Leistikow's 5 thoughts: Why Iowa football's vaccination rate is a concern; Ferentz's last word on timeouts

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

INDIANAPOLIS — Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald shared at this week’s Big Ten Media Days that more than 90% of his players have received a COVID-19 vaccine. Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said his team was around the 85% mark. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said the Wolverines are in the "high 90s." 

So with Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz on Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium saying his team was “not quite 70%” in vaccination rate, could that become a competitive disadvantage for the Hawkeyes? 

Iowa wide receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr., one of three Hawkeyes brought here, made his feelings clear. The Indianapolis native is vaccinated and hopes the team gets to 100%. He doesn't want to lose a game because, say, three key players are suddenly out against Wisconsin.

"We’re trying our best to let (teammates) have freedom in it. But at the end of the day, we want to be a championship-level team," Tracy said. "We can't be a championship level team if we have 10 guys in quarantine and another 10 that are out just because they were next to them."

Kirk Ferentz fields questions during his podium session at Big Ten media days on Friday afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium.

If a player contracts COVID-19, he becomes subject to CDC guidelines on quarantining. Ferentz said one player got the virus in June and it impacted others on the team and kept them from training. The Big Ten will provide more guidelines soon.

"It’s going to become a big deal pretty soon that we are all vaccinated,” Tracy said. “If you aren’t, you’re really going to pay when the season comes around.”

Ferentz has received the vaccine but has not mandated his players do. He’s correct in saying it’s going to be another concern on his plate, worrying if a non-vaccinated player will be sidelined by the virus — and perhaps take out others due to contact tracing.

Penn State's James Franklin on Thursday said his team was "over 70%" but noted, "I'm not going to be happy until it's 100%." Not every coach here gave a specific number, but it was a common question and a common theme. This COVID-19 issue will almost certainly spill into the season. 

If Iowa has roughly two-thirds of its roster vaccinated, as Ferentz suggested, that would still leave 41 players unvaccinated. (Iowa listed 124 players in its preseason media guide.)

More:Super Bowl champion Tristan Wirfs gives his take on Iowa's 2021 offensive line group

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Players who are vaccinated are not subject to COVID-19 testing. Non-vaccinated players are tested once a week. Ferentz felt the early-June incident might’ve triggered some to change their thought process.

"That’s where the reality of it set in for them. If we were playing Saturday, you’re not playing,” Ferentz said. “I think that’s something a lot of our players are probably weighing right now, just how valuable these opportunities are."

As Tracy said, there’s time for that “not quite 70%” number to climb into the level of Iowa’s top two Big Ten West Division rivals, Wisconsin and Northwestern. For what it’s worth, Iowa State also reported an 85% vaccination rate in early June.

"It’s one more thing for a coach to have to be aware of. You could lose a player at any time," Ferentz said.

Iowa's Tyrone Tracy Jr. said Friday that, "It’s going to become a big deal pretty soon that we are all vaccinated."

Tracy was a fantastic representative for the Hawkeyes in his hometown.

The junior from Indianapolis was funny, engaging and candid Friday. He again recounted that his 2020 season didn’t go like he hoped (14 catches, 154 yards), but that he’s in a happy place now and thinks offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz will make sure the football is in the hands of playmakers (not just him) this fall.

Tracy has the unique ability to play all four of Iowa’s receiver positions. He’s listed as the No. 1 “X” (outside) receiver, a role held last year by Brandon Smith. But he said Friday his favorite spot is the slot (“F” for Iowa) because, “Your route tree is a little bigger on the inside than the outside. Also, Brian can use me in a lot of different ways if I do play slot.”

On that note, one of the new additions to the Iowa depth chart could help a lot. True freshman Keagan Johnson is the listed No. 2 at the “X,” but has progressed quickly. That continued growth could benefit Tracy, too.

“He’s a very bright guy. He learns everything pretty quickly,” Tracy said. “If he could become the ‘X,’ that would potentially free me up to move around the whole offense. I wouldn’t have to be stuck at one position."

