IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa’s 2017 offense proved as unpredictable as the state’s weather. For the most part, it performed really well or was missing in action.
The Hawkeyes seek sunny skies next fall. It’s a forecast most fans would gladly welcome following a maddening campaign on that side of the ball.
The dean of FBS coaches, Kirk Ferentz, believes things will improve significantly in ’18.
“We’ve got a lot of guys coming back now that are going to be more in the flow of things and kind of ties in with our staff. We’re basically a new offensive staff last year starting in February, mid-February. So by the time we get everybody hired and in place,” he said.
Brian Ferentz, Kirk’s oldest son, experienced his first season as a coordinator and worked with the running backs. Tim Polasek (line) and Kelton Copeland (receivers) were new to the staff. Ken O’Keefe, the program’s former coordinator, returned as the quarterback coach. LeVar Woods (tight ends) was the only one to serve in the same position in ’17 that he occupied in ’16.
“I’m really excited. I think we have the potential to take a big step in that whole enterprise. I think improvement up front will get us there. And can’t guarantee it but I’m confident that it’s going to happen,” Kirk Ferentz said.
The Hawkeyes (8-5) averaged 28.2 points per game on offense, which put them at 66th nationally. Their 329.5 yards were 116th. Their 34.4 percent conversion rate on third down was 104th and their 19 turnovers (13 fumbles lost) were 61st.
“On the list of things that we have to address certainly it starts with ball security,” Ferentz said. “We had the ball loose way too many times. Did a good job in the passing game that way. But as far as touching the ball, that ball was out there way too much.”
The most puzzling part of the equation was the up-and-down nature of the offense. It exploded during a 55-24 win against eventual No. 5 Ohio State, and put up 44 on what would become a solid Iowa State defense. It also demolished Nebraska, 56-14, in Lincoln.
Those performances were countered by painfully unproductive outings against Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Purdue. In losing to the Badgers, 38-14, Iowa managed a historically awful 66 yards of offense.
“That was not a good day for us and that’s one we’ll study hard during the out-of-season,” Ferentz said.
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Some of inconsistencies came from a first-year starting quarterback in Nate Stanley. He performed really well at times. Predictable, he struggled in the games during which his team couldn’t gain any traction.
Stanley did finish the season with a very respectable 26 touchdowns against just six interceptions and 2,437 yards. However, his 55.8 completion percentage ranked 88th nationally, and his 6.94 yards per attempt were 73rd. There were dropped passes, but there needs to be better accuracy in ’18.
Progress also must be made at receiver. Nick Easily, who led the team with 51 catches for 530 yards, returns but steady Matt VandeBerg is gone. Guys like Ihmir Smith-Marsette (18-187), Brandon Smith (3-15) and Max Cooper (0-0) have to mature rapidly. Perhaps there’s help coming in veterans Devonte Young and Adrian Falconer, or newcomers Tyrone Tracy, Calvin Lockett or Samson Evans, who could play running back.
Iowa is loaded at tight end with Noah Fant (30-494, 11 TDs) and T.J. Hockenson (24-320-3). Kirk Ferentz also is regularly mentioning third-stringer Shaun Beyer as a potential breakout player.
“We’ve got to continue to get better at (receiver) and just gotta work it, massage it a little bit and work it and utilize our tight ends. Fortunately, I think we’ve got some good players at tight end,” Ferentz said.
Iowa loses its top two running backs in Akrum Wadley, one of only four players in program history to rush for at least 1,000 yards in back to back seasons, and James Butler. Both guys averaged 4.4 yards per carry in ’17.
Freshmen Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin stepped in for the injured Wadley and Butler during the second half against North Texas. They combined for 152 rushing yards and two scores in a 31-14 win.
After playing as a true freshman in ’16, Toks Akinribade red shirted in the fall. A medical procedure in December puts his future in doubt, however. True freshman Kyshaun Bryan missed the season with a shoulder injury and fourth-year junior Marcel Joly graduated last month after not see any action in ’17.
Green Bay (WI) product Henry Geil arrives as a true freshman in June. The Hawkeyes also could add another running back in the late signing period.
“You’ve got Toren and Ivory. So those are the two guys. So that’s where it all starts,” Ferentz said. “That’s where it’s at and we’ll have to develop more depth there for sure.”
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That leads us to the line, the engine of the offense. Iowa will be replacing all-Big Ten right guard Sean Welsh along with center James Daniels, who announced last week he would be foregoing his senior year to enter the NFL Draft. Welsh started 48 games in his career and Daniels 23.
Injuries cost senior tackles Ike Boettger and Boone Myers most of their final season. It forced freshmen Alaric Jackson (12 starts) and Tristan Wirfs (8 starts) into duty on the outside. They should be better in ’18.
Keegan Render (20 career starts) is next in line at center, where he played when Daniels was out with injury for the ’17 opener. Cole Banwart, who missed December with an injury, also could be a possibility in the middle, moving Render back to guard.
Senior-to-be Lucas LeGrand, sophomore-to-be Spencer Williams and redshirt freshman-to-be Levia Duwa have varying degrees of practice experience at center. Incoming freshman Jeff Jenkins could have a future in the middle.
Ross Reynolds, who started at left guard in the opener and rotated there with Render throughout the season, has the inside track on a starting spot. Levi Paulsen, who started at right tackle for the suspended Jackson in the Pinstripe Bowl, can also play guard.
Mark Kallenberger worked with the second-team at tackle throughout ’17 as a true freshman and could push himself into the mix for playing time with further physical advancement this offseason. Landan Paulsen and Dalton Ferguson are upperclassmen. Coy Kirkpatrick will be a redshirt freshman.
Ferentz saw progress from his young linemen during the season. Like the rest of his offense, there were inconsistencies.
“That’s the race that all players run. How technically proficient can they become and really good at what they’re asked to do? Because we’re not typically going to line up and beat them in a combine. We can’t do that. So we’ve gotta do it with consistency. And I think that’s really our offensive challenge,” he said.