Kirk Ferentz Northwestern Huddle

COACH KIRK FERENTZ: Appreciate everybody jumping on. Appreciate your time and your interest.

Just want to talk about a couple things today. Obviously this is the conventional signing day, the old February national signing day, which was a little bit more anti-climatic over the recent years but still want to comment about our two prospects that signed today, and just look back on last season briefly and transition into this year and be happy to answer questions afterwards.

Regarding signing day, as you know we signed two young guys today, Deavin Hilson from Des Moines and Mike Myslinski from Jacksonville, Florida, and both are guys that we've been watching closely. It's a little bit of a challenge with Deavin since they played only two games last season that, made our evaluation a little bit more challenging and then Mike is someone we have known about for quite some time and have been recruiting hard for quite some time.

We are pleased to have both those guys join the class; that brings us to a class of 19. We think they are both excellent prospects and will bring something to this class, needless to say. We are excited to have them join what we think is already a strong class. We think they pushed it even higher.

And we are really excited about that and also Xavior Williams has joined us as a grad transfer. He began here last week. Glad to have him. Good to welcome him to our team, as well.

Couple words about 2020, certainly it was an historic year, on all levels, basically for everybody, certainly in our country. And it's interesting because we try to build our program on consistency and the only consistency last year was the inconsistency we faced basically at every turn.

So it was an unusual year, a lot of unknowns, a lot of things to work through and it's just the way it was and again, it's not unique to a football program. I think all of us have been faced with a lot of interesting challenges.

But back closer to home, we're proud of everyone's efforts, the way everybody was able to adjust and adapt to things and I thought our players did an unbelievably good job.

First item of business on that front is thank our medical staff, Dr. Peterson right on down. It was truly a team effort to go through, and the work that our medical staff does, especially our trainers, I think a lot of times is underappreciated. Unless you know somebody personally that's been injured and has to go through a long rehab, a lot of lonely hours and they spend those hours with those trainers.

This year, the trainers ended up doing a lot of things they never signed up for or even dreamed of obviously with the testing, all those kinds of things, running guys that were sick to the hotel and helping them with their quarantine situations, all those kinds of things. I can't even imagine how many hours they spent above and beyond.

It really was an amazing effort. It's a team effort, and I know this about their efforts; we never would have had a chance to even begin a season, let alone play a season. Special thanks to everybody involved, Dr. Peterson, all the people that contributed conference-wise, etc., but especially our trainers on campus, Kammy and her staff.

For our players, if I was going to characterize last year in one word, they were "resilient." They seemed to handle whatever came their way with real adeptness. Whatever the challenge might have been, they answered it in a positive way.

I think back to March 13, none of us had any idea when we left campus. We knew something was going on. We had no idea what we were about to face over the next, six, seven, eight months. And there's no reason anybody could even envision what was about to take place.

So we went from thinking it might be a couple weeks, couple months, that type of thing, to a long, prolonged period. In a nutshell, you think about us having a chance to play eight straight games in eight straight weeks; that indicates the level of commitment our players had. They had great support, certainly from the medical staff as I mentioned, but really a level of commitment from everybody involved.

Everybody is on the same page and everybody is pushing to get ourselves a chance to at least get out there and play those eight games, and we were prepared to play our ninth and our tenth. Unfortunately that didn't materialize.

But again, the credit goes to our players for taking the attitude they took, and more importantly, taking the steps they took to give us a chance.

Involving our other seniors, we have great leadership. Hard to have a good football team, which we had; it's hard to have that without a really strong senior class, and those guys showed great leadership I think throughout this entire period. You can't have a successful team if you don't have good leadership, and you've got to have good chemistry, and that was on exhibit with our team all season. Starts with the seniors. I want to wish them all the best.

We have guys that have left the program now and a couple underclassmen have, too. Just very appreciative of all their efforts, their contributions, and certainly wish everybody the best as they move into their next phase of life and that's what college is all about, and certainly college football. Just a special group of guys and a special football team. So, happy about that.

And just one other quick side-bar, side note. The other obvious change that has affecting everybody in college football is just the portal and what whole phenomena. I know you probably have more stats than I do on that. I was on a conference call about a month ago a national coaches call and they referenced how many people are in the portal now. I heard a stat this morning that apparently more players have entered the portal since December 1 last year till now, basically two months-plus, than the entire year last year.

It just indicates a real trend, and one that's certainly concerning. I think it's going to be interesting to watch how it goes. There are going to be a lot of new things coming to college football certainly in the years ahead. We'll see where all that goes.

