- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Big Ten spring football is finally in full swing as Iowa on Wednesday became the 12th and final league team to hit the practice field. The return to the gridiron can't come a moment too soon for the Hawkeyes, who went 4-8 in 2012, their worst record since coach Kirk Ferentz's second season at the helm (2000). It has been another offseason of transition for Iowa as Ferentz welcomes three new full-time assistants (Chris White, Bobby Kennedy and Jim Reid) for a second consecutive year. Finding a quarterback tops Iowa's spring agenda, and the team also needs to identify a center and more playmakers on both sides of the ball.
ESPN.com caught up with Ferentz on Wednesday to discuss the spring.
What are the main objectives for you guys this spring?
Kirk Ferentz: Like any spring, you've got a lot of players on a lot of different levels. You've got experienced players, and we're certainly counting on them improving and developing into leaders. You've got younger guys who have played, and you're hoping they're ready to play more proficiently. And then you've got other guys who, in some cases, are special-teams guys who have a chance to become offensive and defensive role players, or guys who haven't been on the field yet. So you have a lot of layers of players at different levels. The biggest thing is trying to gauge where they're at, and at the same time, you're trying to find out what they can do and pull a team together. It's always a fun period and a really interesting period.
How has the transition on the staff this year gone so far, especially in relation to last year? You had quite a long period without any changes on your staff.
KF: Last year was probably a little more dramatic with two new coordinators. Norm [Parker] and Ken [O'Keefe] were here 13 years, so they were big departures. We've got Phil [Parker] and Greg [Davis] both in their second years, and they're both tremendous coaches. What's unusual is how long we were all together at one time. Usually staffs don't stay in one place for 13, 14 years. Normally they move to the next channel and you have a new group of folks coming in. So it's a natural series of transitions. The way I look at it, we've had six new members join the staff in the last two years, and it's a matter of pulling everything together. But I'm really excited about all the guys who have joined. They're outstanding coaches, and it looks like they're all going to be great fits here at Iowa. At the same time, I'm very appreciative of the guys who had been here and helped us move things.
Is the transition harder for the players or the new coaches?
KF: There's learning on both sides. The players to have learn their coaches, certainly, and the coaches have a lot to learn about the players. That can be a healthy thing, too. It's a clean slate and a fresh beginning for everybody. For players, it's a whole new opportunity.
Offensively, it wasn't what you were hoping for last year. Is it a total reset this year with some new faces, or are there some things you can continue from last year?
KF: It may be ironic. We feel more comfortable and more optimistic right now than we did a year ago about the offense. The part that's ironic is we lost a two-year starter at quarterback [James Vandenberg]. We had James play a lot at quarterback and James Ferentz played like 38 games at center, so you have two guys right in the middle of things who aren't going to be there. But I look around at other positions and we've got a lot of guys coming back who have played in the system and who I think are more capable now of playing at a higher level than they were a year ago. That's got us excited. That being said, we've got to find replacements for both Jameses. We've got to find a replacement for Keenan Davis and Matt Tobin, to start with. But I look at the group coming back and as recent as late last August, we didn't know if Damon Bullock could play in this conference successfully, and we had no idea Mark Weisman could run the ball. So I think we're a lot further down the road than we were even eight months ago, 10 months ago.
When you and Greg looked at things, did you identify areas to target for the spring?
KF: Greg came in, this was all new to him, the players were all new to him. His knowledge of our personnel is a lot more extensive than it was a year ago at this time. And that was one of the reasons I was so attracted to Greg in the hiring process, his ability historically to work with a lot of different types of players and different types of offenses. He wasn't married to one system. There's nothing like experience, and he's got a real good grip on who our players are, what they can do and what we can do to help them be more productive.
What types of players do you have at quarterback?
KF: It's interesting. You can't really say this very often, but we all believe it's a three-way competition right now. We all feel like for the most part, everybody's got an equal chance. Jake Rudock's got the edge in terms of experience. He's run a lot more with our 2s than the other guys, so he's got that edge, which is certainly a plus for him. But we think all three guys [Rudock, Cody Sokol and C.J. Beathard] throw the ball well, we think all three of them can run it and create some plays when things break down. We're really eager and excited to watch the three of them compete this spring. It's clearly an open race right now.
Do you anticipate the race going into fall camp, and with Greg's adaptability, will he wait to shape the offense around who emerges at quarterback?
KF: I don't think they're radically different. One guy may be a little faster, the other guy might throw the deep ball a little better and that type of thing, but it's not three totally different styles. We're going to let the guys compete, and we'll start making decisions when it's appropriate to make decisions. That might be two weeks from now, it might be in September. We're just going to let it play out and see how it works.
So you don't have any firm dates of getting the pool down from three to two?
