Iowa's Kirk Ferentz discusses injuries, lawsuit, Brian Ferentz's contract amendment
IOWA CITY − After nearly three months away from the field, the Iowa football team officially kicked off its 2023 season on Wednesday with the first day of spring practice.
Expectations remain high, with a second Big Ten West title in three years being the primary goal, but there's an element of newness with the program. That's because there are 11 new additions via the transfer portal and early enrollment with the team.
"It was our biggest group of newcomers (from fall to spring)," head coach Kirk Ferentz said Wednesday. "Then the mix of newcomers are veteran players as opposed to the past, typically high school guys. That's really been an interesting process for us. We got two more (transfer portal players: linebacker Nick Jackson and offensive lineman Rusty Feth) that are scheduled to be here in June. Looking forward to that, as well."
The early part of the year has been devoted to acclimating the new additions to the Iowa program. Now it's time to translate that knowledge to the field. Ferentz noted that he enjoys spring practice because it's strictly a developmental period, which is timely for this Iowa team that has several question marks throughout the roster, mainly on offense.
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Ferentz opened up spring with his first press conference on Wednesday. He covered plenty of on-field topics and also addressed a few off-the-field items that have transpired since his last availability.
Here are four takeaways:
Iowa football is dealing with several injuries
Injuries were a big storyline of Iowa's spring practices in 2022, with several starters nursing one thing or another. This spring appears similar with "about a dozen" players out with injuries, including several front-line starters.
- Ferentz said starting quarterback Cade McNamara is about six to eight weeks away from being fully healthy. He can throw individually and participate in 7-on-7 activities.
- Wide receivers Jacob Bostick (foot) and Seth Anderson (soft tissue) are out, Bostick will not return this spring and there's an outside chance for Anderson.
- There are also a few injuries along the offensive line, including sophomore Gennings Dunker. The hope is that he can return within the next week or two. Ferentz referenced another offensive lineman who will miss the entire spring but didn't name him.
- Defensive tackle Noah Shannon is out for the spring after shoulder surgery and won't be full-go until July.
Good news on the injury front: Transfer tight end Erick All (back) was a full participant on Wednesday, but the coaching staff will be smart about his usage early on.
Kirk Ferentz comments on recent lawsuit settlement, Brian Ferentz's contract amendment
Ferentz also addressed the recent settlement in the racial discrimination lawsuit brought against the football program and university by a group of Black former players in 2020. Ferentz and co-defendants Gary Barta (athletics director), Brian Ferentz (offensive coordinator) and Seth Wallace (linebackers coach) were dismissed from the suit and the university later settled out of court for $4 million.
"I think that's been resolved, there's really nothing more I can say about it," Ferentz said. "Our focus has been on what's in front of us and we feel like we're in a really good spot right now. Our plan is to stay vigilant in every area of our program."
Ferentz issued a statement shortly after the settlement was finalized expressing disappointment in the decision to settle. On Wednesday he said that based on his involvement in the case and conversations with legal experts, he believes the case would've been dismissed had it gone to trial. He offered no comment when asked about public pressure from State Auditor Rob Sand calling for Barta to be removed as athletics director, again citing that the matter had been resolved.
On the matter of Brian Ferentz, who received a contract amendment with his job status tied to metrics such as points per game (25) and team win total (7), Kirk Ferentz said that decision was between Barta and his son. Barta is Brian Ferentz's direct supervisor because of the school's nepotism policy.
"That was really between Gary and Brian, that arrangement," Ferentz said. "Gary supervises Brian for obvious reasons. That's really the same thing (as the lawsuit settlement). It's in the books. We're moving forward. That is not something we're thinking about. We're thinking about our whole football team having a great season."
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With Cade McNamara limited, there's an interesting competition at quarterback
Iowa's quarterbacks room has gone through a dramatic shift since last season. Senior Spencer Petras is likely done playing at Iowa due to a shoulder injury but remains with the team in a player-coach capacity. Junior Alex Padilla transferred to SMU, and the Hawkeyes added McNamara and former four-star recruit Deacon Hill to the roster.
The No. 2 quarterback spot was already going to be a battle between Joe Labas and Hill, but McNamara's limited status gives both players extra reps to impress the coaches. Hill has had only a few months of workouts and one practice with the team under his belt, but the Wisconsin transfer seems to be making an impression.
"First of all, he's big (6-foot-3, 230 pounds). Bigger than most quarterbacks I've been around," Ferentz said. "That's the first impression. He throws the ball well, has a great personality. We're really excited. This is only one practice out there. I think he has a good feel for what's going on, what he's doing. Throws the ball very, very well."
Labas enters spring with a bit of a leg up. He quarterbacked Iowa in its 21-0 Music City Bowl win over Kentucky and showed great progress during bowl preparation. Iowa also is adding three-star recruit Marco Lainez in June, a prospect the coaching staff is high on.
It'll be awhile before the quarterbacks room is at full tilt, but Ferentz is optimistic about the potential trajectory.
"Where (Labas) is at now compared to where he was at December, it's night and day," Ferentz said. "He looks like he's been in the program and really kind of catching on to things. So we're excited about him, excited about Deacon and Cade and we have a good player coming in to join us here in June as well. So again, cautiously optimistic, we'll know a lot more next fall, but I like the group. I think there's good competition. I think they're all good for each other and good with each other."
Ferentz provided a few names that he's excited about early on
Spring practice just began so it's a little premature to make sweeping declarations about who has made a big jump, but there are a few players who have some momentum entering spring.
Starting with the offensive line, Ferentz mentioned senior tackle Nick DeJong and junior center Logan Jones.
"Nick DeJong has had a really good out-of-season," Ferentz said. "He's had injury issues since he's been here. You can see him right now, (Wednesday) is only our first practice, but the confidence. Just seems like a different guy right now because he feels confident, he knows he's trained and is ready to go."
Ferentz said of Jones: "You see times on film where it's not natural yet (for Jones), but he will (get there). He's got a great attitude. He kills the out-of-season program. Everything he does, he's a guy who is always out front working and pushing."
On the defensive side, one of the to storylines to watch is the return of cornerback Jermari Harris. The junior had a promising 2021 and was slated to be a key contributor in 2022, but a serious injury sidelined him for the entire season. By all accounts he's a full-go this spring and is also stepping into a leadership role.
"Expectations are high (for Harris)," Ferentz said. "Obviously any time a guy is hurt, misses time, you worry about how they're going to come back. It's going really well for him. He's doing great ... all the way through (the process) he's been invested, he's been a great teammate on the field, totally involved. He's been helping lead. You talk about the leadership void, he's going to be one of those guys. He is out in front. Not he will be, he is. Totally invested."
Additionally in the secondary, a trio of second-year players in Koen Entringer (free safety), TJ Hall and Deshaun Lee (cornerbacks) are listed as backups on the spring depth chart. Ferentz noted that Entringer could've played in Iowa's bowl game but was injured in December. All three players have a chance to make an impression this spring.
At linebacker, one player who has "really ascended" in Ferentz's mind is senior Kyler Fisher.
"This spring will be really important for them," Ferentz said.