Turning the page to 2021, that's exactly what we started last week. We had our first team meeting and it was in-person. Believe me, special appreciation for being able to meet with our players, although we had to do it in a different room and get everybody spread out or socially distanced. Don't take that for granted anymore.

But it's good to have those guys back in the building. It was the longest break that we've ever had, at least in my 23-plus-nine years, we've never had a break that long. I think everybody was especially eager to get back here. A lot of energy in the room, certainly, and it's just good to get the guys back in the bidding training again.

Like we do every year, we conveyed to the players that this is a new team and this is 2021. So it's the first time the team as it exists right now is able to be together in one location. Certainly we'll add to that team as more and more newcomers come in during the course of the year.

But it was a first stop for the group and just good to visit with the guys, and I think the biggest message, same as every year, it's a new calendar and new team and certainly a new season with a lot of new challenges, and that's the way it always has been. We're looking forward to the work that's ahead. Certainly our seniors left a great legacy, and now it's up to everybody else, this year's seniors and everybody else in the room, to grab the ball, help advance it and move it forward. That's what it's all about.

As a staff, we're excited. As a team, we're excited. Biggest thing is we know we have opportunity and we also know we've got a lot of work to do, and it happens in stages. There's a process to everything we do.

One change we have already made to spring ball. We are going to push spring ball back a week considering the recruiting calendar. As it stands right now, we are going to be in a quiet period starting April 15. We realistically don't envision our coaches being on the road this spring. So it allows us a little bit more time to train between now and then.

We'll slide the calendar back a week and still have some wiggle room in case there's pauses along the way, like we have been doing, like all of us have been doing, we'll remain flexible in that and kind of go from there. The biggest focus right now is on our winter program, strength and conditioning, and some of the things we do team wise during this period. That's where our focus is right now.

Couple closing thoughts. First and foremost, one thing that has not changed since we left and returned, and more importantly got back in June: COVID is still our No. 1 thing to deal with, and it's got to be our No. 1 point of awareness and point of responsibility. I think all of us have seen, a lot of advances being made right now, that's great news. There's a lot of still uncertainty and a lot of unknown questions that need to be answered for questions that need to be answered.

The biggest thing we can continue to do is just try to be as smart as we can. I think our players certainly did a great job of that in the winter, in the fall months, in-season, and which went into the winter and we've got to continue that now because it is important that we have an uninterrupted spring semester academically and football-wise, also. A little bit of responsibility; that has not changed and everybody has got to grab on there. I think our guys will do a great job with that.

Also wanted to congratulate the guys that had been involved in the playoffs, we had nine guys a couple weekends ago, championship week, I think it was. Had nine guys still playing and a lot of neat stories and four guys still going right now. What a thrill to be involved in a Super Bowl. Think about all the great players that never had that opportunity in their careers and we have four guys, Tristan being the youngest, a rookie, playing in his first Super Bowl. A lot of good stories and everybody guy has a side story.

Anthony, I think about him, I don't want to say an under size but a linear, skinny defensive end when he got here and what he's developed into. Ben Niemann, you think about the family aspect, two Super Bowls in a row, and Jay and Nick being able to be part of that, that's a neat thing.

And Anthony Hitchens being the old guy in the group, seven-year veteran and when he came here we weren't sure if he was a defensive back, a running back, and he's really carved out quite a niche and had an unbelievable NFL career. Referenced him in a meeting this morning. When he got here, he had a lot to learn but he was a willing learner, hard worker and obviously a very, very good football player, first-class person, so just very happy for him.

One other side note, a word about Dace Richardson. He's facing a health challenge and sounds like it's going well but the bigger story, Pat Angerer getting involved, a teammate, and a lot of former teammates, former football players here, as well as a lot of fans just jumping into the fray and showing support for Dace.

I think that's one of the beauties of what this is all about. It's ten-plus years ago when those guys played together and they continue to stay close, support each other and guys that never overlapped but they certainly got involved as well, not to mention just people that really care out there that are fans, or not even fans, but just care about Dace. I think that's one of the good things, certainly, but we all wish Dace nothing but the best for fast recovery.

I'll close by expressing my appreciation for all of our players last year, the job they did and also their families. Nobody gets anywhere on their own and certainly the family support last year was extremely critical. The parents were just absolutely fantastic under very tough, trying circumstances. Happy about that.