KF: No, anything can happen. The last time we were in this situation probably was 2008 where we had [Jake] Christensen and [Ricky] Stanzi, and Ricky ended up winning the job the third or fourth game into the season. I'm old enough, I go back to '87, we had Dan McGwire, who ended up being a first-round draft pick, Tom Poholsky and Chuck Hartlieb, and at the end of the spring, Chuck was clearly third. And by the third or fourth game, he was our starter, and he set a lot of records here. You just never know how it's going to unfold. As good as Chuck was as a quarterback, as well as he played and as productive as he was in his career, that wasn't apparent in the spring of '87. Things have a funny way of working out sometimes, and we're just going to keep an open mind until we have some reason to start making some determinations.
You mentioned the running backs coming back, but at receiver, who are you looking for to step up? I also see on the depth chart you have a new position at tight end?
KF: Yeah, that's really nothing new. We've played with two tight ends and one back a lot through the years. We've also played with two backs. It just depends who your backs are. Like last year, we couldn't keep Weisman and Bullock healthy at the same time, so that knocked us out of that neighborhood. But if we do have a fullback that's healthy, it could be a fullback with Weisman at running back, it could be a fullback with Weisman at fullback and Bullock at running back.
And the tight ends, we feel like we have a good young group right there with [C.J.] Fiedorowicz being a senior and a good leader. At the receiver position, Kevonte Martin-Manley's our most experienced player. We need him to play like that, and I think he will. Behind him, Jordan Cotton really had a good year on special teams. We're hoping he can use that as a springboard to being an every-down player. At the outside position, we've got Tevaun Smith and Jacob Hillyer, so those are our top four guys right now.
Offensive line, how's the health of the group, as it was an issue last year. And with the center spot, who do you expect to compete there to replace James?
KF: Needless to say, it hurt us with [Brandon] Scherff and [Andrew] Donnal getting hurt. They're both good players, and they're both healthy now and fine, so that's good news. [Brett] Van Sloten's a really good senior player for us. [Austin] Blythe got to play a lot as a first-year player last year. He got injured and kind of went back to square one but worked his way back. Conor Boffeli came in and played well the last couple games of the year. The center's probably going to come out of the group of Blythe, Boffeli or Eric Simmons, a guy we redshirted last year. All three of those guys have a realistic chance.
Looking at the defense, the linebackers jump out with their experience. What are you looking for from guys that you already know a lot about going into the spring?
KF: Well, we need all three of those guys [James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey] to lead. We need them to improve. Based on what they've done out of season, they're anxious to do that. They're three good players. We've just got to keep getting them to play fast and more efficiently. And the bad news about three seniors is we need to work like crazy to develop our younger guys. The defensive line's kind of the opposite of that. We went through a period there where we had a really exceptional group: [Adrian] Clayborn, [Karl] Klug and [Christian] Ballard, and I'd throw Mike Daniels in there, four NFL guys. You don't get that very often anywhere, I don't care where you are.
It was a little bit like '08 and '09, we had a really good, veteran offensive line, and then in 2010, we throw [Markus] Zusevics out there, we throw out Adam Gettis, and so there was a little bit of a transition there, and both those guys are on NFL rosters right now and will have good, long, healthy careers because they're good players. But they went through some growth when they got out there. That's where we are with the defensive line right now, and I'm really encouraged by that group. Their upside, we're interested to see how it goes.
Is Darian Cooper one of those guys?
KF: He played young. He really did some good things and he did some things that weren't as good. Those are things that he'll correct with experience and a little bit better technique, but he does some things that you can't coach. Louis Trinca-Pasat's not as flashy, he's out this spring [after] a surgery, but I think his best football is still ahead of him, he's got two more years. And Dom Alvis is the veteran of the group. Hopefully, we'll have him healthy and being productive as well.
In the secondary, you lose a great playmaker in Micah [Hyde]. How does that group look overall to you?
KF: We're excited. B.J. Lowery and Tanner Miller are two guys who have played a lot and can lead the way with that group. Jordan Lomax was injured last year, but he was really doing well prior to his injury. He would have played last year, I'm not saying start, but he would have played. But the good news is he gets that year back now. We think he's a good player. We have three young guys we're excited about with Sean Draper, Maurice Fleming and Kevin Buford, and at the safety position, Tanner's a veteran guy and I think Nico Law, John Lowdermilk and then two freshmen, [Ruben] Lile and [Anthony] Gair are all going to compete there. So I'm eager to see how they do.
What do you expect to learn about your team by the time you wrap up the spring?
KF: It's like any spring, you're curious to see how players have grown coming into this thing. There's no way find out until you see it on the field. College players and college teams have the potential to change dramatically from December till April, and hopefully we'll see some good things there. And then the change that they go through in 15 days. When you go through a four- or five-week block of practice, you learn more about guys that way, too. We're all excited to get on the field, and our hopes are that everybody on the roster roster is going to grow and improve and be more willing and more capable of helping the cause.