Leistikow: How Brian Ferentz continues to push offense to evolve for Hawkeyes

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Kirk Ferentz won’t be confused with a revolutionary when it comes to making on-field football changes, but the record shows he’s hardly a stodgy guy who refuses to evolve.

"He’s very open-minded. I know he gets a rap that whatever we do, that he’s the one holding us back," his son and the Hawkeyes’ fifth-year offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said. "That’s a misconception."

Need more evidence?

If you watched Iowa football through the 2016 season (the fifth and final under former offensive coordinator Greg Davis) then turned it off for most of four years — until, say, the fourth quarter of the Illinois game in 2020 — you'd have observed an offensive transformation.

With the Hawkeyes leading, 28-14, and 7½ minutes to go on Dec. 5 in Champaign, Illinois, Brian Ferentz faced what is often referred to as a "four-minute offense" situation, with the goal of gobbling up first downs and draining clock to clinch the game.

In that mode, Ferentz called nine runs out of 10 plays. Five of the runs came out of the new-to-Iowa “Wildcat” formation, with running back Tyler Goodson taking a direct snap. On back-to-back-to-back plays:

  • Goodson handed off to left-running Ivory Kelly-Martin, who flipped the football to Ihmir Smith-Marsette for a 31-yard reverse-run gain around the right end.
  • Goodson faked a handoff to Tyrone Tracy Jr. and ran straight ahead for an easy seven yards.
  • Goodson handed to Tracy, who sped around the left end for 21 yards to the Illinois 19.

Three plays later, quarterback Spencer Petras was back on the field. And to finish the drive (and Illinois), Iowa ran a perfectly timed jet sweep to Smith-Marsette around the right end for a 13-yard, game-sealing touchdown with just 1:56 remaining.

It was an unrecognizable display compared to past Iowa teams, and a reflection of the offseason process that Brian Ferentz and his offensive staff go through every year.

With the head coach's permission, of course.

“There’s nothing we do schematically or conceptually without getting it OK’d. He’s the head coach,” Brian Ferentz said of Kirk, in his 23rd year as the Hawkeyes’ boss. “One thing good about working here is that he’s not a micromanager. If you come and say, ‘I think this is going to help, and we’re going in this direction,’ usually you’re not going to get a lot of pushback."

In a wide-ranging conversation that spanned an hour this week with the Des Moines Register — the bulk of which aired on our weekly Hawk Central radio show — Brian Ferentz went under the hood with how he approaches offseason changes and what steps Iowa's offense must take next.

Brian Ferentz is entering his fifth year as Iowa's offensive coordinator. As a team, Iowa has a 33-14 record in his first four seasons (.702 win percentage).

Brian Ferentz views the proposed 12-team College Football Playoff as a positive thing.

Why wouldn’t he?

“A team like Iowa, shoot,” he said. “We’ve got more opportunity now.”

Tripling the size of the playoff (which seems poised to happen, perhaps as early as 2023) wouldn’t have been enough to get the top-15 Hawkeyes a spot either of the last two seasons. But it’s a pretty easy argument that Iowa was playing at a top-12 level by the end of 2019 and 2020.

After an 0-2 start in a pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Iowa closed with a dominant six-game win streak against Big Ten teams in which it outscored opponents by an average of 35.7 points to 13.8.

In 2019, Iowa closed on a four-game surge that included a 49-24 shellacking of USC in the Holiday Bowl, in which the Hawkeyes scored touchdowns on their first five possessions.

"By the end of (2019)," Ferentz said. "I thought we could’ve played with anybody."

But Ferentz knows that early-season hiccups, particularly on offense, were costly to Iowa’s annual goal of winning a Big Ten championship. In 2019, Iowa surrendered eight sacks in a dispiriting 10-3 loss at Michigan. In 2020, Petras threw three second-half interceptions and Iowa blew a 17-0 lead at home to lose to eventual division champ Northwestern.

“The reality is last year, we lost the games we needed to win to get where we wanted to go,” Ferentz said. “That’s the crummy part. That’s why you’ve got to give a lot of credit to a team like Northwestern.”

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Iowa’s 2021 hopes can be unhinged with a poor start. The Hawkeyes’ first two games are against teams that finished in the national top 12 last year — home against Indiana on Sept. 4, at Iowa State on Sept. 11.