And again I think I speak on behalf of the entire staff, everybody involved, certainly I can speak on my own behalf, really excited to get my 23rd season started. We have a lot of challenges, a lot of work to do, and eager to get it going.

Q. Obviously Michael had an interesting recruitment. You guys were in his Top-5 back in August. He commits to Texas. Obviously the change in the coaching staff there. How would you describe that situation, maybe not just his but in general, what is it like knowing that a guy that you have been recruiting but now the situation changes, how do you guys change your approach when he does decommit?

COACH KIRK FERENTZ: We really didn't change it. It was a pleasure to recruit Mike all along. He was very engaged throughout the entire process. He and his family are fantastic. They come from an athletic family, so this is not a totally new arena to them, certainly but he was always very deliberate, always very honest and did a great job of letting us know what information he needed.

And from day one, we've been very impressed with him, very impressed. Our intent was to continue to recruit him until he told us otherwise, and we just feel fortunate that things opened back up and we had the opportunity to continue on.

We are really excited about Mike's commitment. I think he's a good football player. He played center as you probably know and I think his skill set and his mentality really match up with what we look for in a center. Really excited about that.

Q. You guys don't historically recruit in the Jacksonville, northeast Florida area. How did Michael come on to your radar?

COACH KIRK FERENTZ: I'm the wrong guy to ask but I'm glad he did. We recruit and scan and all that kind of stuff, but the big thing was he showed some interest in us. You're correct, we don't spend a lot of time in Jacksonville. One thing led to another there. Mike's background, there's some ties there and it just kind of opened the door.

So it was a good thing for us, certainly and if a player shows interest in our program from anywhere, we're going to follow up and see what we can do about continuing that interest and continuing that relationship.

Q. I've spent a little time around the North, Des Moines North program over the course of the season. Deavin, I'm sure you know the on-field kind of results that North has had over the years. Deavin seems to be a bit of a barrier-breaker here. I think there are a lot of people that would probably conclude that a Power Five scholarship is not necessarily a given or even possible at a place like North. What drew you to him? Can you take me through the process getting Deavin in your ranks?

COACH KIRK FERENTZ: Full disclosure, what really piqued my interest was seeing him play basketball a year ago. We had football highlights and basketball highlights. I probably saw more potential just watching him play basketball. But not knowing anything about him as a person. Those types of things, just looking at him as an athlete.

So now you come forward a little bit, certainly we had two games, only two games to look at and evaluate, but that's not easy. They were working under tough circumstances, too, like everybody. The opportunities were limited.

I think the more we learned about Deavin, and learned about his mom and spoke with his mom, she's a super-impressive lady, and we did a lot of work with people that have worked with Deavin over the last couple years. And the message was very consistent. It was positive. And everybody that he's been around really believes in him.

I think he's demonstrated a real seriousness about not only playing college football, but being a college graduate. He's demonstrated that, and I just talked about it. It all kind of came together and we made the decision last week to move forward. We're thrilled about it, and I'll convinced he's going to come in and work hard and that's all we can ask any of our guys to do. We are excited about that part of it.

The other thing I would share during my time coaching, good players come from all places. It's amazing. Whether you're talking about pro football, not everybody comes from Power Five institutions, and it's the same way in our program, especially if you consider how many walk-ons we've had that had that have really excelled here.

So for whatever reason, players get overlooked a little bit, and doesn't really, I don't think, have anything to do with the size of the school they are at or the size of their community. It's more about the individual and that's really kind of what we were trying to do is identify the things that we thought were going to be important if he's going to have a good career here at Iowa.

Q. Coach Addy was telling me about the commitment to doing whatever it took to get to a spot like this. I imagine you hear a similar type of story with a lot of these guys, but what does it say about the commitment to the process about Deavin to get his grades up, to get his physical features ready for college and really make a commitment to playing at this level?

COACH KIRK FERENTZ: It's not an uncommon story, but it's a commendable story. A lot of guys, and I know when I was in 9th, 10th grade, I had no idea or anything about college, that's for sure. That's not unusual. He dug a little bit of a hole for himself. I think maybe when he figured out there were better opportunities beyond high school, that's when he really got in gear. To me, that's certainly a positive. That's what we are looking for is that effort, that commitment to getting something done and going after a goal and achieving it. I think that's a good trait for everybody to have and regardless, it all spills over to whatever you're doing.

You know, we're convinced he's serious about getting a degree here. We're serious he's convinced about being a good football player and a good team leader. We're excited to have him join.

