Why Hawkeyes think a.m. practices can provide gameday edge

Chad Leistikow
Iowa football players will get accustomed to regular morning practices this August. Kirk Ferentz held afternoon practices in-season during his first 16 years as head coach.

CHICAGO – Depending how you look at it, it’s either a small or a big change for Iowa football. But the switch to morning practices is, at minimum, a break in Kirk Ferentz tradition.

The Hawkeyes open fall camp Thursday, at which point the Sept. 5 season opener against Illinois State is less than a month away. The plan is for the Hawkeyes’ readiness for that 11 a.m. game at Kinnick Stadium to be heightened — by drastically adjusting players’ practice routines.

“The coaches wouldn’t try to put us in a bad situation,” fifth-year senior safety Jordan Lomax said. “We’ll see how it is.”

The full-on switch to mornings will be more consistent once fall classes begin Aug. 24. Previously, practices began at 4 p.m., with Iowa taking its NCAA-mandated off day on Mondays.

Under the new schedule, football requirements will begin at 8 a.m., with the off day becoming Thursdays. That leaves Fridays for a light practice or walk-through, followed by travel on road-game weeks. Most of the players’ required prep work on game weeks will happen Sunday through Wednesday, with the longest practices on Mondays and Tuesdays.

The transition, Ferentz said, actually creates fewer conflicts with class scheduling, with practices wrapping up by 11 a.m.

“Less interference of guys leaving early or getting there late. To me, it’s a win-win situation,” Ferentz said. “We’re really eager to try it out. Our first week of school, fortunately, we don’t have a game that week. So we have a little bit of a dry run.”

The plan is for players and coaches to return to the Football Operations Center in the evenings for a team meal and film study. Ferentz didn’t mention this part, but it makes sense that earlier practices also serve as a built-in disincentive for players to stay awake (and out) later the previous night.

“I’m excited for it. I’m a morning guy,” fifth-year senior center Austin Blythe said. “I think it’ll be good for us to get up in the morning, get our blood flowing.”

Ferentz said there wasn’t one thing that pushed the decision, but more of a combination of forces. One factor was the annual short week against Nebraska. Nov. 27 will mark the fifth straight Black Friday Iowa-Nebraska matchup; Ferentz is 1-3 in the previous four.

Iowa’s latest loss to the Cornhuskers, 37-34 at Kinnick Stadium after blowing a 17-point second-half lead, probably caused Ferentz the most aggravation during a disappointing 7-6 season.

Perhaps the biggest benefit to the new practice schedule is more recovery time before kickoffs. Previously, Iowa’s last hard practice of the week ended Thursday nights. Now, it’ll be done by 11 a.m. on Wednesdays — 72 hours or more until most kickoffs.

And as senior defensive end Drew Ott pointed out, Iowa traditionally plays a lot of morning games.

“It’s supposed to give our bodies more recovery and rest,” Lomax said, “so we’ll be more recovered and more energized for our games on Saturday.”

There is bit of a national movement toward morning practices during football season. Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald was one of the morning-practice pioneers in 2007. In 2013, Boston College went to mornings after drawing inspiration from Chip Kelly in his days coaching at fast-paced Oregon.

So if there are so many benefits to a morning schedule, why hasn’t Ferentz tried it before? He said at the Big Ten Conference’s Media Days in Chicago that the idea has been discussed for about two years. In an offseason where even the head coach acknowledged he needed to change his approach (and remember, Ferentz didn’t fire any assistant coaches, only juggling a few responsibilities), this is something.

“I just think it’s got some real upside for us. We’re never going to know until we get going, but we’re going to try it out,” Ferentz said. “And I think our players are enthused about it.”