why it’s especially notable that the 2-2 Hawkeyes are averaging 5.43 yards per rushing attempt. Of Power Five teams that have played at least four games, only Virginia Tech (6.08), Iowa State (5.68), North Carolina (5.58) and Louisville (5.51) are averaging more.

The past three seasons under Brian Ferentz, Iowa’s rushing averages have been 3.76 (2017), 3.95 (2018) and again 3.95 (2019). What’s the biggest reason for the jump?

“One thing that’s important to think about when you talk about the run game, it’s always a team effort,” Brian Ferentz said. “I’ve been around a lot of really good offensive lines that have averaged about four yards a carry, which isn’t enough.”

Ferentz especially credited the downfield blocking of his receivers, such as Brandon Smith, for helping break runs by Tyler Goodson or Mekhi Sargent into big-gainers. As a play-caller, Ferentz explained that with a nine-on-11 blocking disadvantage on most running plays, his approach is to try to run the ball toward the least effective unblocked player on the other team.

So far, pretty darn good. Iowa hasn’t crossed the 4.5 yards-per-carry mark for a season since Shonn Greene’s Doak Walker Award-winning year of 2008 (4.76). Can Iowa keep this up? It's about to get tougher. Iowa’s four known remaining opponents, in order, allow 3.57 yards a carry (Penn State), 4.41 (Nebraska), 4.59 (Illinois) and 4.05 (Wisconsin).

I also asked Ferentz about the progress of backup quarterbacks Alex Padilla and Deuce Hogan. His answer focused on the slower-than-expected progress of starter Spencer Petras. On the importance of the loss of 15 spring practices because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ferentz noted that you “can’t become a great quarterback on Zoom.”

Petras has been up and down through four games and ranks last among Big Ten qualifiers in completion percentage. The sophomore still has a vote of confidence from coaches.

“I think Spencer has done a tremendous job of growing and maturing and becoming a better player regardless of those circumstances," Brian Ferentz said. 'But you can't ignore the detriment that the lack of time is going to have on your development. And then I would say the same for Alex. Been very pleased with his development and the things he's done."

Defensive coordinator Phil Parker is happy with his team's preparation for Penn State.

Parker joined Kirk Ferentz in being a little perplexed that the Nittany Lions might not start quarterback Sean Clifford, who went 11-2 a year ago (including a 17-12 win at Iowa) but was benched in Saturday’s 30-23 loss to Nebraska in favor of Will Levis. In a bit of (understandable) gamesmanship, Penn State coach James Franklin had not named a starter as of Thursday, meaning Iowa has to prepare for both.

Parker's defense has been wonderfully prepared the past two weeks; its first team has allowed just seven points in wins against Michigan State and Minnesota. But Parker is 0-5 against Penn State in nine-plus as Iowa's defensive coordinator. Penn State’s total yardage in those games has been 504 (in 2012), 599 (in 2016), 579 (in 2017), 312 (in 2018) and 294 (in 2019).

"The only way you're going to beat these guys is (by) understanding what you have to do and recognizing things before the play happens," Parker said. "And I think our guys have been doing a good job. I think the last three days have been really good at practice."

Parker went out of his way to praise senior cornerback Matt Hankins, who has been so good that you don't really notice him. Quarterbacks aren't throwing his way much. This week, Hankins was elevated to game captain for the first time. 

Parker noted that Hankins has been "up and beyond what I thought he would be at this time. He has been such a great leader to all the guys, not only in the secondary but I think the team. ... Matt has been very, very good for us."

Iowa's Tyler Goodson (15), Charlie Jones (16) and special teams coordinator LeVar Woods react during the Nov. 7 game against Michigan State, in which Jones had 105 punt-return yards.

Special-teams coordinator LeVar Woods doesn't want to tip his hand on Iowa's next zany fake. 

At least half of the special-teams boss' 15 minutes was spent answering questions about freshman punter Tory Taylor, one of the team's most fascinating stories. Woods' flight time alone to Australia was 26 hours to pluck one of college football's top punters from Down Under.

And in a fun little twist, Woods revealed that the reason his oldest daughter is named Sydney is because when wife Meghann was pregnant in 2003, they had planned a trip to Australia's largest city but had to cancel it. Nearly 17 years later, Woods finally made it to Australia ... and, essentially, brought home a fabulous punter to show for it.

I was also interested in learning about Woods' thinking on preparing fakes in the field goal and punt game, considering Iowa converted a fake-field goal in State College in 2018 in a 30-24 loss. I first asked if the fake field goal that Iowa showed against Michigan State — in which long snapper Austin Spiewak flipped the ball to tight end Sam LaPorta on fourth-and-5 in what looked like a swinging-gate run play — would have worked had Spartans coach Mel Tucker not called timeout.

"They all work," Woods quipped.

He continued.

“We go into the game with a handful of fakes that we like, that we’ve seen in practice and how they match up with the opponent that we’re going to face," Woods said. "Also, there are some opponents … where we feel like we can take advantage of, so we try to do that and be aggressive.

“Obviously, coach Ferentz is the one that makes those final calls. I'm just the guy that tries to put it together and give him some ideas."

Iowa has been more aggressive on field-goal fakes in recent years; it hasn't called a fake punt since a successful 18-yard run by Amani Hooker on fourth-and-5 in 2017 against Illinois. 

Woods finished by saying he appreciated the question, but jokingly added, "I don’t like you making me talk about it” — not wanting to divulge any clues about what next might be up his sleeve.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.