Q. What was it like to watch Tristan play this year and go into the Super Bowl in year one?

COACH KIRK FERENTZ: It's been unbelievable. I got a text back when they were in camp probably from Tom Moore who is 80 or 81-year-old coach, I don't know if he had his birthday yet, with Tampa Bay. Played here in the late '50s. Just saying what a great job Tristan was doing. He did the same thing a year ago when Anthony got there, just as young rookies, how well they were doing and just impressing everybody there.

You think about what Tristan has done playing-wise, one nice thing about our schedule this year, I've had a chance to watch more pro football than normal probably. Didn't get to see much in December obviously, but since our season ended, been able to watch him.

And when you think about it, just how fortunate he is, first of all, to be picked to a team that had the potential to have that kind of success. Throw on top of it, he's playing with arguably the greatest quarterback and maybe one of the greatest players ever to play football. No pressure there, I guess, right: Quarterback; break tackle. But I think the best thing is he's helped them achieve the level they have achieved at.

Their a Super Bowl participant team -- that's a high altitude to get to, and he has not only not gotten in the way of them getting there, he's contributed to them getting there. It's phenomenal, but it's not really surprising. You guys got to know Tristan a little bit and he's got a good mentality. He's a genuine, authentic guy that works hard. He's got a lot of pride in whatever he does. Whatever it is going to take to be successful, he's going to dedicate the time and energy towards that. I think he's done that.

The good news for him is he's just going to keep getting better. He's got tremendous potential still.

Q. A million questions here. I'll try to zero in on a couple.

COACH KIRK FERENTZ: I've got to interject. I am still struggling with this Zoom existence. We have the Hollywood Squares up there. I know you guys are in there somewhere. It's better than nothing, so I'm glad we're all together, but anyway.

Q. I'm looking forward to the in-person someday.

COACH KIRK FERENTZ: Hopefully sooner than later, yeah.

Q. A couple additions in your secondary that I wasn't expecting. Where do you see Xavior Williams coming in, safety corner, and Matt Hankins, what conversations did you have with him coming back and what difference does that make to the secondary?

COACH KIRK FERENTZ: I'll start with Matt. Recent trend is we've been having guys leave and decide they are going to move on to the next stage of their lives and I think there's a biological clock for everybody. Matt did play as a freshman and that probably affected it. He took his time. He was methodical about it. We didn't provide a lot of information. I think he got some on his own.

But I think what it all came down to, when he settled down, settled in, he came to the conclusion: Another year of football would be good for him. He's excited to be back here. And that's one thing I made clear to anybody that's thinking about maybe leaving or staying. There's no sense staying if your heart isn't in it and you don't have both feet firm and committed to it.

He's enthused about it. But it was strictly, it was his decision all the way, and is a guy like Zach VanValkenburg, same thing. Zach is a year older, yet he just felt like this is the right thing for him to do. We are thrilled about that. Same with the other guys. Max Cooper, a little different because he had a redshirt available. But Caleb and Austin, great to have those guys back.

But it's really the point now where guys, they get to a point where they feel like, hey, it's time to move on to my next step, or come back, and we feel good about that part. So Matt will be back.

Xavior, we'll probably start him out at corner. We think he's got position flexibility. It's a long year and it's a long, long road ahead. So we are eager to get him on the field in spring football and learn more about him as a player. Seems like a tremendous young man. I've been impressed with him in my interactions with him and we're happy he's joined our football team.

Q. How much did the pandemic affect completing this class, and do you think it's got you behind a little bit on the next class with some of the limitations you guys have had about not getting out, that sort of thing?

COACH KIRK FERENTZ: We're thrilled about the class, this class, the one we just signed and completed today. In some strange way, feel like I know these prospects better than a normal year because we had so much time to dedicate to it back when we should have been having spring practice, should have been in a summer program, those kinds of things.

In some strange way, I think it was almost a benefit -- not that we want to go through that again. But where we are missing out right now is we didn't have a chance to evaluate last spring. We couldn't go out on the road and our coaches couldn't be out in schools. We couldn't have camps on campus where we are not only identifying prospects for this current year but years in advance. You learn things about people then. Couldn't go out during the fall, needless to say, and the last couple weeks, normally we'd be on the road in January and we're sitting here.

It's going to be a challenge for us. You have to try to go on film. There are a lot of people that didn't play high school football this year. So you can imagine the challenges there, right. The NFL is going to go through a series of challenges I think with this draft that are going to be unique and we are going to feel that, too, as we move forward.

