Leistikow: 3 big topics with Brian Ferentz, who shares his plan to revive Iowa's offense
IOWA CITY — Judging from the responses anytime something is written or tweeted about Brian Ferentz, most people don’t want to hear it.
They want to see something new and different from the Iowa football offense; see something better than the 303.7 yards it averaged under Ferentz’s control as offensive coordinator in 2021 — the lowest in the program since his father’s first year as the Hawkeyes’ head coach, in 1999.
And guess what? Brian Ferentz understands your frustrations. He, too, dislikes that Iowa’s offense underperformed last season, even though the Hawkeyes won 10 games and a Big Ten West Division title for the first time in six years.
As somebody who spent four years on the staff of Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots, Ferentz is self-aware enough to know that if he was an NFL offensive coordinator for a team that finished 30th out of 32 teams in total offense — the equivalent of where Iowa finished (121st) among 130 FBS teams in the fall of 2021 — he probably wouldn’t be employed in that same role the following spring.
Thus, with an endorsement from his father, Ferentz has a chance that many others in his position wouldn’t have. And he wants to make the most of this opportunity for a football program that has consumed most of his life, dating to his 1983 birth just down the street from Kinnick Stadium when Kirk Ferentz was Iowa’s offensive line coach under Hayden Fry.
What Brian Ferentz can’t do: Change anything that’s happened to this point.
What he can do: Do everything in his power to make sure Iowa’s offense is far more functional in time for the Sept. 3 opener against South Dakota State.
A handful of times each year, Ferentz answers questions from media members and sheds honest light on the Hawkeye football operation. On Wednesday, for the first time since he was put in charge of the quarterbacks in early March, the 39-year-old shared his vision for reviving the Hawkeyes’ offense.
Maybe you don’t want to hear any of it. Totally understandable.
But here is where things stand and his approach, broken down in three of the most interesting topics that emerged Wednesday.
Brian Ferentz sees Iowa's quarterback similar to a pass-first point guard in basketball.
Whether Iowa’s starter under center is Spencer Petras, Alex Padilla or Joe Labas on Sept. 3 (more on that pecking order later), it helps to understand philosophically how Ferentz views the quarterback position.
No. 1, he doesn’t want to rotate QBs. If you’ve got more than one, you’ve got none … as the saying goes. That is his philosophy as well.
No. 2, he doesn’t want his QBs running around. Personally, I disagree with that thinking — especially with the context that Iowa’s two most accomplished teams of the Kirk Ferentz era were led by quarterbacks in Brad Banks (2002) and C.J. Beathard (2015) who could make plays with their feet. But I’m here to tell you what Iowa’s current offensive coordinator said about the position, not to argue about it.
"At the University of Iowa, you’re a facilitator (as a quarterback). That’s all you do. You distribute the football,” Ferentz said. “The longer the football is in our quarterback’s hands, the worse it is for our offense."
Now, part of what Ferentz is saying very well may be catering to his current personnel. If he said he wanted a Beathard clone, he knows he doesn’t have one in the No. 1 slot on his depth chart right now in two-year starter Petras.
Here's how Ferentz explained the need to get the ball quickly out of the QB’s hands.
“In the run game: Pretty simple. We’ve got to stay out of dead plays. That’s their job,” he said. “Then we’ve got to exchange the ball to the (running) back and give him as much vision as possible. If we could gather some information on how the defense is playing us on those plays, that’d be terrific, too.
“In the pass game: How fast can we get the game into a small window? How fast can we play off of one guy, whether it’s a matchup or a 2-on-1 zone defense?
“How quickly can I take 11 (defenders) and shrink it down to a picture of one?"
The longer it takes his quarterback to make an on-field decision, the more likely a play is to break down with a slow-developing run play, a sack or a throw-away pass.
That’s where Ferentz sees his best ability to contribute as quarterbacks coach, to provide his signal-callers mastery of where the ball should go no matter what defense is thrown their way. He is a big-picture, conceptual teacher. His mentality — and this comes from the Belichick coaching philosophy — is to find the weakness in an opponent and repeatedly take advantage of it. At Iowa, those decisions fall onto the quarterback’s shoulders on gameday, because Iowa QBs are charged with making the reads at the line of scrimmage … and after the ball is snapped.
That’s why it takes a long time to learn the position at Iowa (something Padilla referenced in pre-Citrus Bowl interviews) vs. other places, where giant poster-boards on the sidelines might be all the information the QB uses pre-snap.
“I know where the ball should go,” Ferentz said. “Can I communicate to (the quarterback) in a way — not just, ‘Hey, the ball should go here’ — (that explains) why, how and fundamentally how can I get it there?”
Several people I’ve talked to behind the scenes with working knowledge of the operation say that the change to Ferentz from tight ends coach to QBs coach has been well-received by the current quarterbacks. The QBs having more meeting time and daily time with the OC — as opposed to the previous five-year arrangement of Ken O’Keefe as QBs coach — has created eagerness that fast improvement can be made this spring.
Absolutely, there can and should be skepticism that excitement can translate to improved on-field production.
But maybe that’s why Ferentz also said this Wednesday about his new role: “It’s got me more excited about football than I have been in a long time.”
