5 takeaways from Iowa football's Citrus Bowl press conference with Brian Ferentz, Phil Parker
ORLANDO, Fla. — College football's bowl season allows for participating teams to mix work and play at the end of the season. For Iowa, that means evading Tuesday's snow in Iowa City for mid-80-degree temperatures in Orlando for the Vrbo Citrus Bowl.
Fun aside, senior Jack Koerner said on Wednesday that they're solely focused on the task at hand: Beating Kentucky on Saturday afternoon.
"It's always cool to just be in a different place," Koerner said. "But at the end of the day, we are focused on the game because coach (Kirk) Ferentz, what he's been preaching in the team meetings is: 'The most memorable part about bowl trips is winning the game.'"
Koerner's sentiment was repeated throughout the media session. Winning this game is important to both teams. Iowa's searching for its fourth 11-win season in school history while Kentucky eyes its fourth 10-win season ever.
With three days to kickoff, offensive and defensive coordinators, plus select players, were made available on Wednesday. Here are five takeaways from the session:
Iowa will see a different Will Levis
Iowa's defense will face Kentucky quarterback Will Levis for the second year in a row. Last season, Levis played for Penn State and played significantly in Iowa's 41-21 win. He completed 13 of 16 passes for 106 yards and led the team with 34 rushing yards.
But according to Koerner, this version of Levis is much more polished than the version they saw. The statistics support that statement. Levis has taken a significant step forward as a passer this season, improving his completion percentage to 66% compared to just under 60% in two years at Penn State. And the running ability is still there. He finished second on the team this year in rushing yards (511) and first in rushing touchdowns (nine).
"He seems like a much more mature player than then," Koerner said. "When we played them last year, he was really more of a run threat to us. Getting the ball out wasn't necessarily his strong suit. So obviously he's matured a little bit, and he's been throwing the ball a little bit more. And that's obviously something we're looking at."
One carryover that Iowa will emphasize from last year's game to this year is turnovers. The Hawkeyes forced Levis into three fumbles (two lost) in the 2020 contest. This year, Levis has 12 interceptions and two lost fumbles. Overall, Kentucky's one of the worst turnover margin teams in the country at a minus-13 differential.
That's good news for an opportunistic Iowa defense.
"He's definitely a dynamic player," Koerner said of Levis, "and we'll definitely be having to slow him down."
Speaking of QBs, Iowa knows who will start on Saturday
Quarterback play has been at the center of Iowa's offensive conversations this season and Wednesday was no different. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz didn't outright name the starter but said, within the team, they know who will get the nod.
"I think we have pretty much made our mind up on what we are going to do on Saturday," Brian Ferentz said. "But, the reality is (we) feel comfortable with both guys and feel like both guys can give us a chance to win the football game. I think both guys have strengths and weaknesses, as we have seen throughout the season, and it's my job as a play caller to try to play to those depending on which route we go."
Junior Specner Petras was listed as the No. 1 quarterback on the pre-bowl game depth chart but both he and sophomore Alex Padilla have split time with the first-team offense in practice. That lingering uncertainty hasn't affected Kentucky's preparation very much, Wildcats defensive coordinator Brad White said.
"I don't think it's as drastic a change if it's a pure pocket passer vs. 'All right, this guy is a runner then tries to throw,'" White said. "I think their skill set is within the same ballpark. I think Padilla probably runs a little bit better. I think decision-making, Petras understands where to go with the football — been really successful in the offense."
Cody Ince appears to be ready for his moment
An interesting note from Tuesday's open practice was guard Cody Ince working with the first-team offensive line at left guard in place of Kyler Schott. It's been an up-and-down 2021 for the Wisconsin native.
He was originally the starting right tackle in spring but injuries kept him from participating. During the summer and fall, he was the preseason starter at left guard but additional injuries took him in and out of the rotation and, on a personal level, he played through his grandfather's passing during the regular season. On Wednesday, Ferentz described this experience as a "roller-coaster."
But seeing him back with the starters indicates Ince is starting to regain momentum. Coaches have been on record saying he can play all five positions. A strong performance Saturday could jumpstart what could be a great 2022.
"Over the last three weeks, he's been out there steadily practicing and improving and getting back in the swing of things," Brian Ferentz said. "And the more Cody can play, it's going to help us and solidify things up front and take pressure off some of the other guys as well if we can get that rotation going. So, I'm excited to see him on Saturday, and I think he'll be a part of what we do as of right now and expect him to play well."
Both coordinators are excited about the future of their lines
Bowl practices also serve as big development periods for participating teams. Extra practice time means younger players can accrue more reps and get more attention than a regular game week, where the large majority of time is spent on the starters.
Brian Ferentz and defensive coordinator Phil Parker said on Wednesday that young players on the offensive and defensive lines have progressed well.
"There's been a couple guys that stand out a little bit, and most of it's our young defensive line," Parker said. "The guys that are coming through that's going to make a good impact here going into the springtime."
The Hawkeyes' defensive line has been trial-by-fire this season. Several young players, including Yayha Black, Deontae Craig, Logan Lee and Lukas Van Ness, were thrown in from the beginning and have experienced both great success and failure. With a full season of game reps, bowl practice allows for those players to take an even bigger step. Parker noted Black and Van Ness have really come on in the past three weeks.
"We are excited about the future. I just talked to them the other day," Parker said. "These guys are, I think, redshirt freshmen, and pretty impressive for those guys to be at this stage and playing in a game like this. To have a three or four more years with these guys is a real blessing for us."
Offensively, Brian Ferentz spoke on several true freshmen who fans haven't seen this year: former four-star recruits David Davidkov and Beau Stephens and three-star recruit Gennings Dunker. He also mentioned true freshman Mike Myslinksi, who has played almost all year with the second-team offense, and Griffin Liddle, a converted defensive lineman who has potential but is still recovering from a surgery.
"I feel like those guys have made a lot of progress," Ferentz said. "But I feel comfortable telling you they need to make a lot more progress as we go here. Everybody is on the right trajectory at the moment."
More appreciation for Ivory Kelly-Martin
The fifth-year running back joined Brian Ferentz for media questions on Wednesday. When given the chance, Iowa's offensive coordinator sung his praises for his journey to this point. Kelly-Martin was a steady contributor early in his career but injuries derailed what could've been (at least statistically) a more successful career at Iowa. But Ferentz explained his contribution over the years has gone far beyond stats.
One specific example was the 2019 season. That year, Iowa had several talented backs including Jacksonville Jaguar Mekhi Sargent and soon-to-be NFL running back Tyler Goodson. Iowa coaches approached Kelly-Martin about redshirting, and he did so.
"One thing that I really respect about Ivory and everything he's done here, he's always put the team first," Ferentz said. "To ask a skill player to go out there on special teams and cover kicks and be a gunner and do some of the dirty work — a lot of guys aren't interested in that when they come to us. They have been big stars wherever they are."
His perseverance and team-first mentality will be rewarded with a final start on Saturday. He hopes to do what he's always done in his career: be ready for the moment.
"I have always pushed myself to just continue to do as much as I can for this team," Kelly-Martin said. "That's ultimately all I can do in those situations. I don't control what we call out there on the field, and it's simply just be ready if the opportunity does come."
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at email@example.com.