Kirk Ferentz, the Iowa head coach since 1999, is still conservative to a fault. He still vigorously chews gum on the sidelines. He still furiously scribbles in-game notes. He still wants to establish the running game in order to set up the passing game. He still considers turnovers to be the ultimate sin. He still believes the zone running concept is gospel. So what makes this new Kirk Ferentz any different than the old one?
Many football fans who haven’t regularly followed the Hawkeyes, and even some who have, don’t see a difference. But for Hawkeyes fans, the difference is there, and subtle though it is, it is considerable.
First, a bit about the foundation of Kirk Ferentz.
His background is with the offensive line. He began as a graduate assistant offensive line coach under Jackie Sherrill at the University of Pittsburgh. In 1981, Hayden Fry hired him as the offensive line coach for the University of Iowa, which is where he stayed until 1989. Between 1990-1992, he was the head coach at the University of Maine, after which he moved to the pros as the offensive line coach under Bill Belichick. In 1999, Hayden Fry stepped down, Ferentz was hired as the Hawkeyes head coach, and he has been in Iowa City ever since.
There are two key elements to take out of Ferentz’s mini-coaching biography. First of all, he is a part of both the Hayden Fry coaching tree and the Bill Belichick coaching tree, and elements of both inform his coaching identity (though Ferentz considers former Pitt and Notre Dame coach Joe Moore to be his mentor).
Secondly, he has never been a coordinator and this element of his background highly informs his coaching. He never called plays, and he still doesn’t call plays. His style, as a head coach, is that of a delegator, a coach of coaches. His coaches and coordinators get their instructions, and it is their job to put their players in the position to make plays. His offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator may be limited by the head coach, but they are definitively the ones who call the plays. The only position group that gets immediate, hands-on feedback from Ferentz is the offensive line (specifically the tackles), which, again, is his baby.
Speaking of offensive line, Ferentz is a zone blocking disciple. For a breakdown of how zone blocking works, see BehindtheSteelCurtain. Under Ferentz, the identity of Iowa football begins with the zone run, and every element of the offense grows off of that.
That is the base Ferentz. It was true in 1999, and it is true now.
In order to understand what’s changed, or what makes up the “new” Kirk Ferentz, we have to go back to 2009. In 2009, the Hawkeyes went 10-2. Iowa owned Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl and the roster was littered with NFL talent. However, despite the NFL talent, that team needed a lot of luck to win games against decidedly inferior teams. I don’t mean “lucky” like a call here or there. I mean really fluky luck like a pinball interception against a team incapable of playing defense or two blocked field goals against an FCS squad. That 10-2 team could just as easily have been 7-5. Or 12-0 for that matter.
In 2010, despite having just as much NFL talent as the previous year and a ton of positive momentum and positive press, the Hawkeyes fell flat, finishing the regular season at 7-5. That included four losses by a touchdown or less, and four losses that came with Iowa holding a lead going into the fourth quarter.
At that time, both offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe and defensive coordinator Norm Parker had been with Ferentz since he started at Iowa. Furthermore, the majority of the staff had remained intact over the duration of Ferentz’s tenure.
The 2010 season also included the first in a series of fake punts that occurred between 2010-2014 that Iowa consistently fell prey to. It could be argued that this play signaled the ascendancy of the Wisconsin Badgers and the decline of the Hawkeyes, at least for the next five years.
You can almost hear Melvin Gordon flipping his commitment.
Following 2010, the Iowa fanbase was unhappy with Ferentz. The feeling was that his coaching led to a lot of fourth-quarter self destruction that could have been prevented, whether it was fake punts, failing to put the game away when the opportunity presented itself (Northwestern), letting a quarterback scramble out of a 4th quarter 4th-and-10 (Ohio State) or just not showing up (Minnesota). In other words, when the luck wasn’t there as it was in 2009, then what?
2011 didn’t see much of a change, but in 2012, the sea change began.
