Spring game formations to offer flashes of Ferentz’s new offense

Chris Cuellar

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Brian Ferentz could use Friday night’s spring game to show off.

Fresh playbook. Young personnel. A prime-time slot (albeit tape-delayed) on Big Ten Network.

But considering the Hawkeyes haven’t decided on a starting quarterback, are withholding star running back Akrum Wadley from contact and have only two available scholarship receivers, it’s more likely Ferentz and fans at Kinnick Stadium for the 7 p.m. start will sit back and watch.

Iowa’s 34-year-old offensive coordinator still has a lot to learn about his new system, like who is going to play where once the 2017 season actually starts in September.

“To say that we’re throwing everything in,” Ferentz said of installing his offense on Wednesday afternoon, “that’s probably fair from this standpoint: We’re trying to get as much on tape, as much evaluated, as we can.

Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz looks on Friday, April 7, 2017, during the Iowa Hawkeyes' spring football practice at Valley Stadium in West Des Moines.

“We try not to throw it all at them at once, but it has stacked up over four weeks.”

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The formations and packages Iowa uses Friday should provide a better preview for this fall than the players running them.

Names on the depth chart can change each day. How the Hawkeyes line up when the lights are on will show just what head coach Kirk Ferentz’s team changed in the offseason.

“I’ve had the luxury of having the same coach, the same offense for four years,” Iowa offensive lineman Sean Welsh said. “It’s interesting to see how the details change. We really haven’t changed a whole lot. And the coaches have done a great job making it seem like there isn’t a transition.”

Besides new assistant coaches, terminology, and names in the huddle, the Hawkeyes have made their biggest offensive adjustments at the skill positions.

Receivers have indicated Ferentz’s scheme involves more pre-snap motion, varied routes and sideline adjustments. Without top returners Matt VandeBerg (injury) and Jerminic Smith (academic issues), young reserves are suddenly getting all the practice reps.

“It’s definitely tougher to learn than systems I’ve been in in the past, but I’ve just been trying to study and get everything down,” said newcomer Nick Easley.

Brian Ferentz called Easley the team’s “best receiver” so far this spring. The Newton grad and Iowa Western transfer is a walk-on and hoped to contribute in a slot receiver role, but has spent time outside recently as a wide option.

Easley will likely share snaps on Friday with Devonte Young, Adrian Falconer and fellow former Reivers Ronald Nash and Dominique Dafney.

“Any time you’re coming from a spread offense to a pro-style, there are going to be some differences,” Easley said. “But at the end of the day, football is football.”

With limited options and experience at receiver, Iowa expects to use a fleet of tight ends. That shouldn’t be surprising given Ferentz’s NFL resume.

New England made a run to the 2012 Super Bowl when Ferentz was tight ends coach, and the Patriots used one running back and two tight ends — known as "12 personnel" — on a league-high 71.3 percent of their offensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.

Professional and college football have spread out dramatically since then, but Iowa is comfortable with two and even three tight-end sets. Ferentz estimated Iowa spent 40 percent of its time in 12 personnel last season and had at least one tight end on the field for “probably” 95 percent of its snaps. How the deep unit will be deployed at Kinnick adds intrigue to Friday’s proceedings.

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“We try to emphasize the tight ends as best we can,” Ferentz said. “A lot of that is personnel driven. It’s forced us to maybe get to certain concepts, more ways to try and be a little more creative … you don’t want it to look the same every snap, right?

“So, just a little bit of a sleight of hand. I think that’s been good for us. It’s forced us to be a little more diverse in our formations than you’d like to be when you’re just trying to get things installed.”

Iowa’s other new offensive assistants can lend unique formation insights as well. And they each back up Kirk Ferentz’s commitment to power football.

Quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe returned to Iowa City after five seasons of pro-style calls with the Miami Dolphins. Receivers coach Kelton Copeland arrived from Northern Illinois, which runs a spread-option scheme, but is still known for power blocking and utilizing under-the-radar talent. Offensive line coach Tim Polasek was the coordinator at North Dakota State, a physical FCS dynasty built on the backs of versatile linemen, tight ends and fullbacks.

Sound familiar?

“We’ve used a mix of NDSU stuff and our stuff,” Iowa lineman Ike Boettger said after the team’s spring practice in West Des Moines. “There are so many similar things.

“We kind of took the mindset of, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

Ferentz’s group will have to “score” consistently on defensive coordinator Phil Parker’s experienced, healthy defense to impress fans Friday. Beside traditional scoring methods (touchdown, field goal, PAT), the Hawkeye offense will get three points for an explosive play (at least 12 yards on the ground, at least 16 through the air) and one point for a first down.

“We should be trying to get better at everything we do,” Ferentz said. “But certainly, if you look at the numbers, we’ve got to be better at throwing the football. There’s no way around that. And we’ve got to be better protecting the quarterback.

“Whether it is a formation, whether it is a way we personnel something, we have to look at everything and we have to be open to everything.”