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Adventures in Offense 2013: Iowa

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Running back Jordan Canzeri.
Running back Jordan Canzeri.
Christian Petersen

2012 Quick Stats

Passing Offense: 7th in Big Ten, 102nd Nationally
Rushing Offense: 12th in Big Ten, 104th Nationally
Scoring Offense: 11th in Big Ten, 113th Nationally
Total Offense: 11th in Big Ten, 117th Nationally

3rd Down Conversions: 36.36% (64 out of 176 attempts)
4th Down Conversions: 35.0% (7 out of 20 attempts)
Red Zone Conversions: 78.95% (30 out of 38 attempts)
Total Points: 232 (26 TD, 17 FG, 25 extra point, 0 two-point)
Average points per game: 19.3

2012 Record: 4-8 (2-6 in Big Ten)
Record vs. Michigan: 13-41-2
Head Coach Kirk Ferentz: 100-74 at Iowa, 112-95 overall

What's up with the offense?

The main story around Iowa's offense these days is offensive coordinator Greg Davis being offensive coordinator Greg Davis. When Davis was hired by the Hawkeyes away from Texas (who were somewhat happy to see him go, despite his having helped them to a national championship with Vince Young), MGoBlog called him Iowa's version of former Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Robinson (a.k.a. GERG). We and the other Big Ten teams take a lot of shots at Davis because of his apparent ineptitude, but truth is that despite producing the 11th best offense in the conference, he is getting some support from the locals in Iowa City.

When he first arrived, Davis made then-notorious complaints about the lack of talent at wide receiver, now one of the offense's biggest question marks for the upcoming season. However, the statistics of 2012 tell that one of the primary reasons why Iowa stumbled through the season was because didn't have a productive running game (ranked 12th in the conference). The Hawkeyes had substantially more passing yards (2,249, all from James Vandenberg) than rushing yards (1,476 combined yards). Needless to say Iowa had no 1,000-yard rushers, something which has typically been a driving force during Kirk Ferentz's best seasons.

Blame it on Davis's pass-heavy scheme clashing with Ferentz's power run philosophy, or blame it on AIRBHG. Either way, you don't need statistics to tell you that the Iowa offense was just not that good, and something needed to change. Ferentz is giving Greg Davis at least one more year as offensive coordinator, so we'll have to see how well the unit progresses in the second year of an era where Kirk Ferentz has not relied on long-time staffers Ken O'Keefe and Norm Parker, who had been with him from 1999-2011.

One of the changes that Davis hopes to implement, and one of the things really stood out in the spring game, is the disappearance of the huddle for nearly 75% of the offensive snaps. This is certainly a shift from Iowa's traditional, methodical approach at maintaining possession by chewing up the clock. Davis asserts, however, that the only severe change to the offense is the tempo; Iowa is not becoming a spread team:

There still will be the ability to huddle at times, Davis said, and the no-huddle approach doesn’t mean the end of the running game.

"There is a misconception with the fans that no-huddle means spread offense," Davis said. "We’ll still get in two backs. We’ll still use multiple tight ends. We changed personnel Saturday (at the spring game) and stayed in no-huddle. So I don’t mean to imply that we’re going to become a spread football team, because there are certain tenets that we believe in."

The ability to go faster while changing players would play to Iowa’s advantage. It can wear down a defense and limit substitutions. It also can give Iowa’s offense a personnel advantage.

"You do want to put a certain personnel group on the field and it not look like the personnel grouping that maybe the (opponent) thought," Davis said. "This is not a huge change philosophically in terms of being physical, being able to run the ball, or being a good play-action team. It’s just the idea of incorporating a faster tempo."

Following the change of pace presented in the spring game, there was some question that Iowa might go completely no-huddle in the upcoming season, a rumor that Iowa sportswriter Pat Harty quickly dismissed:

Davis hopes that a higher tempo by removing the huddle will allow the offense to have more snaps, which he thinks will mean a more productive offense. In 2012, Iowa had approximately 66.03 plays per game: 793 over 12 games. As a point of contrast, Louisiana Tech, the No. 1-ranked offense in the country, had approximately 87.83 plays per game: 1054 over 12 games. (Despite going 9-3, Louisiana Tech was not invited to a bowl.)

The no-huddle aspect has been found predominantly attractive by proponents of the spread offense, hence the common confusion, because it emphasizes explosiveness in quickly getting first downs and scoring points. In 2012, Louisiana Tech led the nation in first downs (378), but were 104th in time of possession (i.e. they didn't have the ball very long because they were scoring points quickly). In 2009, the season when Iowa went 11-2 and won the Orange Bowl, the Hawkeyes were ranked 29th in time of possession and had 232 first downs (89th nationally). So it's tough to say if upping the tempo is the answer to bringing the Hawkeyes the success they once had. It's certainly a new approach.

