- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Iowa fans, know this: Greg Davis felt your pain about last year's offense.
"It obviously wasn't the season we wanted, and it was frustrating for all of us," the second-year Hawkeyes offensive coordinator told ESPN.com. "It was frustrating for me."
Iowa finished 11th in the Big Ten in scoring in 2012 and averaged just 16.7 points in the final six games of a dismal 4-8 season. So Davis, along with head coach Kirk Ferentz and the rest of the offensive staff, set about trying to fix things this offseason. The problems weren't hard to pinpoint when they gathered together to go over what went wrong.
"Everybody came in with a list of things that was pretty similar," Davis said. "There were a lot of things that were on everybody's sheet."
The lack of a downfield passing game checked in very high on that list. One of the indelible images of the Hawkeyes' season was watching quarterback James Vandenberg throw horizontal passes to receivers well short of the first-down marker.
Davis wants to use the vertical passing game a lot more this year, but that is easier said than accomplished.
"We had to look at, how do we get the ball deep?" he said. "We're not all of a sudden going to have Jerry Rice and John Taylor on the outside."
The Hawkeyes' lack of playmakers at receiver became painfully obvious last season. Though Davis likes the progress of slot receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley and the speed of Jordan Cotton and Don Shumpert, Iowa still looks a little athletically challenged on the perimeter.
So Davis' plan is to use one of the team's main strengths -- its running game -- to shore up a weakness.
"Because of our ability to run the ball, we've really worked hard on play-action shots," he said. "Hopefully, many of our big plays will come off play-action."
With the healthy return of Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal, Davis thinks the offensive line will perform like a typical group of Iowa mashers up front. The Hawkeyes -- dare we tempt fate by saying it -- are now flush with running backs, led by bulldozer Mark Weisman and the speedier Damon Bullock. Building pass plays out of run looks should both improve the protection for the quarterback and give receivers more time to get 15 yards or so downfield and read the defense.
"There's more of a threat all around," running back Jordan Canzeri said. "We have some new plays where we're taking more shots downfield, different routes."
Davis also wants the offense to simply have more opportunities, period. Iowa averaged only 66 offensive snaps per game last year, running the fewest plays in the Big Ten. Part of that, of course, is converting third downs and staying on the field. But Davis also hopes to incorporate more no-huddle, which the Hawkeyes used in stretches last year.
"We want to play faster, we want to get more snaps and we want to stress the defense more," Davis said. "We do so much at the line of scrimmage anyway, so why huddle?"
That doesn't mean that Iowa is about to become a spread team by any means. But having both Bullock and Weisman, who were almost never healthy at the same time last year, adds more options. Weisman can line up as the fullback in the I-formation, or the Hawkeyes can use him as a single back with Bullock splitting out as a receiver. If they do that without huddling, that should create some favorable matchups against defenses.
Of course, first and foremost, the Hawkeyes need to identify a starting quarterback, and they're not much closer to doing so with spring practice set to end Saturday. Davis said the three contenders for the job -- Jake Rudock, Cody Sokol and C.J. Beathard -- are still "too close to call."
"They've all done some things where you say, 'Wow, this is really pretty good,'" he said. "They've also all done some things where you say, 'Wow, this is really not very good.' I'm pretty sure won't know until [preseason] camp."
Throughout the spring, Iowa has rotated the three quarterbacks every two plays. Last Saturday, for the first time, each was given a chance to lead a drive until its completion during team drills. Yet, there's still not much separation.
Davis said it reminded him a little of when he was at Texas and the quarterback race was so close that the Longhorns began the season alternating freshmen Colt McCoy and Jevan Snead. McCoy didn't show he was the guy until he actually had to make plays with defenders chasing him and without the comfort of a no-contact jersey.
Iowa fans -- and Davis -- just hope that whoever starts ends up running an offense that makes many more plays than last year.
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