Big Ten coaches and select players from the Legends Division were on a teleconference Tuesday.
The thrust topic was a spring scrimmage between schools, a subject that Michigan coach Brady Hoke first brought up about a month ago and supported again on Tuesday. Currently, NCAA rules don’t allow such a game.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz also covered it in the nearly 10 minutes he spent speaking. Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg also was interviewed. He gave a little insight to some of the changes Iowa might be looking at next fall under first-year offensive coordinator Greg Davis.
(I’ll post and then keep adding. When I’m finished, I delete the “updating” from above.)
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz
Opening: It’s been good to get started, certainly. To make a little bit of a correction, we don’t technically stop this Saturday. It is our spring scrimmage and what have you, but we actually have three more workouts afterward. We’re just a little over halfway. We finished up our eighth practice on Saturday. The reason we’re doing it this coming week is we have Olympic wrestling trials coming up on the 21st. It’s just going to be mayhem in the parking lots. I think they’re expecting 16,000, 17,000 people for wrestling. So, we decided to make this our final scrimmage for the public, at least.
The team has been working hard. We have some system changes, some staff changes and reassignments, things like that. We have a lot of new elements to the program right now and I think that’s made it that much more interesting for everybody. Overall, we have a pretty young team that’s relatively inexperienced, but the guys are working hard. We’re getting some good quality work in so far. Attitudes, I think, have been very, very good. Overall, I’m really pleased with things. We still have a long road ahead of us right now. It’s good to be in the middle of things.
MSU coach Mark Dantonio has mentioned scrimmaging other teams in the spring. I’d like your thoughts on that, please.
It’s certainly something to contemplate. I think we’d be open to it. It’s a little bit of a logistic issue, but I think it would be something that would garner interest, certainly, from a lot of people. Certainly, the fan base would be excited about it. I’ve heard that proposal, but I’ve always heard people talk about eliminating spring ball and having a six-week preseason kind of like the NFL and integrating scrimmages in there. We’ll see what happens.
Your program has sent quite a few to the next level, the NFL, the last couple of years and it looks like you’re going to get a first-round pick again this year. I’m just wondering with your background as a line coach, what are the biggest qualities you’re looking for when you’re recruiting offensive linemen.
The first two things that come to mind are guys who have a lot of pride, who take pride in their performance. I think that’s true of any good player, not just offensive linemen. A real strong work ethic is real important. We’ve had our share of success, I guess. Bryan Bulaga was probably the furthest along when he got here. He was really a unique story in that he started quite a few games as a true freshman here and was a first-round draft pick after playing three years of college football. In fact, he started for the Packers in their Super Bowl championship game. That would’ve been his fourth year in college. That’s really an exceptional story. But more typically, you look at a guy like Robert Gallery who came here as a 235- or 240-pound tight end and really had to work hard to become a good lineman. Eric Steinbach was the same story. Then, more recently, Riley Reiff came here as a defensive lineman and I think he weighed about 245 when he got here. He’s getting a lot of attention right now, but maybe more representative is Markus Zusevics and Adam Gettis. I expect both those guys to get drafted. They maybe weighed 220 or 230 in high school. They’re guys who worked hard and after three years gave themselves a chance to compete in our conference.
There are a lot of different roads to get there, but I think the biggest thing is you’ve got to have requisite ability, certainly, and then the biggest thing is a really strong work ethic and guy who take pride in their performance.
The trend in the NFL seems to be away from the traditional tailback/running back. Is this or has this trickled down to the college level? And what’s it going to look like when that happens, if it happens? — The position itself, it’s not passing efficiency, short passing game and passing game. Do you see apples and oranges or no?
I think the pro game has changed a little bit in the last decade or so. Just look at last year, some of the passing records that were set. There are some really good throwers out there. I think there’s still a place, obviously, for a good running back, if you’ve got one and that’s a real luxury item. The Tennessee Titans come to mind there. If you’ve got an exceptional back, I think most coaches, most offensive-minded coaches are going to feature their players. If you’ve got a quarterback like Brady or Rodgers or Peyton Manning, certainly you’re going to do what they do best. Those guys are exceptional. You don’t get an opportunity to coach guys like that too many times in your career. You’ll lean toward their strengths and then it depends on how your team is built. Baltimore still uses a running back pretty effectively. If you have a guy who’s a power runner, you’re going to try to build attack that way. If you have a guy who’s versatile and who can do things out of the backfield or the wide position, you just kind of tailor. That’s what good coaching is, you making your system for the players you have. In college, if you can recruit toward a certain direction, obviously that’s a good thing. In our case, we’ve had all kinds of running backs here in the last decade. We’ve had a big, strong power running in Shonn Greene, who won the Doak Walker. We had a guy Freddy Russell, who was probably the smallest back that we had. He was really productive in 2002, 2003. I think it just depends on the players you have and you just try to accentuate their strengths.
With the changes you’ve had on your coaching staff, are you spending more time coaching coaches this spring or coaching players?
It was an unusual year for us. We’ve been so fortunate for 13 years to have the same coordinators. I can’t say enough about the job that both Norm Parker and Ken O’Keefe did. Both are exceptional people, exceptional coaches. They were here through the 1-10 and they were here through the 11-1s, too, so they were really a huge part of any success that we had. That being said, I think the transition is going really well.
