Iowa Hawkeye Football: Kirk Ferentz Could Learn a Lot from Urban Meyer
Lately, the Iowa Hawkeyes and head coach Kirk Ferentz have fallen on hard times.
Much of that has been due to an underachieving offense that finished 2012 ranked 113th in national scoring offense.
However, there is no need for Ferentz to switch to those in-vogue schemes. Iowa doesn't need a spread, hurry-up offense or a mobile quarterback to be successful.
What Ferentz needs to take from coaches like Meyer concerns his overall offensive philosophy, which breaks down the barriers between the offensive skill players. In other words, Meyer's approach, as footballtimes.org noted, features non-specialized positions where the ball is put in the playmaker's hands and said playmaker is given the opportunity to make plays.
Therefore, a receiver is as likely to take a handoff as make a reception. A running back is as likely to line up in the slot as in the backfield. A quarterback is as likely to run as to throw. Moreover, said quarterback is equally adept at both elements of the game.
This leaves an opposing defense unsure of who is a threat to do what, and it gives multiple playmakers opportunities to get on the field and make plays.
Conversely, Ferentz's offense is an offense of specialization.
His quarterbacks hand off or pass. His receivers run routes and catch the ball. His tailbacks line up in the backfield. His fullbacks block and rarely touch the ball. His tight ends are the most versatile players on the team, and they are limited.
Most importantly, all of Ferentz's skill-position players fit the exact mold of what he wants them to be.
Even when Ferentz breaks out of his specialized tendencies, the results are uncreative and usually unsuccessful. Iowa fans well remember the end-arounds that typified the latter part of the (former offensive coordinator) Ken O'Keefe years, which Iowa blog blackheartgoldpants poked fun at heading into the 2011 season.
14 years of Kirk Ferentz football has made all of this clear to Hawkeye fans, and it was fine in 2002, which was still the age of specialization, both in the college ranks and in the NFL.
Nowadays, even the NFL is leaving specialization behind.
Consider the New England Patriots, coached by Bill Belichick, who is not only Kirk Ferentz's old boss but also Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz's former chief.
As Sports Illustrated's Peter King reported, when Brian Ferentz was coaching the Pats tight ends, New England was breaking ground, finding innovative, non-specialized uses for Ferentz's proteges.
Top tight end Rob Gronkowski had an All-Pro year in 2011, recording 90 receptions for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns. He lined up in the backfield, in the slot, out wide and in the traditional tight end spot on the line. He even had one rush for two yards and a touchdown.
No. 2 tight end Aaron Hernandez had 79 catches for 910 yards and seven touchdowns. He added five rushes for 45 yards. He also lined up all over the field.
The 2011 OC for the Pats, Bill O'Brien, became the head coach of Penn State in 2012 and he brought New England's innovative schemes with him to State College.
Four different Penn State tight ends made receptions in 2012, two of them freshmen. Tight ends accounted for three of PSU's top five pass catchers. Nittany Lion tight ends made over 30 percent of the Penn State receptions, over 33 percent of the yardage and almost 42 percent of the receiving touchdowns.
Finally, as Hawkeye fans that witnessed the drubbing PSU laid on Iowa midway through the season know, the Penn State tight ends lined up all over the field and ran different types of routes, constantly exploiting mismatches.
Meanwhile, what did the team that has the former Patriot tight end coach do?
As Susan Denk of thehawkeye.com noted, it took until the final two games of the season for Iowa to show "it still [had] tight ends on its roster."
In those two games, junior tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz caught 14 passes for 155 yards. That was over 31 percent of his catches on the year and over 35 percent of his yardage. Following the Michigan game, Mike Hlas of the Cedar Rapids Gazette tweeted:
RT @tomfornelli Greg Davis just discovered CJ Fiedorowicz in practice this week.— Mike Hlas (@Hlas) November 17, 2012
This was despite OC Greg Davis singing Fiedorowicz's praises throughout the preseason, as he did in this CBS Sports article.
Along with Fiedorowicz, redshirt freshman tight end Henry Krieger Coble recorded four catches for 30 yards over the final two games—his only catches on the season.
One can deduce the reason the tight ends failed to show up for much of the year was because the Hawkeye offensive brain trust failed to get creative and utilize the talent it had.
This lack of offensive creativity and failure to put playmakers on the field in whatever role facilitates their ability to make plays could've been at issue in the recent transfer of freshman running back Greg Garmon.
