Iowa football's on-field communication, preparation even more pivotal as fans return to Kinnick Stadium

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — It seems like a weird question on the surface, asking Iowa football players what in-game life will be like now that a traditional Saturday element is back. But it's a worthwhile inquiry given how different pandemic-plagued football looked in 2020.

After 21-plus months without a typical jam-packed crowd in Kinnick Stadium, is there a re-calibration needed with playing in front of fans again? 

"There’s a lot of outside noise — and it’s great to have the fans back,"  defensive end John Waggoner said, "but at the end of the day, you’ve got to zone in on what you’ve got to do." 

As the No. 18 Hawkeyes ready for Saturday's ranked showdown against No. 17 Indiana — Iowa's first home game with fans since Nov. 23, 2019 — there's no debating everyone around the Hawkeyes program is amped for the raucous return. As center Tyler Linderbaum succinctly said, if fans coming back doesn't energize every college football player, "then I don't know why you're here." But that doesn't mean adjustments and emphasis on communication elements won't be needed, especially for those entering the noise for the initial time. 

Tyler Goodson and Kirk Ferentz talk during Iowa's win over Illinois on Nov. 23, 2019, the Hawkeyes' last game in front of fans at Kinnick Stadium. Communication will be key Saturday as fans return.

Saturday marks the first college game with fans for 59 players on Iowa's listed roster — 26 redshirt freshmen and 33 true freshmen. Then throw in a handful of sophomore and upperclassmen getting their first starting or significant action in front of a crowd, and we're talking well over half of Iowa's 124-man roster who'll be experiencing something different come 2:30 p.m. kickoff. 

While it may not be Saturday's most prevalent element, it's relevant enough that Kirk Ferentz mentioned as much in Tuesday's opening statement. 

"We have a lot of guys who haven't played in front of fans, live fans. It's going to be a new experience for them," the Iowa coach said at his Week 1 press conference. "And just really eager and kind of anxious to see how they respond on Saturday, see how they play. And especially considering who we are playing against." 

That last line accentuates why everything needs to be in full working order upon arrival. The Hawkeyes open, not just with a robust foe, but a strong conference opponent that could damage Iowa's division-title chances before the season even really gets rolling.

There's no working out the Week 1 kinks against an FCS or Group of Five team, where the margin for error is significantly larger. Even something as simple as communicating through real noise for the first time in a while can wield importance on this day. 

Introspective answers regarding crowd effects mostly centered on that aspect, particularly from defensive players. Relaying and listening for pre-snap calls, checks and alerts requires additional focus when those words must slice through 70,000 roaring fans instead of silent open air.

"It’s definitely going to be a big thing," safety Dane Belton said. "The past year, we got to hear each other more on the field. And I feel like moving forward this year, we’ve got to get back to hand signals and things like that because with the crowd being the way it is — even more so after taking a year off — the communication is going to be key for us with the noise.

"But it’s definitely going to be an advantage, having the loud fans in Kinnick giving the extra noise on third down."

Players like Belton, middle linebacker Jack Campbell and others are in that limbo group of having played in front of fans as true freshmen — but in a significantly lesser role than they have now. Belton made four starts in 2019 but is now arguably the centerpiece of Iowa's secondary. Campbell played in 11 games with five tackles that season, a far cry from his current responsibilities as the Hawkeyes' main defensive voice. 

"I’m just gonna be screaming," Campbell said. "There’s gonna be no mouthpiece in. Just being able to see things quicker so I can alert it, so then when it does happen and I scream it, it’s not a whole surprise. And just getting the guys in the best spots for the defense, that’s just going to be the biggest thing.

"Then the fans are going to bring the electric environment. I’m excited to see it."

This adjustment shouldn't linger past this week as Iowa and the rest of the college football world settle back into gameday as we know it. No one wants to return to, as tight end Sam LaPorta put it, the "eerie feeling" of waiting for stadium noise that isn't coming, as last season entailed. 

It just returning to the old normal, which is now the new normal, may take a bit to process.  

"Really it’s just about expecting the noise," Waggoner said. "I try to go back to games in 2019 and remember what that feeling was like with the fans in there. The bullets start flying — and there are 70,000 people who are loud — you’ve got to be focused in and ready for communication and checks on defense. It comes down to just zoning in on you’re responsibilities."

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.