A look inside Brian Ferentz's plan to jumpstart Iowa's offense
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Brian Ferentz’s first season as Iowa’s offensive coordinator had more peaks and valleys than the Appalachian Mountains.
In wins against Iowa State, Ohio State and Nebraska, Ferentz’s play calling resulted in an average of 496 yards per game. When facing Michigan State, Wisconsin and Boston College, the Hawkeyes managed 497 yards. Total.
So it’s no surprise that Ferentz spent part of his offseason trying to get a better feel for a highly nuanced part of his new job.
“There’s nothing as real as a game. You cannot simulate the emotion of a football game and the effect it has on your brain,” Ferentz said of the art of outsmarting defenses. “But you can go through tapes and go through TV copies, and you just call the game. You pull a call sheet out and call the game.
“You’re always thinking about situations as you watch football. You’re always kind of working on that.”
Ferentz’s second year overseeing Iowa’s offense officially arrives Sept. 1 when Northern Illinois comes into Kinnick Stadium for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff (Big Ten Network).
It’s also a second season working with Nate Stanley as his starting quarterback. That alone should make things smoother, Ferentz said. He’d love to give his junior signal-caller more freedom to react to what he sees when he breaks the huddle.
“So far the best plays in practice are the ones he’s called,” Ferentz said earlier this month in reference to Stanley. “That’s a good step forward. I’d like to continue that. It takes a little bit off my plate.”
Ferentz also prepared for his second go-around as offensive coordinator by returning to a familiar think tank this summer — Foxboro, Massachusetts, where Bill Belichick has built the New England Patriots into the NFL dynasty of the 21st century by not straying from what he knows works.
Ferentz, the son of Hawkeye head coach Kirk Ferentz, spent four seasons on Belichick’s staff before rejoining his father in Iowa City, first as offensive line coach.
“Although many things have changed, nothing has changed. The core things have stayed the same there. And the message that was delivered every day there was identical to the message that I remember being delivered,” Brian Ferentz said of shadowing his former mentors. “I think that’s a testament to why they are so consistent. They don’t change anything. That doesn’t mean they don’t evolve or don’t adapt. But they’re not going to change fundamentally who they are and they’re not going to do it for any reason.”
As Iowa seeks to improve an offense that ranked 116th in FBS last season in total offense (329.5 yards per game), look for adaptation — not reconfiguration — to be the rule under Ferentz.
So what does that mean?
Stretching the field vertically
Trying to find deep threats in the passing game to put pressure on defenses is a must, something the Hawkeyes have not done well in recent years. That includes wide receivers such as Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith to make plays and also relies on star tight end Noah Fant.
“If you can’t threaten the defense vertically down the field, you’re going to have issues. And the easiest way to do that, just because of how structures work, is to do it on the perimeter. That’s as far away as you can get from the safeties, whether you have cover 2, cover 1,” Ferentz said.
“If you look at how we played in the past, there’s certain games where, if you cannot throw the ball down the field or you’re unwilling to throw it down the field, it gets really hard offensively to move the football.”
The Hawkeyes averaged 12.43 yards per catch last season, which ranked middle-of-the-pack at 69th among FBS teams. That’s a number Ferentz, with a more seasoned and accurate Stanley, believes can improve significantly.
Leaning on the tight end corps
Fant spearheads this group coming off a sophomore season with 11 touchdowns. T.J. Hockenson is a proven commodity who caught 24 passes for 320 yards and three touchdowns a year ago. Shaun Beyer, Drew Cook and Nate Wieting are also pushing for playing time.
Ferentz compared the situation at tight end this season to what the Hawkeyes thought they had at running back last year. Seniors Akrum Wadley and James Butler were so good that Ferentz plotted ways to get them on the field together, a plan he had to scuttle when Butler went down with an elbow injury.
“You need to get creative,” Ferentz said.
That may mean more formations that employ multiple tight ends, but not just Fant and Hockenson. How about three at a time? How about four?
“The goal on every snap is can we get (our best) 11 guys on the field? Who are our best football players? Do we have 11? Do we have 12? Do we have 13?” Ferentz said. “Who are they and can we make sure they’re involved in the plan? And not necessarily just targeting them, but getting them out there so there’s opportunities for them to get the football and get involved.”
Establishing a consistent rushing game
It was primarily Wadley’s show a year ago and he racked up 1,109 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. But Iowa averaged only 3.76 yards per rush and 139.2 yards per game, the latter a dismal 96th in FBS.
That’s difficult to swallow at a program that prides itself on being able to dominate the line of scrimmage.
Ferentz is bullish on this year’s trio of sophomore running backs, led by Ivory Kelly-Martin and supplemented by Toren Young and Mekhi Sargent. If they all stay healthy, they all have a chance at being productive while keeping each individual's workload at manageable levels.
“If we’re going to be successful here, we need to be able to run the football, and we need to be able to do it when everyone knows we’re going to do it. Otherwise, we have no chance,” Ferentz said.
“If we can’t establish the run game from the opening snap of the season to the closing whistle of Game 12, I think it’s going to be hard for us to have any kind of sustained success offensively.”
Ferentz has a vision of how Iowa's offense should look at peak efficiency. Now he just needs to get it there more often than last year.