First in a series of Big Ten West previews
IOWA CITY — Kirk Ferentz became the nation’s longest-tenured coach this offseason.
That hardly meant that the Iowa Hawkeyes have become complacent.
Despite a 20-7 mark over the past two seasons — including a 14-4 record in Big Ten games — Iowa’s offense was trending in the wrong direction. The Hawkeyes cleaned house after scoring just three points in a blowout bowl loss to Florida, promoting Ferentz’s son, former New England Patriots assistant Brian, to offensive coordinator.
“I’m all about stability. I think that’s a really important thing. But a little spice in the recipe doesn’t hurt things,” Kirk Ferentz said. “We had some things on our board that, boy, we better get better at these or we’re going to pay for it moving forward.”
Brian Ferentz and his new staff should be able to lean on a stout running game led by a veteran line and senior running backs Akrum Wadley and James Butler, a transfer from Nevada.
Iowa will likely be strong defensively, but it is unsettled at quarterback and at wide receiver after finishing last season with one of the nation’s weakest passing attacks.
Some of the keys as Ferentz, now the country’s leader in seniority following Bob Stoops’ retirement, prepares for his 19th season as head coach of the Hawkeyes:
It’s been years since the Hawkeyes went into preseason practices with such a lack of clarity at the game’s most important position.
Sophomore Nate Stanley so impressed the coaching staff in fall camp last year that they burned his redshirt and made him C.J. Beathard’s backup. But Stanley couldn’t separate himself from junior Tyler Wiegers in the spring, and the two opened August workouts splitting snaps with the first unit. The competition for the starting job could stretch into Iowa’s opener on Sept. 2 against Wyoming.
“I think history has proven you can be successful and have a successful team with a new quarterback taking snaps. So that’s how we’re looking at this whole thing,” Kirk Ferentz said.
“It’s gone back and forth a little bit. Both guys have done some good things, and both guys have done some things that they’d like to change, take back. That’s what you’d expect. They’re both gaining ground.”
Whoever wins the job will be throwing to a group of inexperienced receivers alongside standout Matt VandeBerg, who redshirted in 2016 after injuring his foot.
Iowa brought in a rare junior-college transfer in wide receiver Nick Easley, who quickly shot up a depleted depth chart. Easley earned a starting spot entering the fall, and Iowa will likely give youngsters such as Devonte Young, Adrian Falconer and Max Cooper a shot at playing time.
NEW FACES ON D
Replacing Desmond King, arguably the best cornerback in school history, won’t be easy. But sophomore Manny Rugamba was brilliant in last season’s upset of unbeaten Michigan and is expected to play a much bigger role in 2017. The Hawkeyes are loaded up front, led by potential All-American Josey Jewell at linebacker, and five-star freshman A.J. Espenesa might provide immediate help at both defensive end and tackle.
Iowa has often been chided for its schedule. This season, the opener comes against a Wyoming team that won eight games last season. The Hawkeyes also host Penn State and Ohio State, and travel to rival Iowa State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska.
Iowa’s season hinges on its passing game. If the Hawkeyes can find a quarterback and some receivers emerge to take pressure off of VandeBerg, they could win eight or nine games and perhaps even push for the West Division title. Though that doesn’t seem likely, the Hawkeyes tend to have their best seasons when they’re overlooked.