It started with the retirement of DC Norm Parker. Shortly after that, OC Ken O’Keefe left for the NFL (as a position coach). This was followed by the departures of the defensive line coach, the wide receivers coach and the running backs coach. Defensive backs coach Phil Parker was promoted to DC and Ferentz disappointed much of the fanbase by hiring former Texas OC Greg Davis to replace O’Keefe. Davis brought a new offensive scheme with him and 2012 was...let’s call it a transitional year. Iowa went 4-8, mostly due to an inept and confused offense, and Ferentz’s seat began to get hot.
2013 saw more assistant coaching changes. Despite nepotism concerns, Brian Ferentz became the OL coach, coming from the New England Patriots where he was the tight ends coach for a couple of seasons. Bobby Kennedy, who worked with Davis in Texas, was brought in to coach WRs. And Darrell Wilson was asked to find other employment (think he ended up on some shit AAC team). Chris White replaced Lester Erb as RB and ST coach. In two seasons, the coaching staff was almost completely turned over after being being stable for a long, long time.
Along with all this, there were also small shifts in defensive and offensive schemes.
On the defensive side, Iowa was famous for its bend-don’t-break defense; however, with the influx of the spread offense and a bevy of young quarterbacks who were capable of nickel-and-diming their way down the field (looking at you, Northwestern QB cloning program), the bend-don’t-break wasn’t as successful, and it led to Iowa defenses being unable to get off the field. Moreover, the defensive line was depleted due to the coaching style of the former defensive line coach who took his...uhhhh...talents to Nebraska. Therefore, Iowa had to do something to get a pass rush going. In effect, Iowa began to institute some well-timed blitzes (pre-2013 Kirk Ferentz blitz? Unheard of), as well as what is called a Raider package which is described here by Marc Morehouse of the Cedar Rapids Gazette.
Meanwhile, the offense stopped trying to be what Greg Davis coached at Texas (Iowa didn’t and will never have the speed and talent of a Texas Longhorn team), but it began to integrate some of Davis’ passing game into Ferentz’s running scheme. The 2013 offense wasn’t a juggernaut by any means, but it improved on the previous year’s points-per-game by a full seven points. And that was with a new quarterback who had never taken a collegiate snap.
Also, it’s hard to qualify fourth-down attempts, as context plays a large part, but during the 2012 and 2013 seasons, the number of 4th-down attempts almost doubled from any season before 2010.
But the successful fake punts kept coming. And Iowa was still talent deficient when it met elite teams. And the fair catches kept coming. Or worse, the return man kept letting the ball sail and bounce for an extra 10 yards. And Ferentz continued to down the ball toward the end of the second quarter despite having time on the clock. And Iowa still couldn’t field an onside kick. And 3rd-and-8 still saw the Iowa receivers run 6-yard routes. And any team with a strong front seven could still predict Iowa’s rushing plays and swallow them up at the line of scrimmage. The feature back was still a fullback who couldn’t get to the edge. And the quarterback still seemed to fear making a mistake.
Then, in 2014, the bottom dropped out. Iowa went 7-5, which isn’t bottom-of-the-barrel awful, but it saw an empty trophy case. It saw a quarterback controversy in which Ferentz seemed to be sticking with the (less talented) upperclassman primarily due to familiarity. It saw Iowa get clobbered by rival Minnesota 51-14, and the score probably doesn’t do justice to how poorly Iowa performed. It saw Iowa give up a third quarter 24-7 lead to Nebraska, eventually losing 37-34 in overtime. Nebraska’s coach got fired after the game, despite a nine-win season and a win over Iowa. Meanwhile, Ferentz, when asked about what happened, famously replied, via the Cedar Rapids Gazette, “That’s football.”
And then, in the bowl game, Iowa got clobbered again; switched QBs like it was the first game of the season against an FCS cupcake, and this happened:
Everything between 2010-2014 may seem like prelude, but the “New” Kirk Ferentz has been a slow evolution that only culminated and began to work in 2015. Thus, 2010-2014 is the beginning of, or at least the run-up to, the “New” Kirk Ferentz.
Which brings us to 2015 and the “New” Kirk Ferentz.
The 2015 football season kicked off before the season began when Ferentz called a mid-January press conference. Other than naming the CJ Beathard as his starting quarterback, the press conference itself was uneventful. However, Ferentz acknowledged that he had “to do a better job as head coach.”
