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Archive for April, 2014

What to make of Willies

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014
In the two glimpses the public had of the Iowa football team this spring, Derrick Willies came to play. The redshirt freshman wide receiver from Rock Island demonstrated his abilities both during the Hawkeyes' open practice in West Des Moines earlier this month and last Saturday on the turf at Kinnick Stadium in the spring game. There's a lot to like about the potential Willies brings to the field for the Hawkeyes. At 6-foot-4, he has size. He has hands. He has the athleticism that allowed him to win a state hurdles championship at Rock Island High School. And as he demonstrated a couple of times Saturday, he doesn't shy away from contact and has the ability to go up in traffic and bring down the ball. Those traits will all serve him well as his career progresses. The spring game sensation - there is seemingly one every year and Willies was thee guy this year for Iowa - has a bright future ahead of him. In time. There's more to playing receiver than simply catching the ball. There's blocking, running consistent routes and performing and practicing with the necessary focus long before the gates open at a stadium on game day. Mastering those elements will lead to opportunities for Willies once the regular-season begins. It has always been that way at Iowa and will likely remain part of the job description as long as Kirk Ferentz is coaching team. When the Hawkeye coach was asked about Willies on Saturday, the first comments he made were about Kevonte Martin-Manley, Tevaun Smith and Jacoby Hillyer. As for Willies, Ferentz then labeled his day the best that he had enjoyed during the spring. He scored on a 42-yard pass play from C.J. Beathard, made a sideline catch which drew praise from Ferentz and later rattled off of a couple of defenders during a 52-yard gain. His work drew praise from Martin-Manley, the most experienced receiver Iowa has this season. "He's a talented player who plays with a lot of confidence and heart,'' Martin-Manley said. "We have a lot of a good receivers around here now and that is only going to help all of us. It makes it tough on a defense.'' Just how tough Willies will be on opposing defenses this fall remains to be seen and will likely be determined by the work he puts into his game this summer and once fall camp resumes. Then, he'll earn any playing time he gets on the practice field each and every week. He'll earn his opportunities one day at a time - just as those before him have done.

The spring thing

Saturday, April 26th, 2014
Spring practices for the Iowa football team today under sunny skies that were matched only by the team's optimism heading into the summer. There is potential in this Iowa football team that could make 2012 a distant memory for Hawkeye fans, but in a college game where a fine line seperates wins and losses more so than at any time in recent history, potential won't win a game in September. It's the work that Iowa players will put in over the summer and in fall camp that will determing whether the Hawkeyes can make the most of a schedule that lacks any opponent from the state of Michigan and Ohio. That can be a regular-season advantage for Iowa, but only if it makes it an advantage with continued growth and development. The Hawkeyes have more depth and and better depth at the skill positions on offense than the program has had in a decade. Quarterbacks Jake Rudock and C.J. Beathard showed continued growth this spring, for once Iowa actually has experience and depth at running back and in addition to a group of solid tight ends ready to assume increased roles following the graduation loss of C.J. Fiedorowicz, the Hawkeyes have an assortment of receivers who have as many styles as the variety of players who will carry the ball for Iowa. The Hawkeyes are not without offensive questions. The depth of on the line is thin and as was the case in 2012, injuries to the wrong combination of players at the wrong time can impact things quickly. Coach Kirk Ferentz was quick to point out today that this is an important few months for the second-team players on the offensive line. Their ability to elevate their level of play will make a difference this fall. On defense, Iowa's line is a veteran one and is currently the strength of the unit. The Hawkeyes have the right pieces in place in Quinton Alston at middle linebacker and Jordan Lomax at free safety. Both are classroom smart, playing field tough defenders who are the right fits as quarterbacks of the defense. With only five starters returning, Iowa still has some things to sort out on defense. The left cornerback spot is hotly contested and Lomax by his own admission still has plenty to learn in upcoming months. "Without this spring, the move (from cornerback to free safety) would have been tough, but with every day, I'm figuring it out,'' Lomax said. "This is giving me a head start on the season.'' Iowa will need Lomax and the secondary to perform at a more consistent level this fall. The big plays allowed in both the open practice at West Des Moines and today in the spring game illustrate that the secondary remains a work in progress. The same could be said for special teams. Ferentz indicated that both the starting kicking and punting positions remain up for grabs as Iowa heads into the summer. He expects to reach some conclusions during fall camp, although he didn't hesitate to say today that players at both spots have not had the type of desired consistency through 15 spring practices. Hot one day, cold the next is a formula for in-season problems if it does not get ironed out and in a conference where razor-thin differences determine winners and losers, the Hawkeyes will need solutions at both spots to emerge in upcoming months. How quickly Iowa turns potential into performance will ultimately determine just what type of team the Hawkeyes will field this fall.

