CHICAGO — Kirk Ferentz kicked off Day 2 of his 21st Big Ten Conference football medai days at the Hilton Chicago with a quick history lesson.
“Someone earlier this week told me this first time I came to these meetings (in 1999),” Iowa's all-time winningest coach said, “that Sammy Sosa was playing right field for the Cubs and there were 11 teams (in the Big Ten).
“So it just kind of highlights the change we’ve seen over the last couple decades.”
This annual event is one of the least favorite parts of Ferentz’s calendar. He has joked in the past that his favorite part of the week is when the obligations are over and his car is pointed back toward Iowa City.
But when asked about the one thing he’d like to change in college football, he perked up. He pointed to the new world of recruiting, reflected in the 22 verbal commitments the Hawkeyes already have in their Class of 2020. That kind of urgency (locking up classes before a player’s senior year in high school) is the new norm in today’s fast-paced world. And although Ferentz understands that, he’s not a fan.
"In a logical world, you would wait for everybody to finish their careers, evaluate them and then go about the recruiting process," Ferentz said. "Kind of like the NFL does it.”
He later got a question about the NCAA’s transfer portal and chuckled.
Ferentz joined the chorus of many Big Ten coaches here, saying he is confused why some players are granted immediate eligibility after transferring and others are not. He and the Hawkeyes are currently in that state of limbo. They're waiting to hear from the NCAA on whether Michigan transfer Oliver Martin will be cleared to play in 2019 for the Hawkeyes.
“Just some clarity on that whole thing would really help," Ferentz said. "I understand how the portal works. That’s pretty clear. What is confusing is who gets a pass to the field and who doesn’t, and that didn’t start this past 12 months, either."
(Insert your favorite Drew Ott reference here.)
Jim Harbaugh, for one, was surprised that Martin decided to leave Michigan in early June.
The Wolverines' fifth-year coach said this of Martin, a four-star prospect from Iowa City West who is now a redshirt sophomore at Iowa: "He really had a heck of a spring and was at the top of our depth chart coming out of spring ball. He was doing very well in school. … That was a surprise."
In other words, Iowa got a good one.
MORE FROM MEDIA DAYS
- As Oliver Martin decision looms, Ferentz dishes on NCAA
- Leistikow: Nebraska a media darling, but Iowa my B1G West favorite
- How you livestream Big Ten games will change in 2019
- Gary Barta discusses schedules, beer and sports betting
The Martin family has hired an attorney to help with his petition.
Ferentz, in a later interview with Iowa reporters, couldn't offer a timetable of when the NCAA will rule. Athletics director Gary Barta said in a separate interview that his research showed that 60% to 70% of immediate-eligibility waivers for transfers have been approved. That would seem to increase Martin's odds.
“I’m not an expert on the topic at all, but as an outsider, it certainly seems like your chances of getting things your way increase (with an attorney)," Ferentz said. "We’ll just wait and see."
Martin loves it at Iowa, and a source says he has acclimated quickly to the wide-receivers room; building culture is an important piece to the Hawkeyes 'formula, and Martin is on the right track.
“He’s been training with the team all summer long and doing a great job," Ferentz said. "Seems to have fit right in with everybody. Obviously knows Iowa City a little bit. I think he’s doing a great job."
As for the waiver?
"We obviously think he’s a really good football player and good young person," Ferentz said. "If he could help our football team, I’m all for anyone helping us. But we’re not counting on it. That’d be a bonus.”
Iowa will enter fall camp healthy overall, Ferentz said.
Other than what he called “a couple of foot issues” with some players he didn’t identify, the Hawkeyes haven't had any significant injury losses this offseason. That's good.
One of the healthiest positions, actually, is at running back. Ferentz took a number of questions about whether he saw a true freshman like Tyler Goodson cracking the rotation, but he was quite bullish on the returning trio of juniors. In order on the depth chart: Mekhi Sargent, Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin.
“We know what Mekhi can do, and Toren; and when Ivory’s healthy we think he’s a pretty good football player,” Ferentz said. “So, it’s going to be a tougher position to crack into than maybe a different position.”
A year ago, Iowa lacked an explosive playmaker out of the backfield. Running back was, frankly, a weakness. The team didn’t have a 100-yard rusher until Sargent in Game 11. Goodson seems to bring that type of skill set to the table, but the fact that Ferentz likes his top three — and even chose Young to be among his trio to media days — indicates he’s seen positive growth at running back.
“If a freshman is ready and we don’t need him, that's great,” Ferentz said, “we’ll redshirt him.”
Why bring Young here and not A.J. Epenesa?
Iowa’s perceived best player, junior defensive end Epenesa, was not among the players Ferentz brought to Chicago. (Quarterback Nate Stanley and cornerback Michael Ojemudia were the others).
Epenesa (6-foot-6, 280 pounds) had 10½ sacks a year ago as a backup to Anthony Nelson and Parker Hesse and was chosen first-team all-Big Ten. Now, he’s the leading man. Epenesa was the only Hawkeye selected to the Big Ten’s 10-player watch list and is considered a first-round NFL Draft prospect.
“It’s nothing personal,” Ferentz said. “One thing I’m amused by, A.J. hasn’t started a game, I don’t think. And he’s like the fifth-best player in the country and all that stuff. But what a great kid he is, what a great guy he is to have on the football team.”
Remember when coaches were publicly pleading with Ihmir Smith-Marsette to put down his cellphone?
And then in April, receivers coach Kelton Copeland said Marsette "hasn't excelled as much as I hoped."
But it sounds like Marsette has turned the corner. Ferentz said his junior speedster, the Big Ten's return specialist of the year in 2018, wasn't necessarily in the "doghouse" but needed to straighten out some things.
"I think we're seeing a different guy right now," Ferentz said, "who's really being mindful and paying attention to details."
One last note: There's no suspension for Tristan Wirfs.
Iowa's 322-pound right tackle with an NFL future was recently cited for being in an Iowa City bar while underage. Ferentz said that the punishment has already been handled internally, and that he won't be suspended for any game time.
"We’ve already addressed it and handled it," Ferentz said. "I’m not minimizing it. What he did was wrong. It wasn’t criminal. I guess it is, technically, if he’s out somewhere past 10 o’clock. But it’s over and done with, as far as I’m concerned.”