Leistikow: Intensified focus on Brian Ferentz, Iowa quarterbacks as spring football begins

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — Kirk Ferentz knew the quarterback questions would come at some point Wednesday, the first day of Iowa football spring practice.

"I don't have any answers," the 24th-year Hawkeye head coach mused. "But go ahead."

Finding success at football's most important position is going to be a hot topic from now until the April 23 open practice at Kinnick Stadium. And then again until the Sept. 3 season opener against South Dakota State. And then probably again until the Nov. 25 regular-season finale vs. Nebraska.

That's the way it goes at quarterback.

But at Iowa in 2022, the QB pressure is intensified on multiple levels.

First and foremost, the belief is that if the Hawkeyes can get this position right, they can be a major factor in returning to the Big Ten Conference title game. Heck, maybe they can even win it this time.

The special teams under LeVar Woods are always good, and the defense under Phil Parker should be excellent with many key pieces returning. The 2021 offense was the weak spot in Iowa's 10-4 season that finished with back-to-back postseason losses, and even Ferentz admitted last month, "We've got to do better."

Second, Ferentz's offseason decision to let son Brian Ferentz not only retain offensive coordinator duties but become the team's quarterbacks coach — replacing the role filled by mentor Ken O'Keefe the last five years — has created a lot of outside skepticism ... and, understandably, a hotter spotlight.

Getting the quarterback position correct is a high priority for the 2022 Hawkeyes. That starts with offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, left, who now becomes a QBs coach for the first time in his career.

On a Wednesday radio appearance on KCJJ in Iowa City, Iowa quarterback legend Chuck Long — a national-championship winning quarterbacks coach at Oklahoma in 2000 — expressed disappointment in the move as a Hawkeye supporter.

"I thought it was a missed opportunity for Kirk and Iowa football, I really did," Long said. "Quarterback coaching is such a different animal. I was in it for 20 years. I don’t know anybody with an offensive-line background ... (that) has gone on to coach quarterbacks. It’s just different than everything else."

To the credit of Brian Ferentz, who will turn 39 on Monday, he is embracing the pressure while also taking a humble approach to the role of coaching quarterbacks. In a recent university-hosted podcast with Gary Dolphin, the coach’s son admitted he would be learning on the fly.

“The first thing I need to do is admit that I’m not an expert on the quarterback position. I better go seek out some expertise and learn from it,” he said. “And then it’s like any other position. One of the things that makes you a good line coach or a good tight ends coach, you have to start by listening to the players. Too many coaches want to dictate."

And to Kirk Ferentz's credit, he is willing to own the bold strategy.

"He knows our offense better than anybody, quite frankly," Ferentz said. "I think it's going to be a good, positive move for us."

Ferentz even compared it to when he was an unconventional hire as Iowa's offensive line coach in 1981 by Hayden Fry, at age 25. Ferentz's belief — just like Fry's — is that getting the right people on staff is the most important piece to a successful outfit. It should not be lost that Abdul Hodge was high on Ferentz's list as someone he wanted to bring aboard as a coach. And when O'Keefe, 68, stepped aside to take a low-key, off-field position, Ferentz excitedly plucked Hodge — a former star linebacker at Iowa — from South Dakota to become Iowa's new tight ends coach, a role previously held by his son.

The Hodge hire, too, is a bit unconventional considering he has never coached offense.

But to Ferentz, those are learnable details.

"I was laughing with a couple of the guys from the NFL (at Iowa's pro day)," Ferentz, 66, said. "There's a record number of experts out there right now, critiquing what we do. And the game is not that complex. It really isn't. The fundamentals of throwing a football ... a lot of fundamentals carry over. But I'm not pretending, there are things that are specific to that position.

"But it's also learnable. I certainly didn't play the offensive line. I'm not saying I was a great line coach, but I got by for a while. You learn things. You study things. You visit with people who really are experts. And that's how you learn. That's how you grow."

Added help is already in the building. Ferentz on Wednesday confirmed that Jon Budmayr, who was a three-year quarterbacks coach at Wisconsin under Paul Chryst and Colorado State's offensive coordinator last season, has been added to the staff as an offensive analyst. 

It should also be pointed out that most Division I quarterbacks have private coaches anyway that help them with throwing mechanics and footwork. Listed No. 1 quarterback Spencer Petras was recently in New Jersey to work with his guru, Tony Racioppi. Listed No. 2 QB Alex Padilla has worked with quarterbacks coach Tim Jenkins in Colorado since seventh grade.

The coaches are declaring this an open competition between Petras (who started but lost the Big Ten title game and the Citrus Bowl) and Padilla (who went 3-0 as a starter when Petras was injured) and redshirt freshman Joe Labas this spring.

"Certainly, there had better be competition. If there’s no competition, I don’t think that’s good for anyone," Brian Ferentz said on the UI podcast. (He'll meet with the Iowa media next week.) "But what I’m interested in for all three players is improvement. Let’s just see if we can get better. Each guy has a different set of things they need to focus on.

"If we can all compete and improve, then we’ll worry about who the best guy is when we get to the fall."

It's OK to be skeptical about doubling down on Brian Ferentz, who presided over the No. 121-ranked offense (out of 130) last year in FBS, at 303.7 yards per game.

If that's you, Team Ferentz understands your skepticism.

They also seem driven to prove you wrong, although you may not love the plan to improve.

"I always give you the same answer typically. You guys hate it," Kirk Ferentz said. "But it's execution. It really gets down to execution. We've gone through the phase of going back and looking at tape and studying tape. And, I swear, over 23 years it doesn't change an awful lot."

The Hawkeyes believe they'll be better on the offensive line. Ferentz liked what he saw in the Citrus Bowl, minus the game result, up front.

They believe the tight ends will be excellent, with Sam LaPorta's return to school and Luke Lachey's development.

They believe the wide receivers, with the core top four returning, will be better.

And there's optimism that the running-back tandem of Gavin and Leshon Williams can overcome the loss of Tyler Goodson to the NFL.

If everyone around the quarterbacks are better, then the QBs should look a lot better, too.

That's the theory, anyway.

"Both guys have an opportunity to be better players this year. And we won with both of them," Kirk Ferentz said of Petras and Padilla. "That's kind of exciting. But I also know this, we have to help them more."

The ultimate question will be: Did they get the help they needed? Or was the coaching move at quarterback a missed opportunity?

We will have to wait until the fall to find out, but the results will tell us that answer.

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.