Sunny disposition

Thursday, April 24th, 2014
For the second straight season, it looks like Iowa will be playing its home football games under the sun - and an occasional cloud or two - at Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeyes are not among Big Ten teams selected for primetime telecasts this season, snubbed last week the ABC/ESPN/ESPN2 folks and this week by the Big Ten Network. The league's growing footprint left five programs - Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana and Purdue - without primetime kickoffs this season. Iowa had played at least one home game under the lights annually since 2008 until being bypassed a year ago coming off of a 4-8 season. But, apparently plenty of returning talent from an 8-5 year wasn't enough to turn on the lights at Kinnick this fall. In reality, it probably has as much to do with match-ups as anything else. There are no Michigans, no Ohio States, no Michigan States or even a Penn State on the Hawkeye schedule this fall. Big Ten newbies Maryland and Rutgers will get a little first-year love from the Big Ten Network, and the traditional league heavyweights will get their share of night life, but Iowa's kickoffs at home and in conference play will generally fall under the 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. television windows. Iowa fans voiced their displeasure on social media earlier this week, assuming that at least one game at Kinnick might provide elongated tailgate opportunities. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz doesn't count himself among those overly disappointed by the decisions made beyond the confines of the campus he works at. "We take things as they come and I understand it has a lot to do with match-ups and the time of year,'' Ferentz said. "They're more enjoyable at home than on the road. We do have to alter our routine a bit when we play at night, so it doesn't appear that will be an issue.''

A great life

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014
Kirk Ferentz has been on the job this week at Iowa despite the passing of his father-in-law, speaking at the Washington County I-Club outing Monday night in Riverside and at a Tuesday Rotary Club luncheon in Rock Island in addition to working with his team on the practice field during its final week of spring practices. Gerry Hart, the father of Mary Ferentz, died last week in Pittsburgh at the age of 83 and services are scheduled for May 10 for a man who Ferentz said Wednesday lived "a great life.'' "There are a lot of stories with him. He really had a great life, wa a great father-in-law,'' Ferentz said. "The thing I remember most about him, just that he had a great life. He had it all, had a good family, good experience in in football.'' Gerry Hart worked 10 years as an NFL official following a playing career at Notre Dame and Army. He worked in sales and his job often included entertaining clients which Ferentz said his father-in-law was a natural at. "With his football connections, he did a lot of neat Super Bowl events,'' Ferentz said. "That's one thing about Gerry, he had a good time doing what he did.''

Surprise departure

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014
It's a rare day when Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz gets surprised by something happening within his program. The Hawkeye coach said today in Rock Island that long-time assistant Eric Johnson caught him off guard last week when he reached a decision to leave the Iowa program. "That one caught me a bit by surprise,'' Ferentz said. Johnson, the Hawkeyes' recruiting coordinator for the past decade and an assistant defensive line coach the past two years, is leaving coaching to operate a Culver's restaurant in suburban Nashville. A member of Ferentz's original Iowa staff who came to Iowa at the recommendation of defensive coordinator Norm Parker, Johnson cited a desire to have more family time as his young twin daughters become more involved in activities. "Eric has done a tremendous job with us and I understand his reasoning,'' Ferentz said. "I don't want to speak for him, but I sensed he felt he was at a point in his life where he wanted to review where he was at and where he was headed and he opted to make a change. I respect that.'' Ferentz said Parker's recommendation to hire Johnson was one of many positive ways Parker impacted the Hawkeye program during his time on the Iowa staff. The Hawkeyes conclude spring practices on Saturday with a 2 p.m. spring game at Kinnick Stadium and Ferentz said he has already thought about both the short-term and long-term answers for the position Johnson filled. "I feel like we're close to having things covered in the short team and we'll continue to work toward the long-term answer as well,'' Ferentz said. "It's an important role and we'll consider our options and go from there.''

