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IOWA CITY — The Hawkeyes are installing a new offense this spring. OK, it’s not going to be an entirely new offense, but Brian Ferentz is the new offensive coordinator, so some measure of change is coming.
Of course, not a lot of info on how it might look has seeped out of the Hansen Performance Center. The building literally is soundproof from room to room, so this is embargoed information (the big reveal will be Sept. 2 against Wyoming).
So, it was kind of refreshing Wednesday when tight ends coach LeVar Woods just came out and said that, heck yeah, tight ends are going to be used in multiple ways and — keep the defibrillator handy for this next part — will have the opportunity to run more vertical routes.
“I think so,” Woods said responding to a question on downfield vs. shorter routes. “Again, we have a couple guys who can stretch the field that can do that, so that’s what we’re hoping to do.”
We’ll get to the tight end who might be able to stretch the field in a minute. Of course, you know, in February, head coach Kirk Ferentz brought former offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe back as quarterbacks coach. Woods was asked if the ideas he was talking about were an extension of the O’Keefe-era offenses that spawned a small army of NFL tight ends out of Iowa — from Brandon Myers to Tony Moeaki to Scott Chandler.
Woods said he’s shared video with of those former Iowa TEs with his group and one thing stood out.
“It’s funny watching some of those clips, you do see them down the field a little bit more, and that’s kind of what we’re trying to do,” Woods said. “Again, we have capable guys, it’s just a matter of putting them in the position, and then they have to make the play.”
Brian Ferentz’s big break in coaching was presiding over the New England Patriots’ tight ends in 2010-11. He played on the offensive line at Iowa, so he’s absolutely well-versed in Iowa tight end history. (Actually, head coach Kirk Ferentz once joked that his wife, Mary, asked why he wasn’t using the tight ends.)
Greg Davis didn’t ignore the tight end position in his five seasons as Iowa’s offensive coordinator. In 2013, tight ends accounted for 62 receptions. In 2012, Davis’ first season, tight ends caught 60 passes (including 45 from C.J. Fiedorowicz). In the seasons leading up to 2012-13, only 2008 came close in TE production with three NFL-level TEs catching 58 passes.
The main complaint is how tight ends were used, which is shaped by more than just the play call. Former Iowa TE Dallas Clark and his 95-yard TD catch and run against Purdue is an outlier. Going off Woods’ comments, the Brian Ferentz offense might be a TE renaissance.
“We’ve (Brian Ferentz and Woods) had conversations about tight ends,” Woods said. “I think we both share a passion of tight ends. He’s coached them in the past and I coach them now. We also know this program and how the history of tight ends — the history and tradition of using tight ends here, and that’s what we’re kind of looking at.”
OK, now to tight ends who can stretch the field. Sophomore Noah Fant is first on the list. He had a small sample size as a true freshman in 2016. He played in just 129 snaps, but 85 of those were passes. He caught nine passes for 70 yards and a TD.
“A couple things that you guys have seen already from last year, you’ve seen Noah be able to stretch the field,” Woods said. “The guy can run, flat-out run, and I think he’s developing. He’s underrated a little bit at the blocker. He needs to refine his technique, but he has the ability to stretch the field a little bit.”
— Woods was elevated to special teams coordinator during the offseason. He needs a new punter and a return specialist.
Sophomore Colten Rastetter and incoming freshman Ryan Gersonde will compete for the punter job. Linebackers coach Seth Wallace will make the call on that position, Woods said.
Wide receiver Devonte Young, cornerback Manny Rugamba, safety Amani Hooker and wide receiver Nick Easley are among the contenders to replace Desmond King in punt and kick returns.
— At kicker, sophomore Keith Duncan returns. He booted the 33-yarder that beat Michigan and put shine on the 2016 season. Duncan finished the season 9 of 11. Miguel Recinos handled more of the 40-plus kicks, hitting 1 of 3. Woods called it a “wide open” competition.
Woods said he’d love to have the specialists openings decided before spring practice finishes (April 21 with the spring game at Kinnick Stadium beginning at 7 p.m.), but knows it might go through fall camp.
— You’re intrigued by redshirt freshman offensive lineman Alaric Jackson. He’s 6-7, 320 pounds, so you should be intrigued.
Offensive line coach Tim Polasek said Wednesday he likes Jackson’s “grit,” saying “He’s an Iowa guy from a toughness standpoint.”
With basically five returning starters, Polasek said he’s focused this spring on developing competition for Nos. 6 through 8. It sounds as if Jackson has made an impression.
“I think that he wants to be great,” Polasek said. “No matter how badly we want kids to excel and to win the Big Ten and all these other things, they have to have a burning desire to want to be great, and I see that with AJ.
“I don’t know that it’s consistent enough. The part where AJ can improve is late in practice. Can he be the same guy that he was at the start at the end of practice. He’s one of those young guys that is providing some potential that we’re going to need come middle of September, middle of October.”
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