As National Signing Day once again came to a close, the Iowa Hawkeyes’ Class of 2017 made a significant leap up the rankings when last-minute additions shook out, putting the Hawkeyes a solid 39th in an average of the top recruiting publications (247Sports, ESPN, Rivals, Scout). But with signing day now in the rear-view mirror, observers once again turn back to the nuts of bolts of deciphering what sort of climate recruits can expect upon arriving in Iowa City.
With the abrupt mid-January announcement that offensive coordinator Greg Davis would be retiring after five seasons with the program, the first thing the newest Hawkeyes will discover are some new faces calling the shots.
Shortly after the Davis announcement, two other members of the staff, wide receivers coach Bobby Kennedy and running backs and special teams coach Chris White, also left the Iowa program after being informed their contracts would not be renewed. In their place head coach Kirk Ferentz took a look to both the future, and the past. In making the first replacement, he turned quite literally to a member of the family, promoting his son, Brian (above, right), to offensive coordinator. Ferentz has been on his father’s staff since 2012, first as offensive line coach and then added running game coordinator to his duties in ’15.
But in what was unquestionably the bigger surprise, Kirk Ferentz brought back former offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe as quarterbacks coach. O’Keefe had been in the NFL the past five seasons serving on the Miami Dolphins’ coaching staff, most recently as senior football research analyst. Iowa’s offensive coordinator from 1999-2011, the end of O’Keefe’s tenure with the Hawkeyes was somewhat the result of an ill-fated go-round with fans following a season that saw the offense struggle down the stretch.
However, Ferentz is hoping that time can heal some old wounds and that O’Keefe can focus on one of the things he did best when we has on staff – mentor some of the best quarterbacks in Iowa program history. Kyle McCann, Brad Banks, Nathan Chandler, Drew Tate and Ricky Stanzi produced five of the top 10 single-season performances under O’Keefe’s tutelage.
With O’Keefe’s departure Hawkeye fans had come to expect more from Davis, the man chosen to replace him, but ultimately Davis was never able to maintain consistent offensive success. From 2012-16, Iowa failed to crack the top 50 in the FBS rankings in either total or scoring offense. Last year’s team finished near the bottom (121st) nationally in yards per game (325) and didn’t fare much better in points (24.9, 95th). Among their Big Ten peers, the Hawkeyes were last in total offense and 10th (out of 12) in scoring offense.
During that same five-season span Iowa would finish no better than 8-5 with the exception of its 12-2 2015 campaign in which the Hawkeyes won the Big Ten West Division and earned a berth in the Rose Bowl.
But O’Keefe and Brian Ferentz aren’t the only changes to the offensive coaching staff, as Kirk Ferentz is shaking things up after a sustained stretch of mediocrity (and that may be putting it too kindly).
Replacing Kennedy as wide receivers coach is Kelton Copeland, who comes to Iowa from Northern Illinois, where he served in the same capacity last season and was running backs coach from 2013-15 prior to that. Under his watch, the Huskies boasted first-team All-MAC selections at both wide receiver and return specialist. Copeland also was part of the coaching staff for Northern Illinois’ 30-27 upset victory over Iowa at Kinnick Stadium to open the 2013 season. In that game, the Huskies’ ground game nearly matched the Hawkeyes yard-for-yard.
With Brian Ferentz moving up to offensive coordinator, former North Dakota State assistant Tim Polasek has been hired to coach Iowa’s offensive line. Similar to Copeland, Polasek also knows what it likes to beat the Hawkeyes on their home field, as the Bison from the FCS ranks won at Kinnick 23-21 last September. Following that loss, Iowa would go just 6-4 the rest of the season, finishing in ugly fashion by getting blown out by Florida, 30-3, in the Outback Bowl.
As the offensive coordinator and running backs coach at North Dakota State from 2014-16, the Bison won two of their five consecutive FCS national championships. The running game was consistently one of the FCS’ best, ranking no worse than 13th nationally in that three-season span, averaging a collective 237.5 yards per game and well over five yards per carry. North Dakota State also excelled in time of possession, first downs and third-down conversions over that period.
There's no question the Hawkeyes were in drastic need of an offensive make-over based on the results of the last several seasons. And with these changes, Ferentz is clearly angling to recreate some of the magic of his early campaigns at Iowa after taking over the program in 1999.
Whether these changes signal a full-on commitment to the future, or simply the type of corrections necessary after nearly two decades leading the program is yet to be decided. But one thing is clear. This program is now officially being run, once again, the “Ferentz way.” Whether that will result in improved performance, or yet another string of disappointing seasons, will begin to come into focus on Sept. 2 when the Hawkeyes host another potentially overlooked opponent in Wyoming from the Mountain West Conference. Not only will that be Hawkeyes’ fans first shot at seeing the new coaching staff (in a game that counts), but they also can expect to see as many as five true freshmen on the field in key roles.
The outcome of the season opener will most likely, for better or worse, signal what direction this newly energized Iowa program will be heading and possibly how long that direction will include Ferentz at the helm. If results don't come soon enough for athletic director Gary Barta this time around, it could signal the beginning of the end of the Kirk Ferentz era as well.
— Written by Robert A. Boleyn, an independent writer and member of the Athlon Contributor Network since July 2015. Boleyn is a native Iowan, currently based in Southern California, and attended both the University of Iowa and UCLA. Follow him on Twitter @BoleynRobert.
(Kirk and Brian Ferentz photo courtesy of @TheIowaHawkeyes)