Common Ground

HI.com Publisher
Posted Jul 30, 2013


The first year of the Kirk Ferentz and Greg Davis marriage proved rocky. The Iowa coaches are hoping familiarity creates a smoother trip in their second go-around.

Iowa CITY, Iowa - Few, if any, members of the Iowa football program during the last 15 years have been more maligned than was Ken O'Keefe. Detractors created a website calling for the firing of the former offensive coordinator.

Not many tears were shed in the winter of 2012 when O'Keefe departed the Big Ten to become the Miami Dolphins wide receivers coach. However misguided was the extreme criticism of him, his successor would be looked upon favorably.

When Kirk Ferentz hired Greg Davis to run his offense, he at at least one thing going for him - He wasn't O'Keefe. It represented addition by subtraction for the armchair quarterbacks.

From the be-careful-what-you-wish-for file came the Hawkeyes '13 offense. Their 19.33 points per game ranked 111th out of 124 FBS programs or one spot lower than in '07 when at 6-6 the school last missed the postseason.

Not coincidentally, quarterbacks James Vandenberg ('12) and Jake Christensen ('07) received the most heat of any player at their position in the Ferentz Era. Those signal callers and O'Keefe are left with their Iowa legacies. Davis returns this fall to right a wrong.

Speculation surfaced towards the end of last season that Davis might be one and done at Iowa. The well-grounded Ferentz never flinched when asked about his offensive leader during the six-game skid to end a 4-8 season.

Ferentz believed in Davis when he hired him. The head coach also played a role in last season's struggles.

"They had a mix of philosophy last year," former Iowa Quarterback and Current Big Ten Network Analyst Chuck Long said. "I think Kirk wanted to hold on to some elements of the old offense but yet he wanted to progress towards more of a spread type."

Ferentz has for years resisted national trends of pass-happy offenses with four and five wide receiver sets. Philosophy played a part in that stance but Iowa's inability to recruit speedy skill position players to the upper Midwest also was a key to it.

The boss always has cared more about the people working for him than any style of play. It was at the forefront of the process to replace O'Keefe. He's hired guys that haven't work out (Rick Kaczenski).

"I was looking to get the best coach and part of being the best coach for Iowa is being the best fit for Iowa," Ferentz said last week in Chicago. "Believe it or not, I’m not so set in my ways. I don’t want to call every play and I don’t want to tie a guy’s hands.

"But there are certain things that I just don’t want to see . Those are discussions you all have when you’re in the dating process."

Ferentz believed he and Davis thought enough alike about how an offense should work that they could find a middle ground. They didn't get to it in Year 1.

"Again, I felt there was a difference in philosophy," Long said. "After being (together) a year, Greg Davis is going to know what Kirk wants more and vice versa. They have to come to a nice blend there and make sure you play to the strength of your team. Don't put guys in positions where they aren't able to do those things."

Ferentz furnished Davis with a familiar face when he added Bobby Kennedy to replace Erek Campbell as the receivers coach this offseason. They teamed up for success at Texas, where they held the same positions as they do now at Iowa.

"When you have a good rapport with somebody and you have good trust and know how they coach and how they bring their kids along, it can help," said Long, who coached for 17 years at the FBS level. "I thought that Kirk did a nice job in hiring (Kennedy) for Greg. I think, to some degree, Greg felt all alone last year. He went into a room and didn't know anybody; didn't know what they were all about; how they coached."

Davis came into Iowa with background on the job. In addition to knowing Ferentz on a social level, he worked with former Iowa assistant Joe Philben, who hired O'Keefe to tutor receivers when he was named the Dolphins head coach.

"Greg was no stranger to who we are or what we were," Ferentz said. "It became really apparent to me the first time he came in and visited with us that it was a consensus when he left campus that there’s a common ground here. So I think he was comfortable with what he knew about us and I think it was a two-way street."

Ferentz's basic philosophy centers on limiting turnovers on offense and points on defense - bend but don't break. Davis likes to spread out the opposition and throw the ball to quick receivers in space, allowing them to pick up yards after the catch.

When a team puts the ball in the air a lot, it increases the chance for turnover. If things aren't clicking, it also can lead to quick offensive series that wear down the defense.

Ferentz and Davis need a joint philosophy to make things work. A controlled passing game is riskier than handing the ball off but it also puts more pressure on a defense to cover in space (Iowa fans know this from watching their linebackers cover receivers throughout the years). If it's flowing, it opens things up for the running backs.

"You do what you do best with your players and I think we’re a lot further down the road than we were a year ago at this time. I really do," Ferentz said. "It has all gone really well. Greg is an excellent coach, an excellent teacher."

In addition to adding Kennedy, Iowa recruited players they feel can help make plays in space. The roster was void of them a year ago with the holdovers from O'Keefe's vertical passing game. Davis commented on the program's lack of speed in one of his first press conferences at his new job.

Ferentz and Davis have pointed to incoming junior college receiver Damond Powell as an immediate contributor. The Ohio native was finishing up classwork at Snow Community College in Utah this week in his quest to qualify academically for Iowa.


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