JOHNSTON, Ia. — The Iowa-Nebraska season-ending football game isn’t gone for good, Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz told reporters Saturday.
The Big Ten Conference announced in September that Iowa will close the regular season by facing Wisconsin instead of Nebraska in 2020 and 2021, ending an eight-year tradition of Hawkeye-Husker games on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
Ferentz, speaking after his team put on a free football clinic for children at Johnston Middle School, made it clear that he prefers the Iowa-Nebraska game on Black Friday, and that he wants it to become a permanent part of the schedule, akin to Ohio State-Michigan’s long-running season-ending rivalry.
“I personally think it’s a great thing. We appreciated being invited to the party. To me, it just makes sense. Obviously, with Nebraska moving into the league, it seemed like a logical thing,” Ferentz said. “It’s unfortunate that it got moved away. Hopefully, it sounds like we’re going to rekindle it, right? I think after that (two seasons of ending the season against Wisconsin), I think we’re back together (with Nebraska) and I think it’ s maybe a long-term thing.
“But I thought the last one was long-term, too. We saw how that turned out.”
Former Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst caused a stir in September when he said he would prefer to play the season finale on Saturday, giving his players a full week’s rest as usual. He said he wasn’t concerned with who the opponent will be (it will be Minnesota in 2020 and 2021). The Cornhuskers have ended the season on Black Friday for 28 seasons, dating to their days in the Big 12 Conference. Eichorst backpedaled from those comments two days later.
New Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos has said he wants to restore the Iowa-Nebraska Black Friday rivalry starting in 2022, and it appears he has gotten his wish.
And so has Ferentz.
400 happy campers
The youth football clinic attracted 400 children, split into two groups, who ran through drills with about 15 Hawkeye players. It was a senior class project for the players as part of the Hawkeye Challenge, in which athletes earn points for the amount of community service they do.
Iowa defensive tackle Matt Nelson said he never attended such a football camp growing up in Cedar Rapids, and was glad he got to be part of one as a player. He was helping children perfect their tackling technique on a large yellow slab of foam, which most of them attacked with zest.
“They’re always full of energy. They bring out the best I think in all of us,” Nelson said of the children. “They bring out the childlike aspects in us.”
Bringing Hawkeye love to central Iowa
Ferentz has brought his team over to West Des Moines for an open practice session in recent years, but opted not to do that this spring. The clinic helped fill that void, he said.
“It’s just a nice way to say thank you to people in this part of the state,” Ferentz said. “It’s a more limited group of our players and yet we’re reaching not only younger people, but all of these kids have parents that came, too. So I think it’s a nice way to just kind of interact with people of all ages and hopefully have a feel-good type day.”
Not all the clinic attendees were from the Des Moines area. Ferentz said he spoke to one family that traveled all the way from Bettendorf.
Not all the Hawkeye instructors were seniors either. Sophomore running back Ivory Kelly-Martin was spotted racing against a young boy who challenged him after the clinic (Kelly-Martin, jogging, still won by a nose).
Linemen getting back to health
Senior defensive end Parker Hesse was helping with tackling drills despite a walking boot on his right foot and a pair of crutches under his armpits. He missed the final week of spring practices with the foot injury, but should be ready to return to football work next month, Ferentz said.
Nelson likewise missed the spring after having shoulder surgery in the offseason. He said he’s cleared to resume working out with the team in June as well.
Hawkeyes take aim at NFL
Three former Hawkeyes were selected in the NFL draft last weekend (center James Daniels to the Bears, cornerback Josh Jackson to the Packers and linebacker Josey Jewell to the Broncos). But several others have latched on to teams on free-agent deals or just for tryouts, most recently linebacker Bo Bower with the Vikings.
It's a familiar pattern for Ferentz, a former NFL assistant entering his 20th season as head coach at Iowa. He even saw his own son, James, get a couple of tryouts as an offensive lineman in a bid to secure a permanent NFL spot.
“There’s a lot of ways to get into the league. It’s tough to get in,” Ferentz said.
“To me, that’s kind of what your 20s, especially your early 20s, are for. Most of us didn’t know what we were doing then anyway. And then at some point you turn towards your life’s work. But all of those guys have really good opportunities right now. … Typically, the guys that should make it, make it.”
One former Hawkeye still looking for a path to the NFL is defensive end Drew Ott, whose 2016 senior season was ended by injury.
“I haven’t heard him getting any traction,” Ferentz said of Ott. “It’s easy for me to say, I’m not coaching in the NFL, I think he’d be really worth looking at, in my opinion. I mean, there’s a lot of upside there.”
Kids ask the funniest questions
After the clinic, Ferentz spoke to the children, introduced his players and answered questions.
One youngster asked about offensive linemen, a Ferentz specialty.
“It was any easy question: ‘What kind of linemen do we like?’” Ferentz said. “Ones that block. It was a softball.”
Another child asked how many Super Bowls the Hawkeyes had been to.
“Got a little educating to do on that one. But something to shoot for,” Ferentz quipped.
Finally, there was the boy who wanted to get into game strategy, asking Ferentz how he planned on defending Penn State this fall after back-to-back losses against the Nittany Lions.
“I don’t know if he thought it was going to be easy since (star running back Saquon) Barkley’s not there or not,” Ferentz laughed.
“I wish it was that easy.”