Shooting for greater than eight in '14

From QB to special teams, where Iowa might look to build in '14

Published: January 2 2014 | 12:01 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 1:32 am in

TAMPA, Fla. -- When it was over, Kirk Ferentz wasn't finished.

The final seconds ticked off on the Hawkeyes during their 21-14 Outback Bowl defeat to No. 14 Louisiana State at Raymond James Stadium on Wednesday. The Iowa contingent gathered and jogged up the tunnel and into 2014.

Before they all disappeared under the awning, Ferentz and special teams coach Chris White had a conversation with gestures going. The Hawkeyes were somewhat jumbled on a punt return with eight seconds remaining. They were hit with a substitution penalty while the clock ran down and Iowa flailed through a lateral attempt.

Ferentz still had 2013 by the lapels. Who's ready for 2014?

"We'll worry about that tomorrow," Ferentz said when asked about building on Iowa's 8-5 finish. "Today is the day for this group. All I can say is this group, especially our older guys, they showed the younger guys how to work, how to act, how to think. I just hope everybody's paying attention."

Today is tomorrow, and so let's do this. Let's spitball five ideas that will help the Hawkeyes build on an 8-5 season that probably, at least in the short term, won't be fully appreciated until a few years down the road. The Hawkeyes, after all, came off that dreadful 4-8 in 2012.

1. Getting more/helping out of quarterback

Jake Rudock will go into his junior year with eight wins on his resume and C.J. Beathard looking over his shoulder.

That perhaps was the one bit of news coming out of Wednesday's postgame. Beathard, who finished the Outback after Rudock re-aggravated his sprained left knee late in the third quarter, said he's ready to compete.

"From what I hear it is," said Beathard, when asked about the prospect of an open QB competition this spring. "We'll see."

Rudock, who finished the season with 18 TD passes and 13 interceptions, faced a competition in August and is cool if it plays out that way. He has a list of things, beyond getting both knees (remember he sprained both) healthy, that he wants to get to work on.

"Obviously turnovers, that's a big thing," Rudock said. "That stuff you want to clean up. Quick decision-making. A better understanding of what the defense is trying to do. Little things that could help elevate the game."

The "getting more/helping out" also comes outside of the QB position. When Ferentz was asked by an ESPN reporter at halftime what Iowa needed to do to generate more offense, Ferentz replied "We have to be who we are."

LSU muscled Iowa out of its skin Wednesday. The inside zone run, a staple in Iowa's offense, wasn't there consistently. Rudock was asked to carry the play more with his arm. That was less consistent for a myriad of reasons from the rainy weather to LSU's terrific coverage.

Don't ask where Iowa's offense can change, wonder about where Iowa's offense can grow or improve. That'll help Rudock, probably Rudock, produce.

2. Growing a pass rush

Iowa had four sacks against LSU. Three came from linebackers and one from a senior defensive end. They will all be gone in 2014.

The Hawkeyes finished with 24 sacks this season. Just 9.5 of those were from returning players. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker went to work with blitz packages last offseason. He found something called the "raider" formation, which rushed three to five from a standup position. It was flexible and unpredictable.

No, you can't get too hung up on sacks. You saw how LSU flashed a ton of color in the pocket when Rudock dropped back. You know Ferentz and Parker would be a lot more comfortable with the rush coming from the front four. That'll be a work in progress.

3. Next at linebacker

Brace yourselves for the possibility of a rebuild here. Iowa's trio of senior linebackers James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey combined for -- take a deep breath -- 35.5 tackles for loss, 11 sacks, 13 QB hurries, six interceptions and six forced fumbles.

Senior Quinton Alston is set to takeover the middle linebacker spot, with sophomore Reggie Spearman on the weakside and junior Travis Perry at outside linebacker. They have their work cut out for them. This is going to take some time and patience, but Iowa does return four starters on the D-line. It all starts up front, sure, but Parker really maximized the talents of Morris, Hitchens and Kirksey.

Set expectations for Alston, Spearman and Perry at "one career start, chill out."

4. Running back order

Offensive coordinator Greg Davis said this week that the Hawkeyes probably should've gotten to junior Jordan Canzeri a little quicker this season. If you run the numbers, yeah, you can see that.

Senior Mark Weisman finished as Iowa's leading rusher with 975 yards on 227 carries. He's likely the "20-carry" back in '14, at least it sets up that way. Weisman was Iowa's most productive back, but Canzeri was the most explosive. He finished with 481 yards on 74 carries. That's 14 more yards than No. 2 back senior Damon Bullock on 14 fewer carries.

Iowa was built for the power run game this season, with tight splits on the O-line and stretch plays to the weakside of the field, where space is made more than sprinted into. At 236 pounds, that's what Weisman is built for. Canzeri fights to stay around 190, but his production -- 6.5 yards a carry -- has to be something worth mining.

Iowa's offense made strides in the "explosive plays" department, but it's not where it needs to be.

5. Special teams consistency

And full circle. The season ended with the head coach and special teams coordinator discussing a jumbled substitution on the final play of the season.

The Hawkeyes' special teams have been run the gamut of maladies this season, from the fake punts to the onside kicks to the inconsistent kick coverage. It settled and then it warped. Wednesday, Iowa run a fake punt that came up short on a fourth down and tried an onside kick that LSU easily recovered. It had punter Connor Kornbrath, who's had a quietly effective season, shank a 27-yarder. Kicker Mike Meyer missed a 35-yard field goal. And then Jordan Cotton returned a kick 96 yards to set up a late TD that gave Iowa a glimmer.

Special teams shouldn't feel like bungee jumping. There has to be fewer thrills in '14 for Iowa to have a chance to build on eight victories.

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