IOWA CITY — Wednesday was the first day since late November that Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was able to see his team in gear.
The questions are obvious and many. Ferentz, the dean of Big Ten coaches who begins his 15th season at Iowa, knows what needs to happen. The who and how and when are still very, very fuzzy coming out of the 4-8 fog that Iowa ended up in last year.
“We got going in November after the last ball game, you flip the calendar, it’s a new year, a new opportunity,” Ferentz said. “That’s how we’re looking at it. I don’t think it’s anything magical that’s going to take us to where we want to go. It’s just a matter of doing the work that you have to do and doing it better and, obviously, the end result is playing better on Saturdays.”
It starts at quarterback, with a wide-open three-way race ahead. Iowa has three running backs who have played, but it’s still Iowa running back and, as you know, the Hawkeyes will need at least three. Wide receiver is very new and inexperienced after junior Kevonte Martin-Manley.
The defense needs a pass rush (the Hawkeyes were 115th in the country with 13 sacks last season). It wouldn’t cure everything, but it would keep opposing QBs from picking apart Iowa’s secondary, which was shaky at safety and will break in a new corner this year, and probably help get the defense off the field faster (in November, Iowa’s defense allowed opponents to convert 49.15 percent of third downs).
Logically, a 4-8 team comes with a lot of questions. (The ’13 Hawkeyes also come with three new coaches — linebackers coach Jim Reid, wide receivers coach Bobby Kennedy and running backs/special teams coordinator Chris White.
If the Hawkeyes opened the season tomorrow, sophomore Jake Rudock would be the quarterback. The 6-3, 205-pounder hasn’t won anything. He was the No. 2 last season and so he has the most experience running Iowa’s offense, which goes into its second season under coordinator Greg Davis.
Rudock will be joined in the race by junior Cody Sokol, who redshirted last season after transferring from Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College, and redshirt freshman C.J. Beathard. Iowa hasn’t had a three-man competition at QB since 2001 (Kyle McCann, Brad Banks and Jon Beutjer).
“My guess is this will probably be longer than shorter [the competition],” Ferentz said. “It’s not often where this happens, but we’re going in really with a truly open mind. It’s not like there’s an incumbent there. I don’t think anybody has a clear advantage or edge.”
The running back competition promises to be just as robust. Junior Mark Weisman, a 235-pound revelation and Iowa’s leading rusher (815 yards and eight TDs), returns along with junior Damon Bullock (513 yards, three TDs) and sophomore Jordan Canzeri, who sat out 2012 with a torn ACL.
“Who knows what’s going to happen?” Ferentz said with a laugh. “The big thing we’re looking for is improvement on all three guys. All three guy shave things they can work on.”
The depth chart Iowa released Wednesday didn’t include a fullback. Ferentz said the fullback won’t go away, but the position does need development. Instead, a Y-back position showed up, which is essentially a second tight end that functions as a TE, fullback and wide receiver. Sophomores Jake Duzey and Henry Kreiger Coble were listed there.
After Martin-Manley’s 52 receptions, Iowa’s next leading wide receiver from last season is senior Jordan Cotton’s 12. Iowa signed five wide receivers, but Ferentz isn’t counting on major contributions from any of them.
The focus for the offense is explosive plays, from wherever. Last season, the Hawkeyes ranked No. 118 in the nation in plays from scrimmage of 10-yards or more with 132. Iowa was No. 118 in plays of 20-plus yards with 38, No. 101 in 30-plus plays, No. 120 in 40-plus, No. 120 in 50-plus (one play of 50-plus) and then zeroes on in 60-, 70-, 80-, 90-plus.
“It’s tough to be perfect for 12, 14 plays in a row,” Ferentz said. “You want to try to do that four times a game? That’s hard. So, somehow, some way, you have to come up with some bigger plays. Part of that is just experience. Part of that is us doing a better job helping create those things. You have to do that.”
Defensively, Ferentz acknowledged the lack of pass rush, saying “at some point somebody has got to get there” when asked about the possibility of blitzing.
Other notables on the defensive list that Ferentz would like to check off include tackling, giving up big plays in the clutch and third downs.
Ferentz had a sound and simple solution that could resonate through the entire football complex, which will be replaced next season.
“In all three phases you have to rise to the occasion,” Ferentz said. “At some point, you need to make a play — offensively, defensively, special teams. That’s football. We didn’t do a good job of that as a team, so those are things we’re going to have to do if we’re going to move forward.”