All that being said, everybody is facing the same challenge. So you've just got to try to figure out a way to do it as best you can and go from there. We don't have a particularly large class to recruit next year. I guess maybe that's a lucky break for us.

But we'll still go about the process the same way and when we offer a scholarship, it's still every bit as significant whether we are offering five in a year or 25. You just want to make sure you really do your due diligence and get everybody bit of information you can. It's going to be a little bit different this year. It's going to be a bigger challenge.

Q. When you talk about competitions, you pretty much say every position is a competition, and shame on somebody like this year would be Tyler Linderbaum for losing his job. But what kind of evaluation and competition do you expect at quarterback this spring and beyond? Would you consider it open, fully open? Spencer's job to lose? Or is it his job just -- or is he solidly at quarterback going forward?

COACH KIRK FERENTZ: You know, Nate Stanley, three-year starter, probably a different discussion.

As I said all fall long, I thought Spencer did a quality job considering the circumstances; and I asked everybody to keep that in mind, which is tough to do when you're watching games. I get that. But you think about a guy that didn't have spring football, didn't have that opportunity afforded him. Didn't have a chance to do a lot of things in the summer.

That spring football is a really big void. I can't overstate that because the things you learn in spring, you carry into the summer, so he didn't have that base or foundation. So quite frankly, I'm not sure what he was doing some of the times during the summer. Is It better to practice no habits than bad habits, right, so you worry about that.

All that being said, he came into the year where there were a lot of challenges and then our abrupt ending back in August and then we started up again and really didn't have a preseason. So when he rolled out there for that Purdue game, it was just a tough, tough circumstance, and I thought he improved during the season. I thought he improved during games.

So all that being said, we have great belief in him, he's a tremendous guy, a tremendous leader and he led us. As a starting quarterback, we won 75 percent of our games. That's not shabby. We expect him to improve like we expect everybody to improve. We think Alex Padilla is a good, young prospect and we have other guys, too, that we'll learn more about this spring, hopefully. Nobody is writing that down in ink yet.

Those are the things the out-of-season is for is to see how guys are progressing, how they are improving. Spencer has a huge head start because he's got eight starts under his belt, and he's I think learned from experiences and one of the things I really commend him on is learning during the course of a game. In Champaign, wasn't looking so good there for a while. A lesser guy would have melted there. I think about Brad Banks there with that meltdown in the second half of third game in 2002 and then when he came -- how he came back.

So in my mind, that's how I look at Spencer. This guy got tested and fought through it. That's a real asset right there. But we'll let everybody compete and we'll go into it with an open mind, and Spencer knows that, and he knows it's incumbent and for everybody to get better. Tyler is getting a lot of accolades, but we expect him to compete.

The good news is those guys, and I think we have a lot of guys that think this way, Matt Hankins, mentioned him a minute ago, they want to improve and they want to compete. That's what makes good players good players and makes them better.

Q. I believe Daviyon is the tenth player you've had leave for the NFL before their senior year since 2018. For a program known for player development, those guys losing would be a crushing blow yet you've won 25 games. Can you share your theories why that's happened?

COACH KIRK FERENTZ: We talked about adjusting and adapting earlier, right, and that's one for form of that.

Daviyon is an interesting story because I don't think he maybe started one game a year ago in the 2019 season, but you guys get the point. We had Cedric and Brady in there playing. We had two seniors. He was playing behind those guys. When he was in there, he played well. I don't think anybody would have gone into the season saying, hey, this guy is going to emerge like he did. So it's a real credit to Daviyon, the effort he played with and the energy he played with. Did a great job.

So yeah, that's what we are based on. So the reality is when those things happen, guys might have decisions to make and if they do, then we are -- it's next man in, next man up. That's how the program is built. The pace has picked up a little bit.

But I think part of that is a mindset on our part, too. We have to be a little bit more open and realize that's part of college football and realize that's part of the world we live in now. And when we get guys coming back, like Zach or Matt that are both starters, good starters, not just starters; they are established, really good Division I football players, to get them back that's a bonus, but we were not counting on that. Just kind of have that mindset that if they are not here, somebody else is going to step up and fill the void.

Q. Talk about the nine guys in AFC and NFC championship games. Four of those guys were two-star recruits and a couple more were three-star recruits, and you're the only Power Five school to offer four of them. Does that make you feel good about your program's ability to judge talent?

