The Monday Kickoff: Let The QB Battle Begin
Kirk Ferentz is preparing for Tuesday's team meeting on the first day of classes at Iowa.
That will be the point when the 2020 season begins.
Don't get Ferentz wrong — 2019 was fun. The Hawkeyes went 10-3, closing the season with four consecutive wins, including a victory in the Holiday Bowl over USC.
It concluded the best five-year run in program history — 47 wins, ninth-best over the same period in Football Bowl Subdivision play.
There are some heavy hitters on that list ahead of the Hawkeyes — Clemson (68) and Alabama (66) are 1-2, and there are three other Big Ten teams among that group in Ohio State (60), Wisconsin (52) and Penn State (51).
What Iowa did over the last five seasons wasn’t easy, Ferentz said on Monday.
“To me, if we win one game I’m happy,” Ferentz said, smiling. “I think the NFL and college football have become very similar in a lot of ways. Unless you’ve got a boat full of guys, it’s hard to win in college football. There’s a lot of parity, a lot of good teams, a lot of good coaches. We’re seeing that in our conference. Top to bottom, there aren’t any easy outs. It’s hard to win.”
Every January begins that turning-of-the-page, though.
The 2020 Hawkeyes will have a different look. Defensive end A.J. Epenesa and offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs are skipping their final seasons and are off to the NFL, likely first-round picks in the upcoming draft, which would mean four Hawkeye first-rounders in two seasons. Hard-hitting safety Geno Stone and power running back Toren Young are also going to give the NFL a shot.
Those are big positions to fill. The defensive line battle was already going to be an all-hands-on-deck competition with or without Epenesa. The Hawkeyes have to find that right offensive line combination, even with left tackle Alaric Jackson coming back. Stone provided a lot of back-end protection.
But it also didn't take long on Monday to start talking about a new quarterback.
Nate Stanley, a three-year starter, is gone after a highly-productive career. The Hawkeyes were 27-12 in his starts, and he finished his career second in school history in passing touchdowns (68), passing yards (8,302), completions (673) and pass attempts (1,155). He was third in career total offense (8,198).
It's a competition that figures to go into August, but it is a depth chart that Ferentz called "streamlined."
There's Spencer Petras, Stanley's backup last season who played in three games and threw 10 passes after throwing just one pass in two games as a true freshman in 2018. There's Alex Padilla, an early-enrollee last spring who hasn't played. Incoming freshman Deuce Hogan won't be on campus until summer.
It's a hand that Ferentz doesn't mind playing.
Quarterbacks with little experience can unnerve any coach, but Ferentz gave Stanley the job with not much game time and he was ready. And it's worked with others over the years.
"You always worry about a guy who hasn’t played — I always spend a lot of time thinking about things when it comes to football," he said. "We’ve played with a lot of first-year quarterbacks who have done fine. At some point, a guy has to jump in the water.”
Peyton Mansell would have been in that mix, but he transferred after the season.
That's not unusual, and Ferentz knows that. Recruiting quarterbacks is always complicated — only one can play the position and unless there's an injury or an inability to do the job, the starter is going to stay.
Ferentz understood why Mansell left to go to FCS school Abilene Christian — it was a chance to start. Ferentz praised Mansell for his work, noting that there were times when Mansell would step in on defense as a safety or cornerback to help out on the scout team.
Petras, though, has made himself the frontrunner, especially with his work in preparation for the Holiday Bowl.
“I think Spencer, especially in December, he looked like a college football player,” Ferentz said. “He seems to have all of the right attributes. Now it’s a matter of him getting himself ready, and going out and competing."
But Ferentz is keeping an open mind.
"Spencer’s been here two years, he’s done a good job as far as grasping what we’re doing," Ferentz said. "Alex hasn’t been here as long, but he’s done a good job of paying attention. We’ll let them all compete.
“I think going into this year, my assessment is Petras, he’s the next guy up. He’s going to have to earn it every day. He’s there, but he’s like everyone else on the roster — if you’re there, you’ve got to keep it there. That’s part of the fun of it, to see how everyone is going to do, how everyone is going to react.”
Ferentz could always go find a quarterback in the transfer portal, another part of the college football roster game. He said on Monday he would always look for someone if he thought that player could help the team win. That could be a punter — the Hawkeyes need one.
But he seems comfortable with his quarterback options, inexperienced as they are.
Ferentz has a strong returning offense. The Hawkeyes return all four of their top receivers — Nico Ragaini, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Brandon Smith and Tyrone Tracy — and running backs Tyler Goodson and Mekhi Sargent, who combined for 1,261 rushing yards. Jackson also comes back, and there seems to be enough line depth to provide protection.
“We clearly a better group of wide receivers than we had a couple of years ago, three years ago,” Ferentz said. “(Petras) is walking into a (good) situation. But he’s got the most important job on the offense. He has to be able to deliver. He’s prepared himself well, and I think he’ll handle the challenges that are awaiting him.”
It's a gamble, but it always is with an inexperienced quarterback. Stanley had his struggles in his first year, but he wasn't surrounded with the offensive talent that his successor will have.
Pages turn in January. That's nothing new.
Ferentz seems to be comfortable with whatever chapters are ahead.