On the defensive side, moving Phil Parker up and then sliding guys around a little bit. They’ve really done a great job. For the most part, we’re doing things similarly to what we’ve been doing, so that’s not huge. At the same time, you don’t want to minimize any changes.
On offense, just feel so fortunate to get Greg Davis here. I heard nothing but great things about him through the research phase of things. Obviously, very impressed with him during the interview and now having him on campus the last few months, just couldn’t be more pleased. He’s been a great fit with our staff and with our players. After having been around him for two months, I can really understand that people I respect so much have had such great things to say about him. It’s been good. The more dramatic change has been on the offensive side, just with the terminology and nomenclature. There has been a lot of learning. I went through this a little bit in the NFL. Players tend to learn more quickly than a lot of coaches. That certainly has been the case here as well.
It’s early, but could you handicap how the Legends Division is shaping up for this season?
(Laughs). I have no idea. Are we in the Legends? I guess we are, right? I’m assuming we are? That’s so far out of my mind right now. I think all of us are more worried about what’s in front of us. We’ve got seven more days with our football team here. We’re just trying to maximize everyday, it’s such a critical time. I’ll predict this, there will be a lot of great teams in our league next year, both Legends and Leaders. It’s been extremely competitive the last 13 years, I expect it to stay that way moving forward, too. With Nebraska coming into the conference, I think that makes the level of difficulty that much higher. I think that’s what’s great about our conference every year. There are going to be teams that are good and there are going to be teams that rise up and really do a great job. That’s what makes it so exciting and fun to be a part of.
Quarterback James Vandenberg
Opener: Spring ball has been going well. We’re in our fourth week now. It seems like it’s flown by faster this year than it has any other year before. Learning a new offense has a lot of people on our team excited. We’ve had eight good practices so far and look forward to finishing off the spring right.
Question about Michigan State defense (I was going to skip, but I’ll throw it in).
I thought they were a very well rounded defense and they tackled very well. The thing that sticks out most is they covered us very well, made it hard for us to take anything that was easy. They didn’t let us get our running game going to where it was consistent enough to make them honor it. Very well rounded defense, tackled well. I remember a lot of team speed out there. They rallied to the ball quick and they covered our guys well.
When people watch Iowa’s offense this year, what will be the most apparent change from last year to this year?
I think obviously having a new playcaller, you’re going to have some different tendencies, maybe what he likes on third down compared to what coach O’Keefe liked or on first down calls. We know we still want to be balanced running and throwing the ball. Our pass game has probably expanded a little bit, hopefully that’ll help us out on the third-down situations.
The week-to-week inconsistencies that you guys had, one week you were really cooking and then the next week it was a struggle, was that a puzzle to you guys all the way through and is there a way to fix that?
I think that’s something we noticed as well going through the season. We knew we could play good football and we didn’t do it consistently enough. I think that started with road games. That was something we struggled with. It was something we’re working on this spring and this fall. We know it’s something that has to change. You can’t be a good team in this conference without winning on the road. That will be a heavy focus. Playing on the road isn’t that much different, you just have to be able to concentrate a little more and that was something we weren’t able to do very well last year.
Can you compare the speed of the offense, getting things in and the pace, to last year’s?
I think that’s something that coach Davis definitely has. He comes from a system that’s kind of done it all and in recent years has really been an uptempo almost predominately no-huddle offense, so that’s something that we’re experimenting with and something we want to be able to do if need be. That’s something that’s probably one of the harder things to learn right away, learning a new offense, going at that pace, with all the new lingo. It’s something that we’ve been working on and it’s something we want to do proficiently in the fall.
You lose Marvin McNutt, who put up impressive numbers last year, talk about some of the wide receivers coming back.
We have several guys returning who have experience, starting with Keenan Davis. He’s a really big target, actually he’s very similar to Marv. Obviously, his role is going to expand a lot now that Marv is gone. Kevonte Martin-Manley is a young guy who did a really nice job for us. He got his feet wet for the first time and did pretty well. A lot is expected from him this year as well. To go with them, I think we have a very talented group of tight ends. We’ve got some young guys, but we have some guys who’ve been around as well with C.J. Fiedorowicz and Zach Derby and some young guys to go in the mix. We’ve got a good plethora of people who can catch the ball and they’ve been doing very well this spring.
Are there some guys you can mention who really stood out that people are going to want to pay attention to on Saturday?
I think just that tight end group as a whole has done really well for us this spring. I think they’ve come a long way, starting with the veterans, C.J. and Zach, who’ve played some valuable minutes for us. Some young guys like Ray Hamilton, Jake Duzey and Henry Krieger-Coble, they’ve all been catching the ball well and they’ve all really been expanding what we can do at the tight end position. I think that’s something that’s been a positive for us this spring.
How is the tight end position going to be used under the new offensive coordinator? Same way it always has been or split out more?
I don’t think it’s going to be that much different. It’s a personnel group of ours we know we need to get the ball to. They do a good job of catching the ball, they’re all big bodies who can get space. As long as they keep catching it, we’ll keep throwing it to them.
What’s it like going up against a talented secondary every day?
Those guys are what make practice enjoyable and difficult at the same time. Those guys (Micah Hyde and Tanner Miller) are experienced. Micah has been out there forever; Tanner as well. They both make it difficult, especially for young receivers. It’s a great test for them when they get in there against the 1s with Tanner and Micah. They’ve made it hard on the offense and they’ve brought along a lot of those young DBs as well.