COACH KIRK FERENTZ: We try to pride ourselves on that. It isn't an exact science. The whole trick is finding people that you feel are going to mesh in with what you're trying to do whether it's schematically or more so just general program, how we run the program, how we do things. So that's the trick.

I bring up Anthony Hitchens, I was sharing with the staff, this is 2010 I think it was in Arizona, we had a special teams meeting at 10:30, he shows up at 10:25 grabs a banana and goes in. That was his idea of breakfast back then. I promise you, without talking to Anthony, he has a little better grip on what good nutrition is now after being a seven-year pro. But that's what young guys do, and that's the difference between a young guy and being older and starting to understand that certain things can really help you be a better football player, a better whatever it is you're trying to do.

It's all part of the process, and Anthony is a good illustration of that. He was willing to learn, willing to work hard and just his senior year in 2013 played unbelievably well for us. It was a process, so it didn't start out like those guys were ready to roll.

Q. When you guys separated from Chris Doyle, you elevated Rai Brathwaite into the interim role at strength and conditioning. What's the status of that job position? Is Rai going to be the guy going forward or are you out looking for other options?

COACH KIRK FERENTZ: It's our intention, and when Rai took over back in June, had every confidence that he would do a great job, embrace it and do a great job. Cody Myers was elevated into the position Rai was in, top assistant and the two of them have worked really well together.

Our players have really responded well to them. We had to navigate through a very difficult year. They were affected every bit as much as we were as football coaches, not only practices being disrupted but I think our conditioning periods, just trying to keep track of who had been quarantined, all those things that come with contact tracing more so than the COVID. It was a really tricky math equation. Those guys, I mentioned the training staff. These guys did the same thing because they were in-season.

I think they have done a great job, and we are excited. We got the program started last Wednesday in earnest. Should have been Tuesday. We got snowed out, but got it started Wednesday. And we are looking forward to a great out-of-season and looking forward to Rai and Cody's leadership moving forward.

Q. We've talked about the Super Bowl guys. We talked to Tristan a couple days ago and he was saying you guys had a conversation; he spoke with you maybe about a week or two ago. If you would like to, can you share kind of what that conversation is, what you tell guys in that position, and again, just being able to enjoy? I know you don't get to watch these guys every Sunday. I'd imagine you have the Super Bowl off and are able to watch.

COACH KIRK FERENTZ: Planning on it.

Q. Stuff like that never gets old for you, I imagine.

COACH KIRK FERENTZ: We don't work that hard. Coaches always say we work hard. We're going to watch the Super Bowl. We're going to have the weekend off. This is out-of-season. If you don't do it now, you're crazy.

The message -- and for the record, I've never coached in the Super Bowl. Certainly I didn't play in one.

But I imagine it's the same message he's hearing from Coach Arians and guys are hearing from Coach Reid. Things don't change. Circumstances are certainly different than any game Tristan has ever played in but the things that make you successful don't change.

So the key is to focus on your performance, what you can do to help the team, and try not to get caught up in all the other stuff. It's easier said than done, certainly. But we're proud of him. We just communicate that and we're proud of him and just keep encouraging him to do what has made him good already, and if he does that, he'll keep growing. All one player can do is all he can do on Sunday, and really, it's more important what he does with his preparation. He'll know what to do when the game gets going. He'll know how to play.

Q. You're eligible, by your age, and sorry to bring that up, for the vaccine, have you got it. And will you be able to get it?

COACH KIRK FERENTZ: As you know, my clock is still running. The only good thing, Mary ended up getting COVID from me; the gift that keeps on giving.

I plan on getting it, yeah. I plan on getting the vaccine whenever my expiration date comes up.

I'll say as a public address announcement, enthusiastically look forward to it. Not that you look forward to shots, but yeah, I'm looking forward to having that opportunity.

Q. Using your platform, would you urge Hawkeye fans everywhere to get vaccinated when it's possible?

COACH KIRK FERENTZ: I'm certainly no medical expert but all the smart people I talk to, there's no doubt in my mind. When I get that opportunity, there's no question I'm going to take advantage of that and keep our fingers crossed afterwards. I think everything, any of us can do to help put a damper on this thing, it's what we should do.

Q. I understand you met with Broderick Binns at least once or more than once. Can you share what the tone and value of that meeting was and what steps you're going to take to improve the things mentioned in last summer's report?

