Iowa Football: Kirk Ferentz's 7 Biggest Worries Headed into Spring Practice
The Iowa Hawkeyes and head coach Kirk Ferentz will begin spring practices in three weeks (March 27), at which time the Hawks will hope to turn around a program that has been skidding since 2010's Orange Bowl victory.
That skid (hopefully) hit its nadir with last season's 4-8 showing.
Nonetheless, this year's spring practice has as many uncertainties as last year's, and thus, as many worries.
Due to his contract, Ferentz probably doesn't have to worry about his job, but he still has his legacy to consider—a legacy that, at this point, is considerably less impressive than it was three years ago.
With that in mind, the following will address, from least to greatest, what Ferentz's worries are as it concerns rebuilding his program and maintaining his legacy.
The Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God (AIRBHG) has been busy over the last few years.
Due to injuries, transfers, suspensions and everything short of spontaneous combustion—the state of Iowa running backs has not reached Spinal Tap drummer level yet—no Iowa scholarship tailback has graduated since 2007.
The Hawks hired a new running backs coach, but as Ben Kercheval of NBC Sports noted, even that wasn't enough to save fullback Brad Rogers, who recently announced his retirement due to injuries.
Whether Kirk Ferentz does or doesn't lend any credence to AIRBHG, the state of his running backs has to be a concern.
Currently, the Hawks have a relatively loaded backfield that includes three backs—Mark Weisman, Damon Bullock and Jordan Canzeri—who have started at least one game in their careers.
However, the same could have been, and was said, before the 2010 season started.
6. Staff Cohesion
As ESPN's Adam Rittenberg commented, the Iowa staff has undergone an "extreme makeover" during the last two years.
In that time, six different coaches have either retired or left to pursue other opportunities. Even the coaches who are still in Iowa City are no longer in the same positions they were in during the 2011 season.
This is a huge shakeup for a program that prides itself on its stability.
With that in mind, one can never predict cohesion and chemistry. Sometimes things work and sometimes they don't.
Therefore, Ferentz will have a substantial task in bringing together a diverse and, for the most part, previously unconnected group of coaches and egos.
5. Special Teams
Special teams have contributed to or directly led to at least one loss in each of the last three seasons.
In 2012, the Central Michigan on-side kick fiasco all but sealed Iowa's fate.
In 2011, two missed field goals and another on-side kick fiasco led to a one-point Hawkeyes loss to Minnesota.
In 2010, a blocked punt, a kick return for a touchdown, a missed extra point and overall horrific special teams play led to a loss at Arizona. Later in the season, Iowa did nothing to impede Wisconsin on a fake punt on the Badgers' final drive. This led to a one-point loss. Finally, on-side kick fiasco No. 3 occurred against Minnesota and Iowa lost by three.
In effect, it wouldn't be a stretch to think that new Iowa running backs coach Chris White's biggest selling point and the primary reason he got his new job was because of his background working with special teams.
Hopefully, White will have an immediate impact, which will give Ferentz one less thing to worry about.
4. New Quarterback
According to Mike Hlas of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Iowa was the only FBS team to use a single quarterback all season.
That leaves a wide-open 2013 quarterback battle, as none of the four candidates for the job will have taken a snap at the FBS level.
No matter how one spells it, the quarterback, along with the center, is the only player who handles the ball on every play. He calls the plays, he calls the audibles and the nature of his position requires him to be a leader.
Needless to say, this is not only the position battle that is at the forefront of every Hawkeyes fan's mind, but it is a position battle that Ferentz will deem as a top priority.
3. Finding a High-Impact Pass Rusher
In 2012, the Iowa defense registered 13 sacks, which was tied for 115th in the country.
Much of the problem had to do with defensive ends, or more appropriately, lack of playmaking ends.
The Hawkeyes are not a blitz-heavy team. Consequently, the defensive scheme requires a line that can generate a pass rush without extra pressure.
On the bright side, there were some flashes of hope from the defensive tackles. Neither Louis Trinca-Pasat nor Darian Cooper registered a sack in 2012, but both regularly got penetration. As Hawkeye Gamefilm on HawkeyeNation reported around midseason last year, "Overall this group has really come together and is getting the job done."
They weren't as dominant as the season wore on, but that had to be expected from a young group.
On the other hand, there is little to be positive about when it comes to the ends.
Joe Gaglione, the only end who got any penetration last year, graduated. The other starter, Dominic Alvis, will return, but with 21 starts and only 5.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss to his name, it's hard to get excited about the senior from Logan.
Otherwise, Iowa's prospects at end include a number of lightly recruited sophomores who have yet to distinguish themselves on the college gridirons.
As BHGP noted, years of attrition have taken their toll on the Hawks.
The best Iowa defenses under Kirk Ferentz always had a few things in common. One of those things was elite, athletic defensive ends. It was Matt Roth in 2003 and 2004 and Adrian Clayborn between 2008 and 2010.
Unless it finds such a defensive end, the 2013 Iowa defense will have a decidedly limited ceiling.
2. Phil Parker Will Never Be Able to Come Close to Replacing Norm Parker
Between 1999 and 2011, Norm Parker served as Iowa's defensive coordinator (DC).
In that time he led four top-10 scoring defenses—2003, 2008, 2009 and 2010—plus two more top-20 defenses—2004 and 2007.
His worst defense after the first two (transitional) years was 2011's group, which tied for 46th in the country—i.e. still easily in the top half of the nation.
He retired after 2011. Unlike the departure of offensive coordinator (OC) Ken O'Keefe, who was heavily criticized by the Hawkeyes fanbase, Parker's loss was greeted with concern.
The 2012 defense, led by former secondary coach Phil Parker, finished a respectable 33rd in the country.
However, it was a skewed 33rd. The defense had some quality performances early in the year, most notably against Michigan State and Minnesota. On the other hand, it looked just as lost as the offense in losses to Penn State, Northwestern and Michigan, games in which it allowed an average of 483 yards per game.
Furthermore, the Hawks' ability to keep the Purdue and Nebraska games close—both games decided by less than a touchdown—had as much to do with sloppy play by the other team's offense as anything Iowa's defense did.
In some fairness, as ESPN's Brian Bennett reported, Parker's defensive line came into the year severely undermanned.
This year will be a truer test for Phil Parker. He has eight returning starters, including much of his front line and all three of his linebackers.
Nonetheless, what will Ferentz do if Phil Parker can't produce the results his predecessor did?
1. Greg Davis' Offense Will Never Work Without Texas Talent
One would be hard-pressed to find anyone to dispute the contention that the 2012 Iowa offense was a horror show.
But there were extenuating circumstances.
The Hawks were breaking in a new OC and thus a new offense for the first time in 14 years. That new offense came with new plays, new schemes and new terminology.
Moreover, the established players—especially the quarterback and receivers—were not suited to the new offense.
The end result was that Iowa was the No. 113 scoring offense in the country.
The new OC, Greg Davis, has a history of success. In 12 years at Texas, his offense was a top-10 scoring offense six times. It was a top-20 offense 10 times.
But Texas is regularly one of the top recruiting teams in the country. In 2013, 247sports ranked the Horns' class No. 17 in the country. This was a down year for Texas recruiting, as it followed three top-three classes in a row.
This year, Iowa will have had one full year in Greg Davis' system. Moreover, as Ryan Suchomel of HawkCentral reported, the Hawkeyes are bringing in the types of players that Davis wants.
However, what if the offense still doesn't work? What if, short of bringing in Texas talent like Jordan Shipley, Colt McCoy, Vince Young and Cedric Benson—talent Iowa can never depend on getting—the Hawkeyes offense is just as unimpressive as last year?