Coordinator takeaways: Iowa's preferred offensive line; Amani Hooker in at safety

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Saying true freshman Tristan Wirfs only “really had two bad plays” in his first career start, Brian Ferentz gave his seal of approval of the Iowa offensive line that started during Saturday’s 45-16 win against Illinois.

“I hope this is our line moving forward,” the first-year offensive coordinator said Wednesday. “I'm not naïve enough to believe that it definitely is going to be.”

That’s an important statement for two reasons.

Iowa's Amani Hooker tackles Penn State's Saquon Barkley during their game at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017.

One, it indicates Wirfs is the intended starting right tackle for Iowa’s next game, Oct. 21 at Northwestern, and beyond.

Two, it means Ferentz (as the former offensive line coach of five years) understands the challenges that new assistant Tim Polasek has encountered in his first season as offensive line coach.

When Ferentz was a first-year line coach in 2012, he lost two key offensive linemen in one key series. Polasek has been forced to replace the season’s two starting tackles — both fifth-year seniors in Boone Myers and Ike Boettger — with freshmen Alaric Jackson and now Wirfs.

The left-to-right unit vs. Illinois that rolled up 441 yards and 5.0 yards per carry was Jackson, Keegan Render, James Daniels, Sean Welsh and Wirfs. A week earlier, without Wirfs, Iowa rushed 25 times for a woeful 19 yards at Michigan State.

“I hope we can keep this group intact,” Ferentz said. “If we can, then I think we have a chance to build a little bit of cohesiveness and chemistry.”

Ferentz’s thoughts about the offensive line, though, were most passionate when he mentioned Myers, who was slated to be the starting left tackle but had been playing as a part-time guard while dealing with a high-ankle sprain until the coaching staff sat him altogether.

The Hawkeyes hope rest can help restore Myers, who has 25 career starts, to his powerful self.

“You've got a guy now that physically can't do some of the things that he used to be able to do,” Ferentz said. “That’s a really hard position to be in, and I can't say enough about how he's responded to that. Instead of being bitter or angry or sulking or doing any of those things, the first thing he did was put his arm around a guy like Alaric Jackson or — last week — a guy like Tristan Wirfs and help them get ready to play.

“I hope someday, I hope in 20 years that my son, whatever he's doing, can be the kind of team member or community guy that Boone Myers has been for us.”

Stanley 'exceeding' expectations

Ferentz was asked about quarterback Nate Stanley on Wednesday, and he spoke for nearly four minutes — which, in a way, speaks volumes about the potential of the true sophomore with six career starts.

Overall, Ferentz said this: “I think we have a pretty efficient young quarterback who's exceeded our expectations.”

In his first mass media availability since August, Ferentz was guarded in his comments. You could tell he didn’t want to be too complimentary toward Stanley, who has thrown 15 touchdown passes compared with two interceptions, and even admitted as much.

“I think young guys have to learn, it's so easy to be satisfied with things,” Ferentz said. “I don't think Nate is in danger of that. But I know why you ask the question, and I hesitate to say anything other than he's a young guy who's done well. But I think he has a chance to be a really good football player here, and I think that puts him in a club with a lot of other young guys we have.”

Ferentz doesn’t like the three lost fumbles that Stanley has coughed up this season.

One of them came at the end of the first half in the season opener against Wyoming, when Iowa was trying to run a two-minute drill. That’s a snapshot worth remembering, considering the following week he rallied the Hawkeyes from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to a 44-41 overtime win at Iowa State.

“We have two big tempo situations where we have to go score and get points (in Ames), and he's operating like he's done it for five years,” Ferentz said. “So you look at what he's done, you're real encouraged, but also he has a lot of room to grow.”

Translation: Iowa thinks it has a QB keeper.

Hooker's in, Taylor's out

Both Iowa coordinators were made available during the lone bye week, and Phil Parker made some news Wednesday when he said that Amani Hooker would be the Hawkeyes’ new starting strong safety.

That would officially supplant senior Miles Taylor, a third-year starter who was pulled late in the first quarter against Illinois.

Hooker has shown an aggressive, play-making ability in extended action in the past four weeks — twice in starting roles, twice off the bench.

“Last year, he really didn't understand what was going on (defensively),” Parker said of the true sophomore from Minneapolis, who had his first career interception against Illinois. “Very good athlete, has very good skill. He has the ability to move and run, and he has a great feel for the ball.”

Now, with Brandon Snyder returning to Iowa’s starting free safety role after his recovery from a torn ACL in April, the Hawkeyes have a brand-new safety combo than what began the season (Taylor and Jake Gervase).

Parker said Taylor, who has 29 career starts, has taken the demotion like a pro.

“I think him helping out Amani Hooker the way he does and how positive he's been during this time,” Parker said, “… it's been really good for our team.”

If you’re counting, that’s two classy moves by seniors who are playing less than they’d like to — first Myers, and now Taylor.

Pass rush 'pretty good'

Parker gave what might be viewed as a surprising answer when asked about his team’s pass rush.

“I think we're doing pretty good,” Parker said. “You look at it and say, I think they've been putting enough pressure on (quarterbacks). I think we've got to do a better job in the coverage a little bit.

“We're not as bad as I think people think we are. … You look at how many times we hit the quarterback at Penn State (Trace McSorley), I don't think he was even hit twice before we played him. We hit him four times.”

Parker was likely responding to criticism about Iowa’s defensive line against Illinois, which generated only one sack (which was awarded on video review on the game’s first play) against an offensive line that started four freshmen. The Hawkeyes rank ninth in the Big Ten Conference at 2.0 sacks per game, although they’re never much of a blitzing team — even less so this season.

Parker said he estimated Iowa has blitzed on about 10 percent of plays this season, compared with its usual rate of 17 to 19 percent.

The grad transfers

One of the summer’s biggest stories for Iowa football was the arrival of graduate transfers at skill positions — running back James Butler from Nevada, receiver Matt Quarells from New Mexico.

For different reasons, neither has played a Big Ten snap.

Butler, the top backup to starter Akrum Wadley, remains out with a right elbow injury that sounds even worse than initially thought. Coach Kirk Ferentz had initially said Butler might return after Iowa’s bye week, but that prognosis now seems unlikely.

“It's a serious injury, and we can't heal up the bone,” Brian Ferentz said of Butler, who rushed 36 times for 158 yards before his injury. “I know he wishes he could. He's done a really nice job with his rehab.”

Quarells, meanwhile, has yet to play. Although he’s healthy, he’s been surpassed by three true freshmen — Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Brandon Smith and Max Cooper.

“It's not so much what Matt is or is not doing,” the offensive coordinator said. “It's the fact these other guys are coming in every day and pushing it forward. And so I think the challenge for Matt would be to get going a little bit.”

On that topic, Ferentz said he hoped to play Cooper more in the coming weeks. The speedy Waukesha, Wisconsin, native received second-quarter action vs. Illinois.

Ferentz also said he expected to give freshman Toren Young, another Wisconsin native, more carries because he’s earned them. Young has 27 attempts for 110 yards and made his first career start vs. Illinois. Freshman Ivory Kelly-Martin, who has 94 yards on his 14 attempts, also could be in line for more work.

“We have to be a little more open to playing some of those guys early, and it'll help Akrum, as well,” Ferentz said. “You can't have Akrum out there for 60 plays a game. That's probably not helping him get anything done.”