COACH KIRK FERENTZ: I think the most important work has already been addressed and been done. A couple things, the most important thing of all this is whatever we did learn and whatever tweaks, changes, we may have made, we have to live by that now. Make sure that we are consistent in our nations.

We also need to be consistent our dialogue to make sure that if there are things that get off the tracks or something else needs to be addressed or discussed, we need to have those conversations and not wait.

The other part, to me, the second focus, and we're kind of in that stage right now, is to look at other things that we can do structurally or educationally, programming, just to keep the dialogue going.

You know, the department has done a couple things already with some speakers, outside people, obviously by Zoom. I think they have been productive. Broderick met with our staff last week. That was a powerful meeting went about an hour-45 in a good way, a lot of good discussion.

Just got off the phone with him a while ago about future planning with the staff but more importantly opportunities for our team and just kind of integrate that into our out of season program and carry it in-season, too, where appropriate.

It's a new year. I'm not going to say it's like 2014, 2015, where we just tore a lot of things up and just reframed a lot of things. But there are some similarities. One downside of being somewhere for a while and having a staff that's been consistent, sometimes -- the analogy I give you: You get a playbook that should be three inches and all of a sudden it's six inches. And all of a sudden five, six years later, somebody says, why do we call this that? Well, it's because Joe Smith said it six years ago. Nobody knows why, but just that's what we call it.

We kind of go through that exercise. This year our focus has been on perimeter things, kind of an extension of what we did back in the summertime.

Q. My question is on Ben Niemann. Just wondering what do you think it is about him that's enabled him to work his way up from an undrafted free agent to all of a sudden being on a two-time Super Bowl contending team?

COACH KIRK FERENTZ: First thing, you don't make an NFL team by accident. When you're a first-round draft pick like Tristan, we talked about earlier, that's a little different circumstance.

But at some point, you have to back it up. When you go in at the other end as a free agent, you do have to draw attention to yourself. I think the best way, as we talk to our players, the best way to be successful in anything you do, but certainly in an NFL camp, is be consistent. Show up every day. Be more than on time and be ready to go. Same things we ask our guys to do here.

If you can develop a consistency about you, all coaches realize guys are going to make mistakes, especially when it's a step up, tougher competition, new learning curve, etc. But the key is not making those mistakes frequently. Eliminating those things. Showing them that you can learn. Showing them that you will compete. You've got enough capabilities.

I wasn't surprised Ben wasn't drafted but it wouldn't have surprised me had he been drafted. May have been a little underappreciated by the NFL. I don't mean that in a critical way, but he was a four-year player, not a fifth-year guy. Still had a lot of maturation in my mind ahead. That's one thing I learned when I coached in the NFL. Those guys, they grow and develop, too, especially in their first couple three, fours years.

So we felt like he had a lot of upside that way. Highly intelligent. Works at it. When I say intelligent football intelligence, all those things and he's very versatile. He's really carved out quite a niche already playing a lot of sub-defense for them. So that's a lot of snaps in a game, and then playing on special teams very well, like he did here.

He's giving himself every chance to be successful and then most importantly he's done it on a consistent basis. He was like that from day one with us and Nick's done the same. I'm really happy for him, and like I mentioned Tristan, first year, ends up in the Super Bowl. How about that. How about Ben Niemann, two in a row. You think about guys that never had that opportunity, it's a really neat thing. Really neat story.

Q. You've got two Hawkeyes on each team. Who are you rooting for?

COACH KIRK FERENTZ: Just slide to the winning team. That's easy. Fair weather fan, right.

I'm just going to enjoy the game. What a matchup it is. I'll just enjoy the game.

Q. As you know, you've referenced missing spring practice was such a big deal for the quarterback position. Given that Alex and Deuce in particular didn't get a spring last year, will you make some special, I guess, I don't know, plans, I guess to, give them a full and fair shot to show what they can do at the quarterback position this spring?

COACH KIRK FERENTZ: We encourage our players to ignore the noise, and I'm getting a little attuned about what's going on, maybe a little indigestion on our quarterback situation perhaps.

We plan on doing that regardless. Alex has done a really nice job when he's had the opportunity, the opportunities we've given him. So, happy about that. We think he's a really quality player. Most important thing, we saw a lot of growth with Alex. I think I alluded to that about Spencer a year ago. Saw growth during the season.

I wouldn't be doing my job, none of us as coaches would be doing our job if we don't create a situation where guys have a chance to show their growth, their development.

