HERSOM: Ferentz hopes young Hawkeyes improve fast

2012-05-08T22:00:00Z 2012-05-08T23:45:23Z HERSOM: Ferentz hopes young Hawkeyes improve fast Sioux City Journal
May 08, 2012 10:00 pm

SIOUX CITY -- I didn't figure Kirk Ferentz wanted to talk a bunch more about the players who've jumped ship.

They've had enough attention already. And, frankly, most of them ran afoul of the law before exiting Iowa City, anyway. So, good riddance to so on and so forth.

I didn't figure the Iowa Hawkeyes' articulate head football coach wanted to prattle on and on about starting over with new offensive and defensive coordinators, Greg Davis and Phil Parker, who I'm sure will do just fine.

More old news.

Rather, for his appearance Monday night at the Siouxland I-Club dinner, I figured the man whose teams rank second in Big Ten wins over the last decade deserved to focus on the positives.

There are plenty of those, after all. And, the very biggest is simply the body of work Ferentz has put together over a superb 13-year stretch as the successor to Hayden Fry, a very tough act to follow, to say the least.

Don't look now, but even Fry, himself, would be pleased as punch to see one of his former assistants sitting four wins away from a milestone 100th victory, sporting a 96-66 record at the Iowa helm.

If you're under 40, you're probably too young to appreciate how remarkable it has been to see Iowa football flourish under Fry and Ferentz after going 19 seasons without finishing above .500 from 1962 through 1980 -- a drought that included Fry's first two years.

Late in the 1970's, in fact, the great Tait Cummins from WMT in Cedar Rapids, the voice of the Hawkeyes in those days, told me Iowa simply had no possibility of ever winning a Big Ten championship against the likes of Ohio State and Michigan.

I've always wished Tait had lived long enough to see the three Rose Bowl trips Iowa enjoyed under Fry and the subsequent successes under Ferentz (a combined 22 winners in the last 31 years between the two). And, such perspective permits me to greatly respect Ferentz even after back-to-back 4-4 finishes in the rugged Big Ten has some of the natives a little restless.

"That's certainly not our goal at the start of the season,'' said Fry of the two straight break-even conference records.

Quite honestly, though, improving on that could be a bit of a challenge for a young team that has major question marks at running back and wide receiver and the defensive line -- which adds up to a few too many trouble spots to be considered a title contender.

"I think really the message to our team is how quickly we can improve,'' said Ferentz. "What can we do to maximize every opportunity in front of us right now? The good thing about having young teams is they really can improve a lot quicker.''

And, I think these Hawkeyes will do just that, even if I can't possibly foresee them matching the six NFL draft picks they've now enjoyed for three years in a row.

"If you look at our senior class, it's conceivable we might only have five to eight starters,'' said Ferentz.

That list starts with quarterback James Vandenberg, which is certainly a good place to start if your seniors aren't too numerous.

"I think he'll play really well for us as a senior,'' said the coach of his veteran QB.

The schedule may be helpful, as well, since Iowa opens Sept. 1, facing Northern Illinois at Soldier Field in Chicago before returning home for consecutive Kinnick Stadium appearances against Iowa State, Northern Iowa, Central Michigan and Minnesota.

Ohio State and Wisconsin, two of the projected favorites are among the three Big Ten teams the Hawkeyes don't face (along with Illinois).

"With a young team, I think that's really a positive,'' said Ferentz of the four straight home games. "Hopefully, it'll give us a chance to build a little bit. It's certainly going to be imperative we come out of September a better team than when we start.''

Hawkeye fans can only hope a serviceable running back comes to the forefront after Marcus Coker jumped ship for Stony Brook of New York, an FCS school, and Mika'il McCall transferred to Southern Illinois. Meanwhile, Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley, two of the top receivers on the roster, both battled injuries all spring and Ferentz can't necessarily count on either of them being around in the fall.

One positive, which runs true to form for Iowa, is another promising offensive line that will likely have 6-5, 310-pound sophomore Brandon Scherff from Denison starting at left tackle.

"I think we have a chance (to be good in the line),'' said Ferentz. "And, it's interesting because we only have two seniors up front (center James Ferentz and guard Matt Tobin). Brandon Scherff has a chance to be a really good player, not just a good player.''

Look, too, for junior linebackers James Morris and Chris Kirksey to be mainstays on the defense.

And, if you just can't see this being a very sparkling season, keep in mind that Iowa finished 7-6 last fall despite ranking 76th in the nation in total offense and 60th in total defense.

That's scarcely a recipe for success, yet the Hawks might have wound up 9-4 if not for a triple-overtime 44-41 loss at Iowa State and a 22-21 setback at Minnesota. Indeed, the 31-14 verdict in their Insight Bowl loss to Oklahoma was the most decisive blemish on the slate.

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