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Archive for April, 2013

Quarterback conundrum

Saturday, April 27th, 2013
It probably was asking too much to expect a three-headed quarterback derby to turn into a one-man race over the course of 15 spring football practices. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz certainly thought so. Offensive coordinator Greg Davis expected it as well. And, the three players vying to replace James Vandenberg behind center certainly thought so. And today, the estimated 16,500 fans who soaked up a little April sun at Kinnick Stadium probably have a better understanding for the challenges Iowa coaches face as they work to select a starter. Jake Rudock, Cody Sokol and C.J. Beathard all showed plenty of potential while at the controls of the Hawkeye offense. Each showed room for growth. Sokol threw for 183 yards, completing 13-of-18 passes, while Rudock connected on 18-of-28 tries for 174 yards. Beathard went 10-of-19 for 110 yards as well in the four-quarter scrimmage which concluded Iowa's spring drills. Rudock certainly left coaches with something to think about, hitting receivers on six straight passes in the final two minutes of the scrimmage to set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Macon Plewa. The sophomore showed poise and confidence as he ran the rapid-fire two-minute offense. He also turned the ball over once on a drive that was nearing the end zone. Sokol, who fumbled an exchange as well, looked equally effective and equally inexperienced at times. To a degree, that is what April football is about, a chance to learn away from the pressures of the season, a chance to grow. Ferentz and Davis both seem comfortable with letting that growth continue as do the participants. "It's still early,'' Rudock said. "We've only had 15 practices. Nothing's settled. I don't think any of us thought that would happen. We will just continue to work.'' It's the work that takes place between now and the start of fall camp in August which may provide the separation coaches seek. Ferentz prefers to have at least an initial conclusion reached by mid-August, giving the team at least a couple of weeks to prepare with a set top quarterback before the Hawkeyes' Aug. 31 opener against Northern Illinois. Davis has worked with two quarterbacks into the opening weeks of a season before, something he is prepared to do again and something Ferentz would prefer to avoid. Although, history has taught the 15th-year Iowa coach that it is typically best to craft a depth chart in pencil instead of ink. He freqeuently reflects back to the spring of 1987, when three quarterbacks were battling to win the starting nod. "I was just a dumb line coach at the time, still am to some degree but with a different title, but the only thing coming out of spring ball that year that I was certain of was that (Chuck) Hartlieb was our No. 3 quarterback,'' Ferentz recalled. Hartlieb had other ideas and by the time that season ended, he had worked his way past eventual first-round draft pick Dan McGwire and Tom Poholsky and into the starting lineup. Hartlieb threw for 3,092 yards that year and led the Hawkeyes to a 10-3 season which ended with a 20-19 win over Wyoming in the Holiday Bowl. "You never know,'' Ferentz said. That's one reason Ferentz prefers to take the time that Iowa has - the opener is still four months away - to see what and who develops. He suspects that Iowa will be better because of it. History tells him that just might be the case.

Return to the room

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013
Phil Parker has returned to the classroom this spring and the Iowa defensive coordinator is enjoying his return to the room as he works with Hawkeye defensive backs. Parker gave up that assignment a year ago when he replaced Norm Park as Iowa's defensive coordinator, overseeing the entire defensive group instead of working with one segment of the Hawkeye attack for the first time in his tenure at Iowa. While Parker continues in his umbrella role of coordinating Iowa's defense, Darrell Wilson's decision to leave the program for a job at Rutgers and a return to his home state created an opportunity for Parker to re-shape Iowa's defensive staff. Jim Reid, the defensive coordinator at Virginia last fall whose experience includes working as a head coach at the Division I level and coaching in the NFL, was brought in to coach inside linebackers at Iowa. That allowed Parker to return to a role with the secondary. "It has been good for me to get back in the room with the kids and teach them football,'' Parker said at a news conference this afternoon. "It's kept me pretty busy and more involved, but I'm very happy at this stage with where we are at.'' That extends beyond his own segment. Parker said he has seen growth from a young defensive line and he said a group of senior linebackers has benefitted from the coaching of Reid and LeVar Woods. Parker said he has enjoyed the hands-on experience of working with one personnel group again. "I was doing it for such a long time. When we went through and I wasn't actually in the (position) meetings, you kind of miss it,'' Parker said. "I was looking for an opportunity to come back, so I was pleased to get back there. There was no hesitation for me to go back.'' He said coach Kirk Ferentz was open to the idea and the pair came to a "mutual agreement'' to make it all work. "There's only 24 hours in a day,'' Parker said. "You've got to be real efficient in what you're doing. The way we do it, a lot of our guys have input in what we're doing so that hasn't changed.''