"We’ve got to find out who we are," Ferentz said. "Fast."

Ferentz has already studied Indiana's defense in detail and came away impressed. Meantime, Iowa State probably has the best defense in the Big 12 along with a burning desire to upend Iowa for the first time since 2014.

“I wish Iowa State wasn’t very good," Ferentz said. "Just like I’m sure they wish we weren’t very good, right? It’s good for college football. It's good for the state of Iowa."

There are two stern tests out of the gate that would be huge for Iowa to pass. Late-season surges are nice, but they feel empty without accompanying early-season success.

That’s where the offseason adjustment process comes in. And, with recruiting restrictions that weren't lifted until June 1, Iowa coaches have had more time in the office to evaluate how they can continue to evolve … and maybe get over that Big Ten West hump. In 10 years of the league's divisional format, Iowa has one title (2015) and four second-place finishes.

"The process always has to start with self-evaluation."

The first stage of trying to improve the offense from year to year is to evaluate every aspect. It does nobody any favors to try to brush off a weakness. Pride and stubbornness can get in the way of beneficial change.

"Is this a bad scheme? Are we running bad plays?" Ferentz said of the hyper-critical questions that are asked. “Are we putting guys in the right positions? … Or are we just running bad concepts? Is it a matter of execution?"

There was a lot of positives in last year’s offense, led by Goodson at running back and Tyler Linderbaum at center. Iowa averaged 31.8 points per game — the program’s highest total since the 2002 Hawkeyes rolled up 37.2 per game in an 11-2 season. A big reason for that success was a running game that posted 4.62 yards per carry, the program’s best rate since 4.76 in 2008.

Upon further review, Ferentz deemed that Iowa played at a championship level on first downs — gaining 1,610 yards on 248 snaps. That’s an average of 6.5 yards per play and more than 200 yards per game on first down alone.

But on third downs, Iowa was bad. It gained just 352 yards on 94 such snaps (3.7 average) and overall converted a meager 34% of third-down opportunities into first downs. That ranked 107th out of 127 FBS teams — aka not championship level.

Thus, finding ways to improve on third down is what Ferentz called a “point of emphasis” in 2021. 

At the same time, he noted that it can’t be assumed that first-down proficiency will continue.

“To think we’re going to show up and be good on first down this year,” he said, “it’s not going to work that way."

In college, the personnel changes significantly every year.

That’s another part of the offseason evaluation process. Who are your best players? How can the scheme be adjusted to feature them?

In 2017, Ferentz’s first year as offensive coordinator, running back Akrum Wadley became the focal point of Iowa’s scheme. In 2018, the offense was at its best when first-round NFL Draft tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant were involved. In 2019, a quartet of wide receivers emerged into starring roles.

And last year’s strength (after too much early-season reliance on the pass) became the run game behind Goodson’s explosiveness that was complemented by an outside-run game with receivers Smith-Marsette, Tracy and Charlie Jones. Iowa began introducing jet-sweep and option actions in 2017, and it had evolved into a pretty potent operation in 2020.

What about this year?

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Outside of Linderbaum (a preseason first-team all-American), Iowa’s three best offensive players are Goodson, Tracy and tight end Sam LaPorta. While Ferentz isn’t going to divulge any 2021 secrets or adjustments, it’s safe to say that trio is at the center.

But it’s not as simple as deciding to get them more touches.

A game plan or concept can be blown up by what the opposing defense chooses to do — or, more accurately, negate.

"That’s the hardest part, probably, in what I do," Ferentz said.

For example, Ferentz pointed out that in Iowa’s opening 2020 loss at Purdue, the Boilermakers were dead-set on not allowing the Hawkeyes throw deep to Ihmir Smith-Marsette or anyone else. Smith-Marsette was held without a catch and Petras went 8-for-19 in the second half of a 24-20 defeat.

Iowa puts a lot on its quarterback’s shoulders. That’s why the development of Petras and top backup Alex Padilla has been such an important offseason story line.

“If you’re not going to just hand it to somebody, I can’t dictate to the defense what they’re going to play,” Ferentz said. “So ultimately, the quarterback needs to put the ball where it should go, based on what the defense does. Because we try to run concepts that have answers.”

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.