Leistikow: 5 topics with Kirk Ferentz, including his plan to fix Iowa football's offense
IOWA CITY — Kirk Ferentz knows his offense needs to get better. And the 24th-year head football coach at Iowa firmly believes he has the coaches and players already on hand to make that happen.
At his first news conference in 32 days, Ferentz had a lot of important topics to address — including addressing the advisory-group story that dominated headlines for a week in mid-January, his new contract that takes his employment through the 2029 season and recruiting. (Wednesday was the second national signing day, after all, and Iowa added one scholarship recruit in Michigan defensive back Deshaun Lee.)
But no doubt the most pressing on-field topic, anyway, was surrounding what could be done to fix the Hawkeyes’ offense that ranked 121st out of 130 FBS teams in 2021 at just 303 yards per game. Remarkably, Iowa assembled a 10-4 record anyway and reached the Big Ten Championship Game, which naturally promotes the line of thinking that: If only the offense could improve a little bit … maybe the Hawkeyes could take the next step forward (and not get beat by a 42-3 margin in Indianapolis).
“I’m betting on us, if that’s how you want to put it,” Ferentz said. “... I think we’ve got a good staff."
In defending that approach, Ferentz said he didn’t shake things up too much following dismal offensive seasons in 2004 and 2007. Asked whether or not scheme changes would be necessary, he instead spoke about wins and losses.
“Last four years, we’re second in wins in the conference. That’s the ultimate goal for us,” Ferentz said. “It’s not all about winning, but obviously when we line up and play on Saturdays that’s what we’re trying to do.
“For me, that’s what I’m fixated on. If they’ve got the ball 40 minutes and we got it 20 and we win, I’m happy we won.
If it feels like we have heard these types of comments before from Ferentz, we have. That's been his annual, steady approach. For better or worse.
Hey, it was Groundhog Day, right?
That said, Iowa will do more "under the hood" offensive stuff in February.
The passing game is atop the list of things to improve. Iowa was 113th nationally in completion percentage (55%) and 114th in yards per attempt (6.2). Does that go hand-in-hand with the assertion that the Hawkeyes' offense is too complicated? At the Citrus Bowl, backup quarterback Alex Padilla noted that it takes 12 to 18 months to learn offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz's system.
"We’ve got to do better. That’ll be part of the discussion, certainly," Ferentz said. "If there is an issue or problem, a lot of times it is making things harder than they need to be. We’ll ask those questions."
Speaking of Brian Ferentz, here's what the head coach said about the assertion of nepotism in keeping his son in charge of an offense that underperformed.
"The nepotism, my approach — believe me, I've thought about all this stuff — we didn't exactly light it up in '04," Ferentz said. "... We didn't torch it up or tear the playbook up after that.
"It's my judgment to decide if we've got the best people in the building. That's my obligation to the program. Most importantly, to our players. Again, I feel really good about our staff. A capable staff. A talented staff. And we're going to find solutions to get better."
The quarterback competition will be wide open this spring.
Ferentz always says that no job is safe, but he was pretty firm on the fact that quarterback play in 2021 wasn't good enough. With incumbent starter Spencer Petras, Padilla and redshirt freshman Joey Labas returning, Ferentz is hopeful someone can take a big step forward.
"I do (think it's wide open). Everybody has a right to compete," Ferentz said. "I'm anxious to see Joe compete, too. He was kind of getting spoon-fed in December, because he was the only guy out there for a while. But yeah, we have to do better.
"We don't have to score 45 points a game, but we've got to do better. We've got to make the makeable plays. You have to do that, and that's what I'm getting at on those fundamentals."
That initially sets the stage for high-interest spring practices, which will begin in late March. If Iowa gets the quarterback position right, this could be a really good team in the fall.
The diversity advisory committee is continuing, but hasn't yet taken shape.
Ferentz said he was still formulating thoughts about what form his advisory group would take after dissolving the previous group that was designed to be a sounding board. The intent in its creation was to help him see what he called “blind spots” after the 2020 racial-bias outcry in his program and to be an ally for players.
Ferentz on Wednesday reiterated what he did in a Jan. 17 e-mail to players’ parents, in which he thought it would be good to reboot the membership with younger former players. He also defended how his program has created a welcoming environment for all players, pointing to Iowa having a Big Ten-low five players enter the NCAA transfer portal since the start of the 2021 season.
“I really believe strongly our program is on the good path,” Ferentz said.
While Ferentz said he wouldn’t divulge details of personal conversations with committee members, he said, "I don’t have any regrets about my communication” and added, “a lot of guys (on the committee) knew where we were headed on this thing” before his Jan. 11 e-mail that dissolved the group with an eye on reshaping it in the future.
“One thing about life, everybody’s got opinions. That doesn’t make them facts, but everybody’s got opinions about things,” Ferentz said. “Smart people can decipher through and figure out what’s factual.”
The follow-up question was surrounding David Porter, who was the chairman of the advisory group who shared his opinion on an e-mail chain that he thought Ferentz should be fired.
“Obviously everybody’s entitled to their opinion,” Ferentz said. “… I didn’t have much reaction. I read it. And that’s his opinion. There’s not much to react to, other than I have a different opinion. My intention is long-term and big-picture, not short-term.”
That leads us to the contract talk.
Ferentz’s new deal, signed on Dec. 31 but not publicized until Jan. 14, will pay him $56 million over eight years and ranks him in the top 15 of annual salaries nationwide among college coaches. This was Ferentz’s first chance to publicly address the deal and the fact that he would be 74 when the deal is up.
His nutshell takeaway: “I feel better than I’ve felt in a long time, quite frankly. Physically and mentally.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.