Landscaping project

Monday, April 22nd, 2013
Spring - what little of it there has seemingly been this year - is a perfect time to do a little landscaping work. Just ask college administrators. Before the end of this week, it is likely that for the first time since splitting into Legends and Leaders the Big Ten will divide its football teams into logical, geography-based divisions. Conference presidents and chancellors will vote on a proposal in upcoming days to split things just that way, leaving Iowa in a division with Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Illinois and Purdue. The remaining seven institutions are headed East, meaning that the "Champions of the West'' will be playing for the Eastern Division title each year in the Big Ten. What does it mean for Iowa fans? Fewer visits to Kinnick Stadium by conference heavyweights Michigan and Ohio State than ever, as few as three appearances over a 12-year span. Annual border match-ups with five of the six league rivals, something that been sorely missing under the current arrangement. The lack of games against Illinois and Wisconsin in recent seasons has been a constant complaint on both sides of the river which now runs through our parking lot at the Quad-City Times. Some would argue that fewer games against Michigan and Ohio State are a good thing for Iowa and others in the West. After all, Iowa is 13-41-4 all-time against the Wolverines and 14-46-3 overall against the Buckeyes. It can also be argued that it may make recruiting players from Eastern states a bit more of a challenge. For example, if a player from Ohio or New Jersey or Maryland is picking between Iowa and say, Michigan State, he can be assured of annual games against teams from his home state. Hawkeye recruiters won't be able to make that promise. To some recruits, that will matter. In alphabetical order, here's a breakdown of Iowa's record against opponents in the new West over the past two decades: Illinois: 8-6 Minnesota: 14-6 Nebraska: 0-4 Northwestern: 7-10 Purdue: 7-5-1 Wisconsin: 8-8 Any shift in that landscape, which will take place in 2014 if approved, pales to the likelihood of a nine-game conference schedule that would take place two years later. Coach Kirk Ferentz basically conceded earlier this spring that that change was coming. He's not a fan of a rotation between 5-home, 4-road Big Ten games one year followed by 4-home, 5-road league games the next. It does create imbalance that will play out in the standings. In theory, it also provides stronger home schedules and a chance for the conference to spill some of those games into September where the league is hopeful that more Big Ten vs. Big Ten product will lead to increased dollars when it comes to television contracts. While the Big Ten concerns itself with re-shaping its product, the Atlantic Coast Conference has built a wall of sorts to protect it. The league announced today approval of a grant of rights agreement which would send media rights revenue for the 14-year length of the deal to the conference. The deal, patterned after ones which already exist in the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12, eliminates one of the reasons program poaching has been taking place in the first place. It would keep those dollars with the existing conference rather than sending them to the school's new conference. Simply put, it reduces the value to the new conference of bringing in a new member. The proactive move by the ACC should slow or end the moves taking place among the upper tier of conferences that has taken place in recent years. At least for now.

Bridging the gap

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013
In addition to developing depth and determining starting roles, work that continues this spring, players on the Iowa offensive line are working to bridge the gap between first and second team. Offensive line coach Brian Ferentz said today that some level of drop-off in performance is to be expected when a starter is injured, but he wants the group of 16 linemen he is currently working with to be better prepared when the inevitable injury occurs. "I think the goal for us is to build the kind of depth to be able to play with the kind of consistency where you do not see a performance decline when you suffer injuries,'' Ferentz said. In the mind of the former Hawkeye who is now in his second season of working with Iowa's offensive linemen, he has specific objectives. "We want to see consistency, we want to see physical play, we want to be assignment sound, we want to be fundamentally sound. We want to be all those things,'' Ferentz said. Seven of the 16 players Ferentz is currently working with have starting experience. Seven more redshirted last season. The nine who did not redshirt all saw some playing time a year ago, but Ferentz considers right tackle Brett Van Sloten to be the only returning regular who has consistently played at a high level. "The other six guys that have started, they have been sporadic at best, so there is some experience but not a wealth of experience,'' Ferentz said. That has led to the emphasis on consistency, a word the Hawkeyes have heard a lot during the first 10 of their 15 spring football practices. "Bottom line is if you don't perform with consistency, you really can't expect to have good results,'' Ferentz said. "...You want to flatline a little bit as an offensive line, you want it to kind of be the same every play and that is what we are always trying to build.'' That's where bridging the gap comes in. Ferentz believes Iowa dealt with too big of a drop off in execution last season when injuries forced lineup changes on the Hawkeye offensive front. "The trick to it is, can you move the pieces in and out and maintain a certain level of play?'' he said. "I don't feel we did that very well last year. I don't feel like we are doing it really well right now. That's something we need to improve.''