Making a point in 140 characters or less

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014
Brian Ferentz doesn't shy away from making his point, even if it raises an eyebrow or two along the way. The Iowa offensive line coach has on occasion turned to his Twitter account to get his point across, including last fall when he suggested that the game-day experience at Kinnick Stadium was lacking and encouraged fans to create their own energy as Iowa prepared to welcome Wisconsin to town. "I know that the stadium experience is lacking but this needs your support - do it on your own. Best fans in the country!'' Ferentz tweeted the day before the Hawkeyes and Badgers played. The tweet led to an intense discussion among fans and today, Ferentz said he had no issues with what transpired. "What I tweeted was exactly what I meant. I had a pretty good understanding of what might happen and I shared that information publicly,'' Ferentz said. "Again, it goes back to whatever your personality is, what you're comfortable sharing and what you're comfortable commenting on from a social standpoint.'' Ferentz has seen the value of social media in recruiting and he understands as well as any coach on the Iowa staff how powerful a tweet - in 140 characters or less - can be in sending a message that he wants sent. Ferentz said he attempts to limit his tweets to areas that involve the program he works for. "I don't tweet about politics. I don't tweet about things like that,'' he said. "I made a comment about something that I thought was relevant. Has it improved? We'll find that out when we get to August.'' Ferentz didn't apologize for stepping on any egos he may have brushed against with his tweet, saying he has the best interest of the football program as the cornerstone of his beliefs. "What we're trying to do is provide our fans with the best possible experience on a weekly basis and that starts with us winning football games, certainly that's important. But, we also come at it with the understanding that fans have options nowadays, unfortunately or fortunately depending on how you look at it,'' Ferentz said. "I know the NFL is dealing with it, and we're trying to deal with it. What we want is to provide the best possible experience for our fans because we value the contributions, financially and from a time standpoint, that they make to support us.'' Ferentz said the Hawkeyes' trip last weekend to West Des Moines for a public practice and the annual Kids at Kinnick Day are examples of that outreach. "We'll find out as we get to August if we've made any progress there or not,'' he said. "I can assure you from our standpoint, we intend on winning more than eight games. So, we're trying to do our part.''

