IOWA CITY — Kirk Ferentz goes into Saturday’s game with a new offensive coordinator for the first time since ever.
Two things are clear since Greg Davis was hired in February to replace Ken O’Keefe, who jumped to the Miami Dolphins after 13 seasons as Ferentz’s only offensive coordinator at Iowa. 1) Iowa’s running game likely will continue to be defined by the zone blocking schemes that Ferentz has used and first-year offensive line coach Brian Ferentz knows so well. 2) Iowa’s passing game will be Davis’ and it will be different.
Football is more transparent as it’s ever been, but coaches still aren’t going to throw their arms around everyone and talk a lot of strategy.
One change the players have been open about is the options wide receivers will have on any given route. It’s as much about thinking as it is running.
“They have to be able to think on the run,” quarterback James Vandenberg said. “They’ve got to read the defense. They have more on their plate. They can do more with their routes than maybe in our past offense.”
It’s not always the route, what a receiver decides to do can depend on the hot reads and sights (blitz beaters), Vandenberg said. If a defender blitzes, a receiver might have a stop route (receiver stops and faces the quarterback). If another defender blitzes, the called route could come into play. Or Vandenberg can show a signal that’ll tell the wide receiver either/or.
“It’s basically reading the defense a lot of the times,” sophomore Kevonte Martin-Manley said. “It depends on what they give you. You can change off of that. As receivers, we like that because it gives you more freedom. It allows you to get open easier.”
This was an element in Ken O’Keefe’s offense. It’s explored a more with Davis, who was at Texas for 13 seasons before resigning and sitting out the 2011 season.
“Love it. Love it,” senior wide receiver Keenan Davis said. “You’re taking what they’re [the defense] giving you. We did that last year, it’s just this year, we see this and we’re going to take it. It’s really working every bit of technique that you have.”
Davis missed one such opportunity that would’ve gone for a touchdown in the Aug. 11 scrimmage at Kinnick Stadium. Vandenberg threw into an open space that Davis didn’t see. This drew a flash of anger out of Greg Davis. The mantra is those chances don’t come around often and you can’t miss on them when they present themselves.
“It’s taking your time and reading what you have and being able to communicate and be on the same page as James,” said Davis, Iowa’s returning leading receiver with 50 catches for 713 yards and four TDs. “That’s probably the biggest difference. We’re all the same page. We’re all thinking the same thing. We’re all reading the same thing.”
Vandenberg praised freshmen receivers Jacob Hillyer and Reese Fleming for catching on.
“It’s kind of been a rotating circuit in there with the Nos. 1 and 2s,” Vandenberg said. “I think all of us are comfortable popping any of those faces in there.”
Kirk Ferentz said six receivers will play against Northern Illinois (0-0) Saturday at Solider Field. Davis and Martin-Manley are in. Hillyer is in, as a redshirt freshman. Fleming has a good shot, as a true freshman. Senior Steve Staggs is in. Juniors Don Shumpert and Jordan Cotton — named the fastest wide receivers by Martin-Manley — should help.
Ferentz also mentioned that four tight ends — C.J. Fiedorowicz, Zach Derby, Ray Hamilton and Jake Duzey — also will play. Throw in the fact that every time someone on Iowa’s coaching staff mentions starting running back Damon Bullock they quickly bring up his receiving skills.
“We feel comfortable getting into a two tight ends set, we feel comfortable getting into a four wide receiver set,” Vandenberg said. “That makes my job a lot easier and I think it makes it so we can call plays out of different formations and not worry that Derby, Duzey and Hamilton are in there.”
Also, the message here is that if you want to be the go-to receiver, you’re going to have to go out and get it.
“We’re in competition with the whole team for touches if you think about it,” said Martin-Manley, who caught 30 passes for 323 yards and three TDs last season. “Whoever is producing is going to get the ball more. That’s a competition in itself.”
Yes, there is competition for targets from Vandenberg. Six wide receivers, four tight ends and five running backs and fullbacks are all in that pool.
“We’re probably going to make bets and stuff, stupid stuff like that, just to get us competing and playing a little harder,” Keenan Davis said. “That’s always the fun part.”