Green and growing

Sunday, April 14th, 2013
Iowa's football team looked April inconsistent in its open practice at Valley Stadium in West Des Moines. The Hawkeyes had their moments and their miscues, not unusual for this time of year. There is healthy competition taking place at a number of positions, and when the offense and defense had a chance to go at each other, things got a little fiesty from time to time which isn't a bad thing either. Iowa's quarterback race remains that, although coach Kirk Ferentz concedes that the reps Jake Rudock received a year ago while at No. 2 on the depth chart have given the sophomore a noticable comfort in working the Iowa offense. He had his share of over and under throws, as did Cody Sokol and C.J. Beathard, but Rudock seemed at ease behind center. Sokol is slightly more athletic and did not hesitate to the take the ball and run with it on a zone read that has become part of the Hawkeye arsenal. Beathard displayed a strong arm during the drill segment of the practice but looked uncertain and a bit jittery at times behind center once Iowa went live. That's a snapshot from one practice, and it is the entire body of work which will be used to determine who will open behind center when Northern Illinois arrives at Kinnick Stadium in late August. Ferentz said the competition will continue at least through the end of spring practices and for now, all three will continue to rotate every third snap. That is providing coaches with a look at how each candidate does at the controls of the No. 1, 2 and 3 offenses. Iowa worked for two-and-a-half hours on a blustery, and sometimes rainy, mid-April afternoon. The advertised strengths of this team - depth at the running back and tailback positions, solid offensive line play and strength at linebacker spots and on the corners - looked like strengths. The areas where Iowa is green and growing - the defensive line and receivers, for example - were shaky at times. Iowa is without returning defensive linemen Louis Trinca-Pasat this spring as he works his way back from rotator cuff surgery, but there remains room for growth from a defensive front which had its struggles dealing with Iowa's offensive front and run game. Redshirt freshman Faith Ekakite spent more time at defensive end on Sunday than he did at a tackle position, a shift from the pre-spring depth chart, but typical of the experimentation which was commonplace last season as Reese Morgan worked with his linemen. At receiver, the most consistent Hawkeye was a redshirt freshman, Riley McCarron. The 5-foot-9, 182-pounder from Dubuque Wahlert caught most of the balls thrown his way by each of Iowa's quarterbacks and had a touchdown catch during the live scrimmage segment of the practice. Ferentz was not surprised by McCarron's performance. "He did a great job with the scout team last year, but that's a little like playing pick-up basketball. Sometimes, guys lose something in the transition,'' Ferentz said. McCarron spent time working with the first unit, though, a sign that Iowa coaches are taking a close look at his abilities. Hawkeye receivers accounted for four of the team's seven drops today, an issue a year ago that at least from today's performance has yet to be solved. "There were some nerves out there today,'' running back Damon Bullock said. "It's natural, the first time in front of a crowd in the spring. This will help us, though. We need to get the bugs out in situations like this.'' Iowa spent a lot of time on special teams early and late in its workout. Alden Haffer, a junior college transfer kicker from Iowa Central who prepped at West Des Moines Valley, displayed a leg which could lead him to some kickoff opportunities and is worth keeping an eye on. Redshirt freshman Maurice Fleming joined Kevonte Martin-Manley, Jordan Cotton and Jordan Canzeri in returning punts. The Hawkeyes ran a gunner drill early in the practice and concluded with a drill that put the ball in the hands of a punt returner whose job was to take off once two defenders positioned 20 yards downfield were within seven yards of him. The spirited drill was illustrative of a more high-energy, high-tempo workout that is resonating well with players. "The pace has been a little quicker, a little more competitive and I think that's been good for all of us,'' Canzeri said.