Ferentz likes his team. He made that clear in his early comments Friday. But if there was a positional concern …

It would probably be defensive tackle. Although, Ferentz did say he’s upgraded it from area of concern to “area of interest” after spring practices.

“It’s kind of like our backup offensive linemen. I see some good potential,” Ferentz said. “The real challenge is where are they going to be from Aug. 6 to Sept. 1? How much ground can they gain? It’s there for them.”

On defense, Ferentz feels pretty darn good at eight spots. Defensive end Zach VanValkenburg (one of Iowa’s three representatives here) and the entire back seven have high-level game experience.

"I’m not going to say we’re awesome, but we’re veteran," Ferentz said.

The two tackle spots and other defensive end will be something Iowa coaches try to solve in fall camp. After returning backups John Waggoner, Noah Shannon and Joe Evans, Iowa is extremely young. Names like Yahya Black, Logan Lee, Lukas Van Ness, Deontae Craig and Ethan Hurkett will be vying for starter-level snaps. Ferentz reiterated that redshirt freshman Logan Jones (left leg injury) will be out until at least some time in the fall.

"I can’t sign off and say, 'We’re going to be OK' (at those spots)," Ferentz said. "The other good news is we have some pretty good guys surrounding those guys."

Ferentz provided his thoughts on Iowa’s slow recruiting summer.

There are a lot of factors in the Hawkeyes’ uncharacteristically slow June and July that has them sitting at or near the bottom of Big Ten recruiting rankings. Ferentz admitted his age (almost 66) has worked against him, and he tries to address it with recruits.

But the one thing he focused on Friday was the fact that Iowa didn’t get in-person time with prospects for 15 months. Sure, no other programs did, either. But Ferentz said, in his mind, that affects Iowa more than others.

"As much as we enjoyed this spring — in and out of the building, basically it was pure coaching, no visitors, all that — we really benefit and do better if we have people in the building all the time," Ferentz said. "Watching practice, spending time, getting to know people. And we also do better when we have camps and get to know guys at a young age."

Ferentz was asked whether a looming 2023 trial date for a racial-bias lawsuit that includes his son (Brian) and former strength coach Chris Doyle as defendants is hurting efforts. It’s undoubtedly a factor, but Ferentz pointed to one of the few recruiting wins (without naming him) as an example of how Iowa combats concerns.

“We kept working and communicating, and then at the end of June they came on a visit and committed and were very enthusiastic,” Ferentz said. “They did their due diligence like they should. They got their questions answered with great satisfaction.”

That was a similar process that Keagan Johnson and his family took before signing on with the Hawkeyes in the class of 2021.

Ferentz got the last word on the timeout issue with Minnesota.

Gophers coach P.J. Fleck delivered a long answer Thursday that basically said he wasn’t bothered that Ferentz called back-to-back-to-back timeouts with 22 seconds left of a 35-0 game last Nov. 14. Fleck essentially said Ferentz can do whatever he wants, considering the Hawkeyes have beaten the Gophers six straight times.

"That's rivalries," Fleck said.

Ferentz on Friday was asked by the St. Paul Pioneer-Press about that late-game sequence: Why did you do it? In November, Ferentz dropped the one-liner of, “Figured we’d take Floyd (of Rosedale) with us and leave the timeouts here."

Friday, Ferentz clarified that he was perplexed (irked?) that Fleck would call a late timeout to set up a play to try to score with the Gophers’ star players in the game versus Iowa’s second- and third-stringers.

“The first one was a curious time to call one,” Ferentz said Friday. “So, I figured I’ll do something maybe more curious. Sometimes I act immaturely. I don’t know if I’m proud of it. One of those spur-of-the-moment things. You get in your 60s, you get a little impulsive now and then."

The Gophers and Hawkeyes next meet again Nov. 13 at Kinnick Stadium. They'll get six timeouts apiece.

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.