According to Rob Howe of Scout.com, Garmon left the Hawks because "it wasn't a fit" for him, which, according to the article, was a sentiment Ferentz shared.
Garmon came to the Hawkeyes as Rivals' No. 19 running back in the country and Scout's No. 15. He had offers from Florida State, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Tennessee and Texas A&M, among others.
Iowa fans would have to go back pretty far to find the last time the Hawkeyes beat out the Buckeyes and Wolverines on the recruiting trail. They'd probably have to go back before Ferentz to find the last time the Hawks beat out those teams for a skill-position player.
It is true that recruiting rankings don't always pan out, but as Matt Hinton of Yahoo! Sports found out, more often than not, they do.
With that in mind, what did Garmon and Ferentz mean when they said Iowa was a bad "fit"?
More than likely, it meant that Garmon was not the type of between-the-tackles runner that Kirk Ferentz prefers. This is also the type of back preferred by Wisconsin, Michigan State and Nebraska.
With a listed (and as the picture below testifies, an inflated) height and weight of 6'1", 200 pounds, Garmon is a finesse runner. His skills would be best utilized by getting him into space and allowing him to outrun defenders.
On the other hand, unlike Iowa, Wisconsin, MSU and Nebraska have had finesse runners on their rosters and found ways to get them onto the playing field and make plays.
Wisconsin's James White is not cut from the same mold as former and current Badger bruisers Montee Ball, John Clay and P.J. Hill. Unlike those players, whose average weight was 235 pounds, White weighs in at 197 pounds. Yet, the Badgers have found ways to get him onto the field and put the ball in his hands.
In three seasons, White has put up 2,571 yards rushing to go along with 370 yards receiving. And he has yet to start a game as a Badger.
Under Bo Pelini, the Cornhuskers have had two feature backs over the last five years. One of them was 220-pound Roy Helu Jr., and the other was 210-pound Rex Burkhead. Both Helu and Burkhead were between-the-tackles runners.
Nonetheless, in 2012 Pelini and the offensive coaches found a way to get the ball into the hands of 185-pound scatback Ameer Abdullah. He responded with an 1,137-yard season.
In Iowa City, Garmon played as a true freshman and averaged 3.21 yards per carry on 38 rushing attempts. One would think Garmon's mediocre performance is evidence that his recruiting rankings were inaccurate.
However, the bigger issue was that the coaches asked him to run the same plays that Hawkeye bruisers such as Mark Weisman, Marcus Coker and Shonn Greene (average weight: 235 pounds) ran—between the tackles.
It goes without saying that Garmon was unsuccessful. He is the type of running back that benefits from sweeps, pitches and plays that allow him to use his speed to outrun the other team.
This is not to suggest that Iowa should overhaul its running game. Rather, it further illustrates that Ferentz's lack of flexibility and tendency towards specialization put Garmon in a position where he was made to feel Iowa was a bad "fit."
It is more than likely that Wisconsin, despite running a power-based scheme, would not have seemed like the same bad "fit."
Looking towards next year, Iowa will have to do better than the 19.3 points per game it put up in 2012 if it wants to achieve bowl eligibility, let alone a more ambitious record.
Contrary to what some fans believe, there is plenty of offensive talent on the roster.
Iowa has two former 4-star tight ends—Fiedorowicz and Ray Hamilton—on its roster. It also has Krieger Coble and Jake Duzey, a 3-star tight end who chose Iowa over offers from Oregon and Michigan State.
If all of the running backs stay in Iowa City and avoid health, legal and academic issues, the Hawkeyes will have Weisman along with junior Damon Bullock and sophomore Jordan Canzeri in the backfield.
These are all playmakers who need to be put in the best position possible to make plays, even if that "position" doesn't correspond with Kirk Ferentz's specialized idea of where these players should be.
If that means playing Bullock or Canzeri as hybrid running back/slot receivers, then so be it. If that means using Duzey as an H-back rather than a traditional tight end, then that is how it should be. If that means lining Fiedorowicz in the slot in order to put his 6'7" frame in a mismatch against a 5'11" cornerback, then that is what Iowa and Kirk Ferentz need to do.
This is not a scheme overhaul. This is using players in non-specialized roles to best take advantage of their unique talents.
It is certainly what Urban Meyer would do.
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