Too little, too late

Thursday, April 11th, 2013
So now Steve Alford is sorry. More than a decade after he did everything he could to look the other way after Iowa basketball player Pierre Pierce was charged with sexual assault, Alford has had a change of heart. He now says his response at the time - proclaiming Pierce's innocence before the legal system had run its course - was "inappropriate, insensitive and hurtful, especially to the young female victim involved.'' It took him more than 10 years to come to that conclusion? Alford, who claimed at a UCLA news conference last week that he followed what University of Iowa administrators and counsel told him to do every step of the way, seemingly forgot about the university's own investigation which criticized the coach for trying to upend the legal process before it had played out. Alford's initial reaction was to seek the involvement of the leader of the area Athletes in Action group, a close friend who led the faith-based organization to suggest that the entire matter could be resolved through a prayer meeting. Alford also was involved in an eventual plea agreement which led to Pierce being required to redshirt the following season. The only comments Iowa officials have made concerning Alford's recent statements is to say it stands behind the conclusions of a 2003 report which criticized the coach for his handling of what transpired. As required by the plea agreement, Pierce sat out the 2002-03 season and returned the following year only to eventually be tossed off the team following his involvement in a similar incident which resulted in jail time. And until the end, Alford remained in the corner of a player who was averaging 16.1 points per game. The teeth of his statement today can be found near the end, when Alford indicated it was important' for him "personally and professionally'' to make certain that UCLA administrators, his players and "the entire UCLA community, including our fans'' understand that he would handle the situation today much differently than he did in 2002 as a young coach. Time will likely provide Alford with an opportunity to do just that, but his words today seem a tad hollow and come much, much too late. Alford's new employer indicates that it was aware of the Pierce situation when it hired Alford away from New Mexico. Director of athletics Dan Guerrero refers to it as an "error in judgment,'' indicating Alford's willingness now acknowledge that and learn from it "shows true character.'' It also indicates that the heat on Alford and the administrator who hired him might have been getting a little warmer than both the coach and the university may have anticipated when they selected him to head their most visable program late last month. Don't expect the empty words issued today to do much to simply make everything go away in Westwood. Simply put, too little, too late. Way too late.

Early tip

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013
Now that Louisville has had all of about nine hours to enjoy its 2013 NCAA basketball title, it's time to think about who might be cutting down the nets one year from now. Even before early exits have shaped the landscape for next season, Iowa is getting a little love from at least one early early early top-25. ESPN.com places the Hawkeyes in the 25th spot in its initial look at 2014, a reflection on the improvements Iowa made during its recently completed 25-13 season and the fact that coach Fran McCaffery will be working with a roster that loses one scholarship player, Eric May. The authors touch briefly on Iowa's 9-9 Big Ten finish and solid postseason run among other reasons for including the Hawkeyes in the poll, projecting a return to NCAA play for the first time since 2006 as well. Iowa is the fourth Big Ten team listed on the poll which is topped by Kentucky and Louisville. Michigan State ranks third in a top five which also includes Arizona and Duke. The poll also includes Ohio State at sixth and Indiana at 19th, one spot ahead of where it ranks Kansas. It lists Michigan and Wisconsin as other teams to watch. ESPN isn't the only organization to get an early line on what will take place a year from now. Pregame.com's R.J. Bell lists Kentucky as a 4:1 favorite to win the the NCAA title one year from now. Its most-favored Big Ten team is Ohio State, which it rates at 9:1. It also lists Michigan State at 15:1, Michigan at 20:1, Indiana at 30:1 and Minnesota at 35:1. Those are the only Big Ten teams it lists. An exceptionally young team this season, Michigan's roster could be impacted as much as any in the Big Ten by early exits. Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary all declined comment on their future plans following Monday's title game, saying those thoughts would be reserved for another time. If some combination of those players return, the Wolverines will again find themselves in the mix in the Big Ten which will be hardpressed to match the postseason success it enjoyed following one of its strongest seasons in recent years. Collectively, Big Ten teams finished 19-9 overall in postseason play. Michigan's run to the NCAA title game and Iowa's march to the NIT final account for nine of those victories.

Nothing but net

Thursday, April 4th, 2013
A little over an hour before the start of tonight's National Invitation Tournament championship game, Iowa warmups came to a screeching halt. A problem with a net needed fixing and for 10 minutes, crews worked to repair it. The Hawkeyes moved onto some stretching as the fix was taken care of Madison Square Garden officials but they might as well have attached a lid to the top of the basket. Nothing seemed to fall for Iowa, which hit just 7-of-28 shots in the first half and still found itself trailing Baylor 27-22 at the break. "I didn't feel like we played well at all, seemingly fortunate to be down five at that time,'' coach Fran McCaffery said. "I figured if we could start with a run, cut into it even more, but it seemed like we just kept missing easy shots.'' Lots and lots of easy shots. Two Iowa starters, Melsahn Basabe and Adam Woodbury, were a combined 0-for-9 from the field. Zach McCabe came off the bench to miss each of the eight shots he attempted and combined with Aaron White's 4-of-13 game and Devyn Marble's 3-of-12, it's easy to understand why the Hawkeyes had retreated to the locker room by the time the NIT championship trophy was being handed to the Bears. McCaffery felt his team settled for a few too many 3-point shots, most taken too quickly, as Iowa strayed from its strength of moving the ball more from side to side, in and out, searching for open looks or driving lanes that have typically led the Hawkeyes to the free-throw line. "I thought Melsahn's looks early on were really good and Zach, he doesn't make a basket but he made a couple of really good moves, had some great offensive rebounds that led him to a lay-up that wouldn't fall,'' McCaffery said. "That was frustrating for him and for all of us.'' About the only bright spot was Mike Gesell, who will finally have time to rest the stress relief injury in his right foot following a 4-of-6 game from the field which led him to a team-high 13-point game. "When I put him back out there (in the second half), I told him to go play with some reckless abandon because if you fiddle with ball with these guys, they're too quick,'' McCaffery said. And when Iowa tried to run a set, Baylor filled the spaces as the Hawkeyes attempted to get players lined up. "You've just got to go. When they come up on you, go because that is when they are going to be off-balance,'' McCaffery said. "He was the only one who could get anything going offensively.'' Gesell scored all of his points in the second half, most coming after the Bears had seized control of the game. "We couldn't get anything going,'' Basabe said. "We couldn't get any shots to drop. That's a tough way to play.''