At some point during the offseason, the characteristically stoic Ferentz (remember, he’s from the Belichick coaching tree) sought the help of a public relations firm. That might have been at the insistence of the athletic director, but it also acknowledges that there was a bridge that needed mending.
2015 didn’t see any major scheme changes, and there was only one coaching change (recruiting coordinator) that had nothing to do with performance. In the offseason, the Iowa coaches visited a number of other programs, including Oregon and Arkansas, less to get a look at their schemes and more to get a look at their processes. These visits led to changes in the Iowa routine including morning, rather than afternoon, practices; and Thursdays off rather than Mondays. Small changes, but changes that, according to former Iowa running back Jordan Canzeri, seemed to work.
The new state-of-the-art Iowa practice facility went live thereby enhancing the team’s togetherness and efficiency. It also likely improved recruiting. Speaking of which, under the new recruiting coordinator, Iowa increased its recruiting net, which formerly only actively recruited the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions. Now Iowa is active in Texas, Florida and even Georgia, the latter of which Iowa has never recruited. And the results? Iowa’s 2017 class is currently ranked No. 15 in the nation by 247Sports. That’s the same Iowa that typically ranks somewhere between 40-60.
As for what Ferentz did differently on the field in 2015, again, it was subtle. Iowa was still defense-first. Ferentz still loathed turnovers. The offense still began with zone blocking. Ferentz and Iowa were still conservative.
But 2015 Iowa ran two fake field goals. Neither of them worked, and the second one, against Iowa State, was ill-advised, but they both signaled a willingness to do what it took to win. So much so, that despite coming up short, the crowd gave a standing ovation to the attempt.
Iowa went from its former punt coverage scheme to a scheme that focused on taking advantage of the NCAA rules (Ferentz formerly ran his punt coverage as if he were in the NFL which has different rules). Let me repeat that, Ferentz changed the way he viewed punting.
Iowa allowed its return man to make returns instead of running away from the ball or calling for a fair catch. The end result was the No. 2 punt return average in the conference.
Speaking of a renewed emphasis on special teams, Iowa hasn’t botched an onside kick since 2014.
Instead of sitting on the ball at the end of the half, Iowa generally went for points. That led to the Hawkeyes scoring points in the final minute of the half in seven of their 12 regular season games.
And the running game, the linchpin of Iowa football, still starts with the stretch play and zone blocking. But the focus stopped being about zone blocking at any cost and started being about moving the football on the ground at any cost. Iowa stopped being a zone-blocking team and started being a run-first team. While the base of the run game was still zone blocking, there was also power (helmet-on-helmet) blocking, counters and pin-and-pulls. There were even some zone reads out of the shotgun, though that stopped once CJ Beathard got injured.
And there was a new “run game coordinator” in the form of offensive line coach Brian Ferentz. Both Ferentz the older and younger downplay the title, but this much is certain: you have to go back to 2008 and Shonn Greene to find an Iowa run game that looked as efficient as 2015’s version. And that was without a featured back a la Shonn Greene.
Without the ‘‘new’’ Kirk Ferentz, Iowa probably tops out at 8-4 last year. CJ Beathard wouldn't have started and thus, probably would have transferred. Iowa still would have beat Wisconsin—that was an ‘‘old’’ Kirk Ferentz game if there ever was one. But Iowa State and Minnesota would have probably swung the other way. It is also possible that a loss to Iowa State might have triggered the wheels to come off. And Iowa would have definitively lost to Indiana, as that game was all about CJ Beathard and allowing Beathard to do what he does (‘‘old’’ Kirk was not much for allowing quarterbacks to make plays). As for the currently heralded 2017 recruiting class? Forget it.
In the past, Iowa under Kirk Ferentz has been famous for reaching the spotlight only to fall and fall hard. Once expectations have been placed upon Ferentz’s Hawkeyes...splat. This year, the expectations are back, and perhaps this will be the truest test of the New Kirk Ferentz. If Iowa once again crumbles under the pressure then maybe 2015 was something of a mirage, as so many critics have posited. But if Iowa can rise to the challenge, then maybe this new Kirk is more than fake kicks and a new punt coverage formation.