Kirk Ferentz touches on injuries, coach changes and NIL collectives in opening spring presser
IOWA CITY — After an eight-week winter conditioning period, Iowa football's spring practice season kicked off Wednesday.
Head coach Kirk Ferentz held his introductory press conference in the afternoon, citing spring practice as a time of excitement and optimism for a new year, new team and new challenges. Topics on Wednesday included players changing positions, coaching staff shuffles and competition among several position groups including quarterbacks.
Ferentz also touched on player departures, those leaving to the NFL and two players who decided to end their football careers. Senior guard Cody Ince is retiring due to a series of injuries, and sophomore tight end Elijah Yelverton expressed to Ferentz that he planned to finish this semester and return to his native Texas to complete his college degree.
"Whether it's these two guys or anybody that leaves our program, we certainly wish them the best moving forward," Ferentz said. "And they're taking advantage of a new start as well. Wish them the best."
Ferentz touched on a variety of other topics during his 30-plus minute conversation with reporters. Here are five takeaways:
Two key players will miss time to injury
Iowa will be without two key pieces for some or all of spring practice — redshirt freshman offensive lineman Mike Myslinski and junior linebacker Jestin Jacobs. The loss of Jacobs (undisclosed injury) impacts both the linebacker unit and the "cash" position on defense. Ferentz didn't rule out Jacobs returning at some point this spring but doesn't know how much work he'll be able to do.
Myslinski, a strong candidate to replace Tyler Linderbaum at center, suffered an undisclosed injury while training back home in Jacksonville, Florida, and will miss the entire spring practice period. Ferentz expects him to be ready this summer.
"I think we've seen enough of (Myslinski) to know he's a football player, and a good football player," Ferentz said. "But he won't be able to work this spring. We'll get him back in June, that's the good news, and he's wired in and all that, but it's not the same as practicing. And we don't have five established starters at this point anyway. So it's a matter of letting everybody compete."
Optimism about offensive line development
Myslinski's injury and Ince's retirement leave Iowa a few players short. But Ferentz is optimistic about how much the unit can improve this spring.
"I think the potential is there," Ferentz said. "The potential is potential. Really doesn't help you. But I think the guys have worked hard. They've got the right attitude. I'm anxious to see everybody this spring. It's fun to watch guys and see how they practice, how they improve and compete."
Looking at center, where a giant void was left by Linderbaum, sophomore Tyler Elsbury is listed No. 1 on the Hawkeyes' first spring depth chart. Ferentz noted that Elsbury's time at center late last year was the best he's looked in his young career and that he has had a strong offseason. Matt Fagan and converted defensive lineman Logan Jones are working there as well.
Ferentz also didn't shy away from the notion that a lot of linemen will get to play multiple positions this spring. Sophomore Connor Colby could slide out to tackle and junior guard Justin Britt could slide to center if needed. The group will remain fluid throughout the spring as Ferentz and offensive line coach George Barnett seek the best group of five players.
"We'll fool around and play," Ferentz said. "Who knows who will be playing where (in the April 23 spring scrimmage at Kinnick Stadium). But hopefully they're all out there and improving."
A lot of players will get an opportunity to play 'cash'
Versatile defensive back Dane Belton played the "cash" position — essentially a slot cornerback with safety size — in Iowa's 4-2-5 scheme for most of the last three seasons. He'll be cashing NFL checks later this spring.
In Iowa's first spring depth chart, junior safety Sebastian Castro was listed as the No. 1 cash. But like the offensive line, the cash position and the secondary position as a whole are fluid.
Ferentz noted that there's not much depth at the safety position, and as a result Castro is also the No. 2 strong safety behind Kaevon Merriweather. He'll cross-train at both safety and cash. Cross training will likely be the case for several other players, including cornerbacks Cooper DeJean and Terry Roberts and early enrollee Xavier Nwankpa of Southeast Polk.
"(Castro) will do both and everybody's going to be doing both," Ferentz said. "It's like the offensive line. Right now we have some moving pieces back there. And so it's going to be interesting to see how that all shakes out. We're going to see what all these guys do."
An NIL collective at Iowa is likely
Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) was a popular topic in both the collegiate and recruiting world last year and continues to evolve going into Year 2. The latest development is the emergence of "NIL collectives," which are donor-led, independent-of-the-university groups that pool funds from boosters and businesses, help facilitate NIL deals for athletes and also create their own ways for athletes to monetize their brands.
On Wednesday, five Penn State alumni launched "Success With Honor," an NIL collective named after the phrase made famous by former football coach Joe Paterno. According to Business of College Sports, there are 36 school-specific operating NIL collectives including "Illini Guardians" at the University of Illinois, "Hoosier Hysterics" at the University of Indiana and "Turtle NIL" at the University of Maryland.
Ferentz admitted on Wednesday that the fast-growing (and moving) NIL culture can be difficult to keep up with but understands that collectives are gaining traction. When asked if something similar could develop at Iowa, he said that's a likely possibility.
"Yeah, I think it's realistic," Ferentz said. "I think there's people interested in it. I don't know all the moving parts and mechanics of things. I imagine pretty much everybody will have some form of one at some point. I'm hardly the expert. But I think it's coming."
Ferentz elaborates on Abdul Hodge hire
Former quarterbacks coach Ken O'Keefe stepping down in February opened the door for Ferentz to shift Brian Ferentz to quarterbacks coach/offensive coordinator and hire a new position coach (tight ends). Ferentz found a tight ends coach in Iowa football alum Abdul Hodge, a starting middle linebacker on Iowa's memorable early 2000s teams.
Hodge, 38, has spent the past three seasons as the outside linebackers coach and NFL liaison at South Dakota. Hodge won over Ferentz during the interview process when he expressed his desire to switch to coaching offense. That and Hodge's high character made him an easy hire, Ferentz said on Wednesday.
"Initially that wasn't my first thought because he's been coaching defense and played defense," Ferentz said. "Maybe the most pleasing thing throughout the process was when I had a conversation with him was not only his willingness to consider coaching offense but really his eagerness. He sees it as a chance to grow and improve his vision of the game, which I think is smart. It's good to have experience on both sides of the football.
"So he couldn't have written a better answer. In retrospect, why would I be surprised? He typically has the right answers, at least has historically. So that was kind of that."
What does Ferentz expect Hodge to bring to the position? A lot of what he brought as a player: production and strong work ethic.
"His career was prolific as a player in terms of production," Ferentz said. "But the guys that I consider to be really great players, they do more than make plays, they do more than tackle guys or make yards. They just make your team better. And Abdul was always just such a strong, dominant — in a very quiet way — but a very strong, dominant personality, if that makes sense. Everything about him just speaks, he's a solid, standup productive guy. He's got a great personality."
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.