On the attack

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013
Things weren't looking good for the Iowa basketball team early in the second half of tonight's 71-60 win over Maryland in the semifinals in the National Invitation Tournament. The Terrapins, who seemed oblivious to the presence of 7-foot-1, 255-pound Alex Len on the floor in the first half, suddenly were pounding the ball down low to the sophomore who carries the label of an NBA draft lottery pick. As that happened, the fouls piled up for Iowa. Melsahn Basabe picked up his second and third fouls in a span of 30 seconds in the opening minute of the half. Adam Woodbury and Zach McCabe soon joined him with three fouls apiece with 14:17 remaining in the game. The Terps were in the bonus and Iowa was in trouble. But, the Hawkeyes helped themselves by maintaining an aggressive approach defensively and making the most of its man and zone looks. Coach Fran McCaffery said he typically encourages his players not to lose their edge, even if fouls become an issue. "No matter what you do, it's typically a function of who they are, what kind of character they possess,'' McCaffery said. "We encourage them to continue to be aggressive and conitnue to make plays and not be tentative,'' he said. McCaffery liked the controlled aggressiveness he saw from Woodbury and McCabe. Woodbury's defensive effort was consistent throughout the Hawkeyes' 25th win of the season. He found himself facing Len in man-to-man situations more frequently in the first half, limiting the Maryland sophomore to four points on 2-of-4 shooting. "I thought (Woodbury) moved his feet, I thought he moved with the ball, got his high hand up and he got in front of him. He really understood the angles and made it difficult for him,'' McCaffery said. Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said his team struggled with the physical nature of Iowa's defense. "That physicality is something we weren't used to. I watched them go right at Michigan State and Michigan State is pretty physical,'' Turgeon said. "We talked about it, but we just weren't ready for it.''

A place to play

Monday, April 1st, 2013
Coaches of the four teams which will compete in Tuesday's semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament shared the spotlight today at New York City news conference. With the chaotic hustle and bustle of Times Square as a backdrop, they talked the chaotic ups and downs which led their teams to the NIT and an opportunity to extend seasons which didn't end in the NCAA tourney experience that each had sought. "I'm unbelievably proud of my team,'' said Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, whose team faces Iowa in an 8:30 p.m. semifinal Tuesday. "About mid-February, I didn't know if we were every going to figure it out. We hit rock bottom at Georgia Tech (a 78-68 loss on Feb. 27 which dropped the Terrapins to 19-9), but since then our kids have been great. They have embraced this. We're excited.'' Iowa coach Fran McCaffery talked about the NIT has provided his team with a chance for continued development and the chance to earn a coveted critical win on the road. "We've played some teams well on the road, but it seems like every time we got into a game like that someone made a three with 10 seconds to go,'' McCaffery said. "But, that's what the journey is, it's part of the challenge. Go on the road, beat a quality team in their building and we've proven that we have the ability to do that. That's what the NIT has given our young team.'' BYU coach Dave Rose, whose team faces Baylor in a 6 p.m. game, talked about how proud he has been of how his team responded after not being able to add to a collection of six straight appearances in the NCAA tourney. Rose has seen growth as his team has accepted the challenge of seeing how long it can extend its season. That's something that Baylor coach Scott Drew understands as well. He's shared the history of the event - the NIT has been around since 1938 and was considered the premier postseason college tourney before the NCAA began to host its own postseason event. Mostly though, he's pleased that the Bears have responded the way they have to earn their way to New York City. "Every coach dreams of playing in April, wants his team to play in April, and I know we're excited and privileged to be a part of this,'' Drew said.