Leistikow: These Hawkeyes like each other a lot. That has to help on the field, right?
IOWA CITY, Ia. — “Media day” for a college football team, as the phrasing suggests, is a window that affords journalists a larger block of time than normal with more access than normal. It’s an important opportunity for people like me, because these interviews will supply story lines for several weeks to come.
So, yeah, I had a list of players and coaches to interview and topics to address at Iowa football's media day Friday. It can be a dizzying dance, to be honest, in the rush to check off all the pre-planned boxes. But going into this one — the first “normal” media day in two years — I reminded myself that media day isn’t about us.
It’s about you, the fans.
You want to know more about this team.
You want to know how good this team is going to be.
First, I'm sorry to say I can’t tell you today how many games this Iowa team will win come November.
But, following nearly three hours of interviews Friday, I can say this: There’s a terrific vibe surrounding the 2021 Hawkeyes. One that you should be cautiously excited about.
Let’s count the ways.
No. 1: These guys like each other. They’re close. That’s important.
Matt Hankins, a fifth-year cornerback who defensive coordinator Phil Parker noted has been a tone-setter in fall camp, said: "Everybody’s locked in mentally, physically. It’s a great group of guys."
Linebacker Jack Campbell was one of several players who told me, "There’s not a bad guy on the team."
Not one bad apple?
Fact, 23rd-year head coach Kirk Ferentz said when I ran that by him just before the practice-field gates closed again. (Not that some guys don’t need a little more urgency at times.)
"Even guys that I’d call special-attention guys right now, it’s clear their teammates like them," Ferentz noted. "And they’re supporting them. That’s a good sign."
Of course, Ferentz was quick to (correctly) point out that being tightknit won’t guarantee anything on the scoreboard Sept. 4 against Indiana, Sept. 11 at Iowa State or beyond.
"I’ve seen a lot of good things — not always a lot of good football," he quipped. "But helping each other after a bad play, talking football. Just having their mind where they should."
No. 2, and this ties into the tightknit thing: The defense should be stellar.
A top-10 national ranking on that side of the football is the expectation, as it should be for a unit that returns most of the personnel that made up the No. 6 scoring defense in FBS last fall.
As senior cornerback Riley Moss explained, having the entire back seven with significant starting experience makes the thinking part of playing defense easy. If the opposing offense makes a certain shift, all Moss needs to do is make eye contact with linebackers Seth Benson and Campbell, cash defender Dane Belton and Hankins — and they know the right defensive check.
"It doesn’t take much communication, because we know what we’re doing," Moss said.
No. 3: Friday was a reminder that this team has premium talent in key spots.
In Ferentz’s opening remarks Friday, he stressed how young his roster is. And while there’s some truth to that on the depth chart, there is a lot of star power, too.
Tyler Goodson at running back, Tyler Linderbaum at center, Sam LaPorta at tight end, Tyrone Tracy Jr. at receiver, Campbell at linebacker … with good health, these guys are going to be special this fall. Most of the players on this roster were instrumental in the six-game win streak to end the 2020 season by an average margin of 22 points.
"The more guys you have returning, I think it helps," Linderbaum said in an obvious-but-true quote. "One, just helping young guys that haven’t played who have to step in and have a role. And the guys that have played, they’ve got to play their best."
Of course, there are questions at quarterback that need to be answered. But we need to remember that Spencer Petras is 6-2 as a starter and played his best down the stretch last fall. The hope is that he’s taken his play to another level.
Iowa has high expectations on the inside and outside.
A Big Ten Conference title is the goal, as it always is. The Hawkeyes are universally picked to be the second-best team in the West Division to Wisconsin, but not by a lot. Wisconsin was ranked No. 15 in the preseason coaches’ poll. Iowa was No. 18, the highest preseason standing for the program since 2016.
On paper, this should be a team that contends in the West. Often, intangibles can tip the scales one way or another, which is why I do think the positive vibe about this team is something to stress.
Ferentz reflected on some of his best teams Friday. In 2002, he quietly had a good feeling about his team in camp. In 2015, he felt the same way. It’s too early to say how he definitively feels yet about preseason camp after just eight practices.
But all the signs are good.
To close this conversation, Benson was discussing the trying year of 2020 for Iowa football — between the accusations of racial disparities in the program to the COVID-19 pandemic. The resulting relationships that were built out of those circumstances sure seem to be playing out in a positive way.
Can that help on the field?
Absolutely. Here’s how Benson put it:
"When you know a guy will do anything for you — he knows you, he knows your story, you know his story — you’re just going to want to go so much harder for him," Benson said. "I think that’s where good teams go to great."
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.