As Hawkeyes open spring practice, the bar is higher

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. – In outlining the challenge ahead for 2016 Iowa football, Kirk Ferentz began his spring-practice-opening news conference with an economics lesson.

“There is no credit for last year. There is no debt,” Ferentz said Tuesday. “You start with an even balance and get to move on to a new year with a new team and new opportunities.”

All the Rose Bowl bid and 12-0 regular season did for Iowa’s upcoming season was raise the bar. That’s the reality Ferentz faces in beginning his 18th spring as Iowa’s head coach.

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Last year, no doubt, crushed expectations. Ferentz’s capital was waning after a 34-30 record in five underwhelming seasons. Most objective 2015 predictions were in the 7-5 range. The most optimistic folks scaled in at 9-3.

Then 12-0 (eventually 12-2) happened.

It happened with seniors like Austin Blythe, Jordan Walsh, Jordan Canzeri, Henry Krieger Coble, Nate Meier, Cole Fisher and Jordan Lomax playing the best football of their lives.

That’s the biggest thing that Ferentz wanted to impart on the 2016 players – led by quarterback C.J. Beathard, middle linebacker Josey Jewell and cornerback Desmond King – when they reconvened 18 days after the 45-16 loss to Stanford in Pasadena, Calif.

"It's all about the opportunity for everybody," Ferentz said. "But it's everybody at every level. The older guys, guys like C.J. and Josey, if they play the way they played last year, it's not going to be good enough. We need them to play better. And that's true of all the guys that have played, and the guys that haven't played."

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The only time in school history that Iowa has recorded consecutive seasons of double-digit wins was Ferentz’s glory days of 2002 to 2004 when those groups combined for 32 wins and three straight top-10 national rankings to end the season.

But after the 11-2 season of 2004, Iowa’s 2005 team tumbled to 7-5.

Ditto after the 11-2 of 2009, when the 2010 group with enormous expectations faded to 8-5.

“We haven't sustained (success) so well at times,” Ferentz said. “It really gets down to the same story. Every January you start over again.”

So here we are. The Hawkeyes may have a preseason top-15 (or even top-10) ranking in front of their name before the Sept. 3 season opener against Miami (Ohio). But until then, they're 0-0.

Last winter, Iowa discovered off-the-charts senior leadership and chemistry in the new Football Performance Center, not to mention major weight gains after workouts with Chris Doyle and the other strength coaches.

This winter is being classified as a success as well. Seventeen players on the roster posted gains of at least 15 pounds over their listed weight from 2015, led by defensive end Anthony Nelson’s 30-pound explosion.

"They do a tremendous job with our players, but most importantly the players have worked hard," Ferentz said. "Just really pleased with the way the testing turned out. I think we've made good progress. It was a rigorous period and very important period for our team's development. So it's a positive step."

The weight-room phase is absolutely imperative for a developmental program like Iowa’s – if January through March is a bust, then so likely will be the fall performance.

That key first step is in the books. We’ll begin to learn in September what kind of payoff is to come. The first of 15 NCAA-permitted spring practices begins Wednesday.

Hawkeye football is back. And every minute until the April 23 open scrimmage at Kinnick Stadium counts.

"You can't practice football in a meeting room. You can't practice it certainly in a weight room," Ferentz said. "So this is a really important time for us. We have limited opportunities, and really the objective is to make sure that every meeting we have and every practice we have during this period are productive. And (then) we can close the book on those at the end of the day and say that we moved forward as a team."