Leistikow: Hints of (positive) change for Iowa football's embattled offense
IOWA CITY — Media coverage of spring football has seemingly exploded in the past decade. Conference TV networks have airtime to fill. College programs are sharing more video content on social media than ever before. And it seems like everyone has a podcast these days.
Reporting on spring football, though, is more of an exercise about the ears than the eyes. At Iowa, like most places, practices are mostly closed. We in the media don’t get to see much football each spring, but we do get five weeks to ask questions about it ... and spend a lot of April writing about it.
Do this long enough, and you get better about picking up on the quotes that matter most.
So, on Tuesday, at the two-thirds mark of spring football in Iowa City after the 10th of 15 practices, maybe one of the best hints at positive change with the Hawkeyes’ beleaguered offense came from the popular punter from Down Under.
“There might be a few less punts this year, from the way things have been going,” 24-year-old junior Tory Taylor said Tuesday in his thick Australian accent. “There are certainly more balls in the end zone, from what I’ve previously experienced.”
Insert your joke here about Iowa’s offense having nowhere to go but up from last year's 121st ranking among 130 FBS teams, or that Taylor’s 80 punts last season have nowhere to go but down. While Taylor set an impressive-but-dubious school record last season with 3,688 punt yards and loves playing, he humorously noted of a repeat performance, “That’s not going to benefit the team.”
Fact-checking the "more balls in the end zone" quote with other players in attendance on Tuesday resulted in some validation.
"This year, I feel like they're actually moving guys off the ball,” sophomore running back Leshon Williams said of an offensive line that was injury-plagued and inexperienced a year ago, “and getting the hang of everything, like mastering the inside zone and the slants. I feel like that'll be their strength.”
On the other side of the football, recruiting phenom Cooper DeJean — getting most of his work at safety in his first spring on campus — said of the offense, “They’ve got a lot of athletes over there. They’ve been doing a good job this spring of getting them the ball.”
Couple some of these comments with something linebackers coach Seth Wallace said last Wednesday, and there is growing evidence that Iowa's offense is making some noise in spring ball.
“There are changes that have been made offensively that we watch as a staff and we say, ‘This is good,’” Wallace said in a comment tucked inside 20 minutes of talk about the defense’s efforts to solidify its back seven.
Any Iowa fan thirsting for improved production on offense can get behind those.
Wide receiver Keagan Johnson indicated that things have been simplified on offense. Recall, quarterback Alex Padilla said during Iowa’s Citrus Bowl prep in December, "This offense is not easy. It takes a year, year-and-a-half to learn the intricacies of it."
That is a quote that can really stick to an offensive coordinator. And It sounds like — again, sounds like — Brian Ferentz has gotten the message and isn't content to rely on the same concepts this spring and in the fall.
“Definitely making things more simple but also just adjusting things that we did last year,” Johnson said. “We realize there are easier ways to do it.”
Perhaps that is further indication why Brian Ferentz in his news conference a few weeks ago emphasized on multiple occasions that he sees his quarterback position as more of a facilitator than a playmaker, even if that’s going against the grain of what most college programs do with quarterbacks.
“The quicker it gets out of his hands, whether we’re running it or throwing it,” Ferentz said on March 30, “the better it is for … Iowa football.”
Johnson, who said he’s still predominantly playing the “X” position he took over in the middle of last season from since-departed Tyrone Tracy Jr., said the offense has taken ownership of improvement and "needs to improve and hold up our end of the bargain.”
He also credited new voices in the program — former Wisconsin quarterbacks coach and Colorado State offensive coordinator Jon Budmayer was recently added as an offensive analyst — as helping to identify productive changes.
“I see it every day, getting a little bit better,” said Johnson, a rare four-star wide receiver recruit that was sold on Iowa and is entering his sophomore season. “(With) running new routes or just changing certain timings, it takes some time to get comfortable when you’re used to doing something for so long. And I think every day, we kind of take more steps.”
Another (potential?) hint of change with the Hawkeye offense.
It also should be noted that the Iowa first-team defense is down all three returning linebackers this month and is working in a lot of new faces in the secondary. So, room for skepticism? Sure.
Iowa's spring "scrimmage" is approaching, at 9:45 a.m. April 23 at Kinnick Stadium. In the past, I’ve probably been guilty of reading too much into one practice — just because it’s the only Iowa football we see between Jan. 1 and mid-August. This spring, I’ll try to reinforce that it’s only one data point out of 15 spring practices plus the 20-some that will occur (largely behind closed doors) in August before Iowa's Sept. 3 opener against South Dakota State.
So, the main purpose of this column is to tell you what’s being said about the biggest hot-button offseason issue for the Hawkeyes: the offense.
And the evidence shows that are changes coming, even if they are on the more subtle and nuanced side.
How much of a difference they make, we can all see for ourselves in September.
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.