Players, we expect all of our players to be different. Keep our fingers crossed, when we get on the field late March, hopefully they will be better than they were back in December. If not, we are not going to have to have some guys step up.

The good news is hopefully they will be a lot better when we get to August, and assuming it's a conventional year. But yeah, we plan an open competition. But the record shows that Spencer has done a really good job, and he's our starter right now.

So somebody's got to beat him out, but it's got to be a fair competition and so many things can happen. I just encourage players to worry about doing their best and try to grow and improve as much as they can, and then you deal with the circumstances as they come to you. That's the thing.

I'll go back to missing spring practice. Just like recruiting got affected by us not being out there, I'm not looking lightly on that. It didn't affect our older guys as much. But you think about young guys, and again, Spencer is a great example; how much better could he have been. He's not the only guy. Guys that maybe had not had starting experience, that made the hill harder to climb when we got going there in the fall.

Spring practice I have always believed is a really important time and really important opportunity for everybody and the coaching staff, too. We grow during spring. Keep our fingers crossed. Hope we get to do it. It's really an important thing about building the team.

Q. I have a million questions, try could condense it into one paragraph if possible.

Couple of players, McCall isn't listed. I know he opted out last year. I assume that he is not coming back; is that fair?

COACH KIRK FERENTZ: The opt-out goes till the end of the calendar year, or end of the academic year, as I understand it. It's the first time any of us have been there. But he is not in the program right now, but he's still a member of our team.

Q. Austin, is he on scholarship now that he's coming back for a sixth year?

COACH KIRK FERENTZ: Yes he is.

Q. Where do things sit at defensive line? This is the third straight year you've lost three starters, and your defense and stop rate was the best in the country this year. You have two guys that are definitely NFL players. Are you going to go looking in the transfer portal for a few guys?

COACH KIRK FERENTZ: We'll keep our minds open on everybody. I'll go back to the quarterback thing. We'll have an open mind about everything if it can make our team better. Like in Spencer's case, it's good to know that we've had a guy that's played in my mind successfully for us. Can he get better? Yeah, we expect him to. With him playing for us, we won 6 games out of 8, and we would have done just fine with the rest of the games.

But he's got to get better. We expect that. Same thing with the defensive line. We feel we have some good young players right now. Hopefully they can be ready by next August, September, whenever the season starts. We'll have more answers about that as we move along, but we have faith in our system and faith in our coaches and the development that the guys will be able to play.

But if something comes along, like Jack Heflin last year is a great addition. He was a perfect fit, and Zach VanValkenburg's kind of proving to be the same.

So if something like that comes, it makes sense, yeah, we'll definitely entertain offers. But we have a lot of guys on campus that we feel good about. We're eager to see them. Hopefully we'll get that opportunity and learn more about them this spring.

Q. Are you looking at March 31 then to start practice? Is that kind of the date?

COACH KIRK FERENTZ: Yeah, somewhere in that vicinity probably. We want to get eight weeks of training in and then we want to give our guys a break. They need a break after that. So we'll figure out what's smart, give them a chance to be away from things. We are not going to have a spring break, per se, but we don't want them training hard. And then we'll start spring ball after they get a chance to recover and rejuvenate.

Q. On recruiting, perception for you guys is always a thing you have to overcome, the cornfields, stuff like that. How has what happened in June impacted you recruiting-wise? How difficult has that been? Because you don't get kids on campus to kind of show them more what you're about, what your program is about. Is that maybe the most important thing, to get kids on campus now?

COACH KIRK FERENTZ: It sure helps. Particularly this class right now, because we are able to start free calling this past Tuesday. So you know, you're talking to people that you haven't met.

Like typically a lot of guys would have been on campus three or four games in the fall. They have been here for camps, all those kind of things. It's a whole different feel to it. It's a challenge that's for sure.

The whole key is having guys on campus and I think the most significant thing is when they have a chance to visit with players in the program and can answer their questions and tell their stories a little bit. To all the things that we have been through, I think that's been the key. You know, putting prospects on the phone and Zoom and Facetiming with guys in our program. Having those guys shoot them straight and tell them what's going on and what things are and all that kind of stuff.

That's really how it works. I always felt like if you have a healthy culture and healthy environment, you have a chance to recruit well, but you have to make those connections and that has become a challenge now with the lockdown, if you will.

Going back to the spring date -- right now we are writing everything in pencil just like all you guys. Whenever we start to zero in on something, we'll get that to you as fast as possible, but just bank on the better part of April really when we're doing our work.