IOWA CITY, Iowa — Football workout photos now are a daily occurrence for the Iowa Hawkeyes’ program, and this time block is considered one of the most important 10-week stretches of the calendar year.
It’s the building period when weight gain and strength are at a premium. Offensive linemen often see a major jump when maxing out and stepping on the scale. It runs until spring break when after a week off, the program begins five weeks of practice. That makes this the perfect time to examine the program through five facts or myths.
Coaching changes are on the horizon
The only topic Iowa fans want to know about pertains to the offensive staff. Will Brian Ferentz remain as the offensive coordinator? While murky at this time, clarity could come on his status and other assistants as soon as today or perhaps later this week. According to those around him, multiple NFL teams have considered the embattled Iowa play caller for various positions.
To avoid further aggravating the critical mass of Iowa fans demanding nothing short of Ferentz’s departure, I’ll avoid balancing the ledger with his positive traits. Instead, we’ll let the stats speak for themselves. The Hawkeyes finished 100th or worse in every offensive category save for interceptions (21st), third-down interceptions (29th) and red-zone efficiency (84th). They were 123rd in scoring (17.7 points per game), 124th in rushing yards per game (94.9), 123rd in passing yards per game (156.7) and 130th of 131 teams in total offense (251.6). To go through the other categories is the equivalent of reciting the casualty report at Antietam. Just accept it for the slaughter that it is.
Every aspect ranging from recruiting to injuries to underperformance to development to inconsistency to coaching to coordination to play calling contributed to those abysmal offensive numbers. Whether or not Ferentz is the culprit, usually offensive coordinators become the scapegoat. That hasn’t happened at Iowa, and if he wasn’t the eldest son of the head coach, he probably would have moved on previously.
But it appears some staff seats are changing, and either Brian Ferentz’s duties or his position will be one of them.
Verdict: The jury is out to lunch, but it’s leaning toward fact.
Brian Ferentz has been Iowa’s offensive coordinator since 2018. (Scott Dochterman / The Athletic)
Iowa did enough to upgrade its roster through the portal
There’s no question the Hawkeyes did more than spackle over a spot or two and call it good. Picking up quarterback Cade McNamara is a program changer. I’m not predicting he will earn All-Big Ten honors, but he will upgrade that position significantly. At Michigan in 2021, McNamara completed 64 percent of his passes. An Iowa quarterback hasn’t hit 60 percent since C.J. Beathard in 2015. If McNamara can replicate that number alone, it could help the Hawkeyes score six to eight points more per game. If he could sidestep the pass rush and connect with receivers down the field, it could mean 14 points more per game.
McNamara’s former Michigan teammate, tight end Erick All, will fill in the potential drop-off from Sam LaPorta’s absence, while Charleston Southern receiver Seth Anderson could become quite the find. In addition, Division II offensive tackle Daijon Parker has the perfect build and nastiness to play the same position at Iowa. Whether he can apply the correct technique enough to become a high-level lineman is undetermined.GO DEEPERHow has Iowa fared in the portal and where do the Hawkeyes still need help?
Those additions are critical and move the offense forward. But are they enough? Probably not. The Hawkeyes could use another receiver, perhaps two more offensive linemen and a linebacker. But the difference between spring 2023 and last year is the staff knows they’re not done.
Recruiting director Tyler Barnes continues to follow athletes who could end up available in May, and there are visits taking place this weekend. The Swarm Collective president Brad Heinrichs, who frequently provides updates on an On3 message board called the Iowa Swarm Lounge, wrote Virginia linebacker Nick Jackson plans to visit Iowa this weekend. Jackson was named second-team All-ACC for two consecutive seasons and led the league with 10.4 tackles per game.
Verdict: Deliberating today but likely a fact should a transfer or two commit before summer.
Back to work. Signing off👋🏼 pic.twitter.com/LBnzxhZKZl
— Cade McNamara (@Cademac_12) January 23, 2023
No concern with in-state recruiting
The Hawkeyes dominated in-state recruiting until the most recent class. Sure, other programs have collected top prospects once in a while like linebacker T.J. Bollers (Wisconsin), tight end Eli Raridon (Notre Dame) or even last month with tackle Kadyn Proctor (Alabama), but Iowa generally took what it wanted while Iowa State grabbed those favorable to its program and the neighbors picked up the scraps. That’s no longer the case.
Iowa signed just two of the top-10 in-state players among the 247Sports Composite. The Cyclones went head-to-head with the Hawkeyes, especially in central Iowa, and won convincingly. Of the top 20 in-state prospects in the class of 2023, 10 were located in central Iowa and the Hawkeyes signed only one and added another as a priority walk-on. Iowa State inked six in that area, including three with Iowa in direct competition. That’s a humbling performance for the Hawkeyes, but the Cyclones are no longer as passive when competing against Iowa. That goes for Kansas State and Nebraska, too.
Now, is this a one-time issue? Yes and no. The Hawkeyes landed five-star safety Xavier Nwankpa in 2022 and had Proctor — Nwankpa’s five-star teammate at Southeast Polk — committed until flipping one day before signing with Alabama. Iowa accepted New Jersey quarterback Marco Lainez III’s commitment and passed on central Iowa quarterbacks J.J. Kohl (Iowa State) and Jaxon Smolik (Penn State). The Hawkeyes also have locked up four of the top five in-state players in 2024 (offensive lineman Cody Fox, linebacker Cam Buffington, linebacker Derek Weisskopf and athlete Preston Ries). But Iowa State is not going away, and the advantage Iowa once held under retired recruiting czar Reese Morgan has evaporated.
The offensive line will be better
The simple answer is yes. The obvious follow-up — how much better? — has a more complicated answer. The offensive line touched every part of Iowa’s horrific stat line last fall. The Hawkeyes started at least four underclassmen in every game and rarely were they in sync concurrently. There is some talent there, but it was too inexperienced to make strides throughout the season.
If there’s one statistic that shows how this unit has fallen since 2020 (alongside yards per carry falling from 4.6 to 2.9), it comes from quarterback pressure. Last year, Iowa allowed pressure on 37.8 percent of dropbacks, which ranked 113th nationally per TruMedia. That number was 33.1 percent in 2021 (79th), 24.4 percent in 2020 (21st) and even 28.9 percent in 2019 (46th). Perhaps a more mobile quarterback can evade the rush a bit better, but pressure doesn’t always translate into sacks. That must get cleaned up or McNamara’s addition will have a minimal effect.
Left tackle Mason Richman, left guard Connor Colby and center Logan Jones likely will make significant strides from last year. The other pieces are question marks right now.
Verdict: Fact, but it’s relative.
Iowa is the Big Ten West favorite
By default, the preseason Big Ten West conversation regularly turns into an Iowa versus Wisconsin debate. The Hawkeyes won decisively last fall 24-10 with a dominant defense, but the Badgers did the same (27-7) in 2021. Iowa returns much of its elite-level defense and plays only Penn State among the East Division heavyweights. Wisconsin revamped its offensive approach to an Air Raid under new coach Luke Fickell and added three new quarterbacks and four receivers. Wisconsin faces Ohio State at home, along with the Hawkeyes.
Considering Purdue and Illinois have lost major pieces and Nebraska is starting from scratch, it appears Iowa, Wisconsin and perhaps Minnesota are the preseason favorites. To pick one that stands out, yes, Iowa is the one. Can the Hawkeyes actually challenge the East Division champion in Indianapolis? That’s a question for a different day.
Verdict: Fact but worth re-evaluating after spring practice.
(Top photo: Scott Dochterman / The Athletic)