Iowa Football

In a world of spread offenses, Iowa remains an old school bastion

Spread or prostyle, QB coach Ken O'Keefe looks for solid fundamentals that will translate

Iowa Hawkeyes quarterbacks coach Ken O'Keefe talks to Nate Stanley and other quarterbacks during practice at the team's indoor practice facility in Iowa City, Iowa on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Iowa Hawkeyes quarterbacks coach Ken O'Keefe talks to Nate Stanley and other quarterbacks during practice at the team's indoor practice facility in Iowa City, Iowa on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Lots of high schools run spread offenses now. Maybe most high schools. The allure is the best athletes doing things athletes do with the ball in their hands.

It’s about stretching a defense horizontally and vertically often but not always using three receivers. It forces the defense to cover more of the field, as opposed to overpowering the opponent in small spaces as in a more traditional offense.

Iowa is a prostyle offense. It has spread characteristics and certainly has evolved in Brian Ferentz’s two seasons as offensive coordinator. You see more crossing patterns. You see motion create matchups. The Hawkeyes made strides in the matchup game, check the 2018 tight ends’ numbers and draft potential for proof.

Iowa runs a full-fledged prostyle offense. The offensive linemen come off the ball. Can Iowa recruit an offensive lineman from a spread offense?

The philosophy and “how it looks” seems to matter less and less.

“The part where we’re different or a Wisconsin or somebody who’s trying to run the ball,” Iowa O-line coach Tim Polasek said, “there’s got to be a grit and toughness.

“Does a kid from a spread offense possess that? Well, if he’s a wrestler and he shows that. I’ve shown up at basketball games and watched guys have four points and 20 rebounds and five fouls, you say, ‘OK, that guy might be ...’”

Polasek would definitely like to see some run blocking in the highlight tapes, but Iowa evaluates and recruits spread offensive linemen, with a little background check for the gritty toughness.

You know it’s been the same for quarterback.

Same question to Iowa quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe.

“You’ve had to get out of that line of thinking,” he said.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

And then he mentioned Drew Tate. Tate rushed for minus-76 yards in 2004. That’s the final total and it’s not totally fair. Tate wasn’t a dual-threat QB, but he had the feet to extend plays and gain first downs on third-and-short. Tate was “spread-ish.”

“He showed up and said, ‘I haven’t taken a snap under center since seventh grade,’” O’Keefe said. “‘I have never taken a five-step drop.’ Those kinds of things could sneak up on you when you’re recruiting a guy. You never thought about it initially, but then you started thinking more and more about that. When you look at the things you want from a quarterback from a physical standpoint, we’re still talking about the same things.”

Spread or prostyle QB, those things are: Quick feet for time in the pocket. Ability to throw the ball on the run. “You can’t just stand back there and be a big stick,” O’Keefe said.

No wasted motion in the release. Arm strength. “We’re looking for enough arm strength to be able to make all the throws that we need to have made in our offense,” O’Keefe said.

In the end, when recruiting a QB, O’Keefe said you have to ask yourself if you can fix or live with some of the blemishes. Of course, there also are mental/leadership/intangible boxes to check.

For example, O’Keefe talked about redshirt freshman Spencer Petras and the hunger for knowledge.

“He’s a guy who can’t get enough of it,” O’Keefe said. “If you’d let him, he’d show up at your house on off days asking questions.”

For spread QBs coming into Iowa’s offense, the center snap struggle is real. Peyton Mansell, listed as Iowa’s No. 2 QB this spring, played in a spread offense at Belton (Texas) High School.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Thank you for signing up for our e-newsletter!

You should start receiving the e-newsletters within a couple days.

“In high school, I think I got three snaps from under center and they were all QB sneaks. We probably worked on it once a month,” Mansell said. “And then here, I didn’t have the luxury of going out of the gun in my first camp. I was under center for 90 percent of that first camp.”

Beyond the snap, here were some other observations from Mansell in making the spread-prostyle transition:

Proximity is different. Spread QBs operate out of the shotgun or pistol. They’re off the line of scrimmage for pre- and post-snap reads.

“Being that close to the line of scrimmage,” Mansell said. “When you’re in the gun, you can take a three-step drop and you’re 8 yards deep. You take a three-step drop under center and you’re 3 yards deep with 6-6 linemen and hands in your face.”

Timing in the passing offense also is different. Prostyle offenses generally need three seconds to do their thing on passing plays, according to O’Keefe. Most spread offenses get the ball in the air in less than three seconds.

“Everything isn’t spread out,” Mansell said. “You’re not able to see over everybody because you’re so much closer. You have to work harder to find (passing) lanes.”

The spread worked its way into the NFL years ago. Now, you see the New England Patriots use it and use it a lot. You see the Patriots and the Falcons run spread offense in the Super Bowl. You see the Rams junking a prostyle offense to fit QB Jared Goff and the skills he homed in spread offenses.

Iowa has evolved. O’Keefe said the QBs will wear wristbands this season. Hey, that’s new, right?

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“The first call on it is ‘block,’” O’Keefe said. “The second call on it is ‘tackle.’ The next call is ‘throw’ and the call after that is ‘catch.’ Those are the things were focused on offensively from a fundamental standpoint.”

Clearly, no wristband play-calling system for Iowa QBs. O’Keefe was kidding.

Iowa is evolving, but so is everyone.

The Hawkeyes enjoy a bit of a bump in recruiting because they send prostyle-ready players into the NFL, which last year saw lots of high-flying three-wide receiver offenses score 1,371 touchdowns (the most in an NFL season) and saw Kansas City spread QB Patrick Mahomes become the face of the league.

The game has cracked open. Innovation is oozing. Iowa’s wristbands say “block” and “tackle.” The Hawkeyes are a decidedly old-school bastion, but that doesn’t mean they’re immune to evolution. No one is. It’ll be interesting to see how that shapes Iowa 2019.

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.