First impressions

Saturday, April 12th, 2014
The good, the bad and the ugly from today's Iowa football open practice, the first impressions left by the Hawkeye team which is nine practices into the 15 it is allowed this spring: THE GOOD Iowa's depth is as advertised, improved, never a bad thing in the Big Ten. The situation is leading to increased competition throughout the Hawkeye roster this spring and a situation where players no matter how experienced understand that playing time is up for grabs. That's healthy. Iowa is particularly well stocked at the offensive skill positions although two redshirt freshmen running backs coaches hoped to get a good look saw little or no time during the two-and-a-half hour workout. Akrum Wadley saw the field ever so briefly because of a slight injury, while Jonathan Parker was excused from practice to attend a funeral. The absence allowed Iowa's receivers to shine. Greg Davis wasn't simply a tall-talking Texan when he heaped praise in December on the progress he was seeing from four freshmen receivers who redshirted last season. Derrick Willies, Derrick Mitchell and Andre Harris all had their moments Saturday, taking turns leaving the Hawkeye secondary red faced with a collection of big plays throughout the workout. Coach Kirk Ferentz was quick to temper enthusiasm about the group, saying that the needed consistency from one day to the next and even the ability to fully grasp and perform within the structure of the offense remains a work in progress for the group. Their ability to grasp that between now and the end of fall camp will determine just how much playing time those individuals will see, but there is reason to believe that at least one and possibly more will provide contributions to an expanded passing game in the fall. Among other quick thoughts, Iowa's three new starters at linebacker had solid days and the defensive front is solid. On offense, the Hawkeyes' quarterback depth chart and depth on the offensive line remains unchanged. Jake Rudock looks like a quarterback with a year of starts under his belt. He spent most of the day working with the starting unit, while C.J. Beathard and Nic Shimonek worked with reserves. Beathard is showing growth as well and like Rudock, seems to have a better under understanding of the short passing game.Shimonek has as strong of an arm as advertised and throws a beautiful spiral. On experience alone, he lines up behind the two more experienced arms on the depth chart but he has a bright future in Iowa City with continued growth. THE BAD I'll clean this up, but at one point late in today's practice assistant coach LeVar Woods took several steps on the field and yelled in the direction of the defense, 'Would somebody make a $%*@! tackle?'' and the suggestion didn't seem too far out of line. For nearly every big play a Hawkeye receiver made, a blown coverage or missed tackle opportunity was a factor. Iowa's defense did not have one of its better days collectively and it's clear that both players and coaches weren't pleased with the effort. Ferentz mentioned that Iowa probably made as many mistakes Saturday as it had in its previous five practices combined. Iowa's secondary remains a work in progress, with Desmond King and Sean Draper opening at the cornerback spots and Jordan Lomax and John Lowdermilk taking the field at the safety positions with the No. 1 defensive unit. It was an area where some experimentation was anticipated this spring after Tanner Miller competed his eligibility and at least from this one glimpse, it remains a segment where the work continues. THE UGLY Winds were a factor today, howling out of the south throughout much of the workout to create some chaos in the kicking game. Punter Connor Kornbrath does appear to be make some strides as he is challenged by Dillon Kidd. Iowa did have a kick blocked, drawing one of the bigger responses of the day from the crowd. Marshall Koehn and Alden Haffar handled the kicking duties, but breakdowns up front allowed one of the uglier plays of the day to occur. The latter was simply a reminder that it is April, not August, and performances now - or lack of performances now - will lead to the lineup that will eventually take the field when UNI shows up at Kinnick Stadium. Ferentz was less-than pleased with today's performance, probably a sign that he's seen better in the eight practices leading up to Iowa's public debut. There will be five more closed-door workouts before the public gets its next look at Iowa during the April 26 spring game at Kinnick Stadium. It's safe to assume that Ferentz and Iowa coaches will be looking for a more consistent performance, particularly on defense, when the Hawkeyes take the field that day.

Picking up the pace

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014
As was the case a year ago, Iowa is spending plenty of time on the practice field this spring working with a no-huddle approach to offense. The Hawkeyes used it sparingly last fall, but utilized it as a way to change the pace within the flow of a game as needed. It led Iowa to average around seven more snaps per game in 2013 than it did in 2012 and offensive coordinator Greg Davis would like to see that average grow from 72 in similar fashion this season. The first steps in that process are taking place now, testing the reaction abilities of the Hawkeye defense and the ability of the Iowa offense to successfully execute at a higher tempo. "We're trying to play faster,'' offensive tackle Brandon Scherff said today. "We've started working with the no-huddle again and I think it is something that can help us in the fall.'' Running backs coach Chris White said the current objective is bring all personnel groups up to a level where they can effectively execute the no-huddle. "Whether it's one tight end in the game, three wide receivers, two tight ends, three tight ends, we want to be able to play as fast as we can in all personnel groupings, which I think will help,'' White said. That is the next step in the development of an offense which made strides in Davis' second season as Iowa's coordinator, but still has room for growth. White said the Iowa playbook has grown in the offseason, although it will remain rooted in fundamentals which have led the Hawkeyes to success in the past. The challenge this spring at running back, White said, is to figure out where Iowa's younger running backs fit. "We're trying to find out where we can put them, whether it be in the backfield or whether it be in some of the fly motion stuff and sweeps and bubble screens and things like that,'' White said.