Getting Joe Labas up to speed is critical for a true quarterback competition.
The most out-of-context quote of Ferentz’s news conference (which stretched for 37 minutes) was that he was hopeful that Petras would beat out Labas if the two were given equal reps this week with the first-team offense. What he meant to say is shame on Petras, who is in his fifth spring with the Hawkeye program, if he isn’t able to outperform Labas, who is in his first.
While Kirk Ferentz has said this would be a three-way open competition this spring, Brian Ferentz on Wednesday provided more clarity that there are really two players ready to compete for a starting role in Petras (13-6 in 19 career starts) and Padilla (3-0 as a starter when Petras was hurt last season). Labas, who has created a lot of buzz (even drawing comparisons to Patrick Mahomes because of his ability to make off-script plays) while operating Iowa’s scout team last fall, remains a distant third because he hasn't had enough time to master Iowa's offense.
Again, it's a fair criticism that the Hawkeyes' offense is too complicated. But again, this is the current deck that the Hawkeyes have chosen to play with.
“Why can’t Joe compete? Well, right now, there are things that are limiting him from competing,” Ferentz said. “That’s my job, is to get everyone on the same footing so you can objectively look at a true battle.”
Division I spring football allows 15 practices — three per week for five weeks — plus lots of time in meeting rooms and watching film, not to mention strength and conditioning. This is a critical period for Labas to make the kind of growth he'll need to have a reasonable shot at winning the No. 1 job in fall camp.
A Labas rise would be an exciting proposition for Ferentz, to give him a true three-way competition when the team convenes for fall camp in early August. That would also mean that there’s elevated depth at the position.
To underscore that mentality, Ferentz told the story of his first year with the Patriots, in 2008.
In Week 1 of that season, quarterback Tom Brady's knee was hit by the Kansas City Chiefs' Bernard Pollard, and the result was a torn ACL. Backup Matt Cassel entered the fold for the next 15 games and led New England to a pretty-impressive 11-5 record.
Developing a quality No. 2 (and No. 3) guy is a high priority this spring for the Hawkeyes, for this fall and beyond.
“No matter who wins the job,” Ferentz said, “we need to have as many guys ready to play as we can.
“I’d love to see (Petras and Padilla) compete for the job. I’d also love to see Joe compete for the job. That, to me, is what we’re working on right now. Can we get everyone on the same footing so that everybody has an equal opportunity at that position?”
Ferentz understands outside criticism.
But he also made clear that his skeptics have zero impact on his drive to produce better results. He described a loyalty he felt to those associated with the program the past 23 years and beyond, especially those within the building now.
“I would hope that I don’t need to be motivated by anything but the desire to get our football team to be competitive with anyone we play on our schedule and to have a chance to win football games,” Ferentz said. “And I’m being very truthful when I tell you, that is all I need from a motivational standpoint.”
What’s interesting about that answer is that in Ferentz’s first four years as offensive coordinator (spanning 47 games), Iowa was truly only beaten handily once — 38-14 at Wisconsin in 2017 when the defense scored both Iowa touchdowns. In the other 46 games, Iowa either won (33 times), lost by single digits (12 times) or lost a game by 11 it led in the final minute (once, vs. Wisconsin in 2018).
Last season was different. The Hawkeyes won a lot of close games but were blown out three times — in large part due to inept performances by the offense (against Purdue, Wisconsin and in a 42-3 loss against Michigan in the Big Ten Championship Game). Those results raise red flags about how much ground the offense needs to make up to complement very good defensive and special-teams units.
Ferentz told the story of Iowa’s 11-1 regular season in 2002, when he was a young (backup) offensive lineman. The game he remembers most vividly that season was a 36-31 home loss vs. Iowa State, in which Iowa led by 17 at halftime but unraveled in a series of unfortunate events.
“I’m a competitor, and I want to win,” Ferentz said. “… Forget performance. If we don’t win the football game, those outcomes haunt me for the rest of my life.”
Can that desire to reverse those short-comings translate to major improvement in 2022?
Inside the program, there's belief that Brian Ferentz can help make Iowa not only a contender in the Big Ten West again but to be equipped to beat whichever team wins the Big Ten East on Dec. 3 in downtown Indianapolis.
On the outside, he's still got a lot to prove.
One last story that relates to the Iowa offense and where it stands.
Brian Ferentz loves Hawkeye wrestling. Like most of us, he especially enjoyed watching Austin DeSanto wrestle the past four years for Iowa in the 133-pound weight class.
In the NCAA semifinals in Detroit a few weeks ago, DeSanto lost to longtime nemesis Roman Bravo-Young of Penn State on a takedown in the final seconds. As the two returned to the center of the mat, DeSanto began to break down in tears. That pain of defeat struck a chord in Ferentz. The next day, DeSanto responded with two impressive wins to finish in third place.
“I tell you what was amazing watching him. He was gutted,” Ferentz said. “… And then I think in some of the media availability after, he said as much. ‘I didn’t do what I wanted to do.’
“When you compete, you may not perform the way you want to perform. You still have to come back and go back to work. The beauty of competition is that we’re not in the Ukraine. There will be a tomorrow for our football team. We’re going to get another chance come September. Everything we’re doing right now is working toward that.”
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.