Tackling a challenge with teamwork

Saturday, April 5th, 2014
When discussing the task of filling three starting linebacker positions created by the graduation loss of Anthony Hitchens, Christian Kirksey and James Morris, Iowa assistant LeVar Woods doesn't believe like to use the term "replace.'' Instead, he understands that what the three players brought to the heart of the Hawkeye defense cannot be replaced. What transpires next season will be an evolution brought about the skills of the indivuduals who eventually earn the starting opportunities. Woods, who coaches the outside linebacker position, and Jim Reid, who coaches Iowa's inside linebackers, are tackling the challenge with teamwork. "We have a lot of young guys that are here now working, some guys with experience in games, some at linebacker and some as part of different packages,'' Woods said. "We also have a lot of young faces that no one knows about yet, and we as coaches don't know about yet. We're trying as coaches to find out and see if they really are who we think they are, trying to determine if they can put themselves in a position to play and compete and help us win.'' Reid, 63, said the enthusiasm that Iowa's young players bring to the field and the enthusiasm that Woods offers entering his third season as a linebackers coach in the program, helps keep him young. "It's like father son,'' Reid said. "Dawned on me the other day that I'm probably not going to do this another 42 years because that would make me 105 years old, as I told one of my players, but you never know.'' Reid said the linebackers Iowa coaches are working with -- a group led by Quinton Alston in the middle, Reggie Spearman on the weakside and Travis Perry on the outside -- are making strides. "Every practice that we've had, I feel like we're moving forward and that's something we need,'' Reid said. "Every practice we need to be better in some fashion. We had three tremendous players last year and it was a privilege to coach all of them.'' Reid, who arrived at Iowa from Virginia where he worked as the defensive coordinator from 2010-12 after two seasons as a linebackers coach with the Miami Dolphins, said working with Woods has been enjoyable. "One thing I can tell young linebackers is that if you come here, you're not only going to be coached by an Iowa graduate, but that you will be coached by someone who was a great player here and then played seven years in the NFL before he returned here to coach,'' Reid said. "It's a great situation.'' Woods said Reid, much like former Hawkeye defensive coordinator Norm Parker, has become a mentor to him. "It has been awesome for me, a huge, huge help,'' Woods said.

Costly loss

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014
Iowa lost more than a football game on New Year's Day in Tampa Bay. The Hawkeyes also spent just under $200,000 more than they were allowed for expenses to play in the 2014 Outback Bowl game, largely due to an increase in cost of charter aircraft. According to figures released today by the university, Iowa spent $195,249 more than the expense allowance it received of $1.825 million to be the Big Ten representative in the bowl. The biggest difference between the dollars Iowa spent on a bowl trip following its 2013 season and its most-recent bowl experience prior to that -- the 2011 Insight Bowl -- can be singled out in increased transportation costs. Iowa spent $747,227 on round-trip air costs for the team, coaching staff, marching band and the official university delegation on its trip to Tampa. When it flew to Tempe, Ariz., for the 2011 Insight Bowl, Iowa spent $525,851 on charter aircraft to transport the same groups. Iowa assistant athletic director Mick Walker, who handles financial operations for the athletic department, said in a statement the increase was anticipated as budgeted for this year's trip because of similar increases in the cost of charter service expeirenced by other Iowa teams as they have traveled recently. Walker said bids came in higher than expected in part because of a tight supply of available charter aircraft. Through its contracts with bowls, the Big Ten assigns a dollar figure to expenses that schools can spend or pocket as they choose based on the bowl the institution qualifies for. Iowa typically attempts to budget as closely to the dollar figure it receives and this year's deficit is the first for Iowa since the 2009 Outback Bowl. The report issued by Iowa indicated that its official travel party numbered 663 people, including players, coaches, support staff, the band and spirit squad. The team spent nine days in Florida, while members of the band, spirit squad and universityu officials made a three-day trip. Iowa sold 9,085 tickets from the allotment of 11,500 it was required to sell as part of the Big Ten's agreement with the bowl, nearly 3,000 more tickets than it sold to the 2011 game in Tempe.