For a better idea, you can check out the Big Ten Network's highlights of the spring game or take a look at the spring game highlights from the Iowa fans' perspective to gauge their relative excitement.

Key Players

Iowa no longer has senior quarterback James Vandenberg, who led the team in passing last year, but redshirt sophomore Jake Rudock seems like the guy most likely to fill his shoes. However, in truth the quarterback situation at Iowa is wide open as neither Rudock nor senior Cody Sokol (a former junior college transfer out of Arizona) has any starting experience, or much playing experience.

There is also redshirt freshman C.J. Beathard, about whom there was mild speculation that he might be the starter, but after the spring game the general consensus appears to be that it's between Rudock and Sokol, and Rudock had the edge. I mentioned in the Legends Division signing day recap that Greg Davis is excited about Nic Shimonek, so he might be a possibility as well if nothing works with the above.

The story at Iowa is always about the running backs, and the Hawkeyes have four on the roster before you start counting incoming freshmen. The good news: Iowa returns junior fullback-turned-tailback Mark Weisman, who led the team in rushes in 2012 (159 carries for 815 yards and 8 rushing TDs), and Jordan Canzeri, who looked quite impressive in the spring game. The bad news: ACL tears are AIRBHG's favorite way to cause havoc, and although Canzeri seems to have recovered from his, there's no telling what misfortune Iowa can or will suffer at running back this year.

Most people have Weisman pegged as the starter because he has the experience (and durability?), but Canzeri has good speed and the kind of explosiveness that could become a real weapon for Iowa to use if he stays healthy. Via Pat Harty at HawkCentral:

The burst belonged to 5-9, 192-pound sophomore-to-be running back Jordan Canzeri, who did a pretty good impersonation of former Iowa running back Fred Russell, with how he repeatedly darted past defenders. Russell was similar in size to Canzeri and his running style was similar to Canzeri’s style.

“I just hope when the coaches put me in that I can do what I try to do and just make good plays and contribute to the team,” Canzeri said after the scrimmage, which saw him catch a 54-yard touchdown pass and rush for 50 yards.

Beyond those two you have junior Damon Bullock (135 carries for 513 yards and 3 rushing TDs), redshirt freshman Barkley Hill, and walk-on Mike Malloy, who rushed for a goal line touchdown in the spring game. However, don't sleep on incoming freshman LeShun Daniels (5'11", 220 lbs.) from Warren, OH, who could possibly see early playing time and make an impact on depth.

Though Keenan Davis has graduated, the Hawkeyes return leading receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley (52 receptions for 571 yards, 2 TDs, 10.98 yards per catch), now a junior. While no one appears to stand out as truly elite yet, Iowa has receiving options aplenty in returning senior tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, senior wideout Jordan Cotton, and JUCO transfer Damon Powell. Some have even suggested that running back Damon Bullock might be a potential option at receiver. Via the Iowa Gazette:

I think Iowa needs Damon Bullock more as a WR. That doesn’t mean that Bullock ends up at WR full-time, but I believe that’s being considered.

The spring game saw all kinds of receptions from relatively under-the-radar players. Tight end Jake Duzey had the only touchdown reception of the day, redshirt freshman Cameron Wilson caught 10 passes for 133 yards, and Blake Haluska made a memorable high-jumping grab that turned heads, giving the impression that Greg Davis will not shy away from airing it out on long-distance downs.

The offensive line is a mystery with the graduation of its anchor, James Ferentz. Luckily, the Hawkeyes return Brandon Scherff, whom Black Heart Gold Pants said was "perhaps Iowa's best offensive lineman last year," and Andrew Donnell, both of whom are recovering from season-ending injuries sustained in 2012, and who the Hawkeyes hope will be 100% by the fall. For what it's worth, the Big Ten Network's Gerry Dinardo said he thinks Iowa's offensive line might be the best in the conference.


Ideally, the Iowa offense would have completely gone through its rebuilding phase in 2012, Greg Davis's scheme would have been more immediately successful, games would have been decided early enough for Rudock or Sokol to take meaningful snaps and prep for Vandenberg's departure, Greg Garmon would have stayed instead of transferring, and the Hawkeyes would have more answers coming out of spring practice.

Instead, this is essentially rebuilding year two. Iowa has no established leader starting at quarterback, and Kirk Ferentz's teams have characteristically relied upon experienced upperclassmen as a driving force for success. The Hawkeyes have 6 returning starters on offense, according to College Football Universe blog, making them the third-youngest in the Big Ten--in front of Michigan and Purdue, who each return five.

That could mean Iowa is at least two years away from finally finding their groove in typical Ferentz fashion, or it could mean this is the start of a return ascent if 2013 is any good. The spring game indicated that, at least on offense, the Hawkeyes have enough tools to put together some drives, and Greg Davis's no-huddle strategy may work, if he can strike a balance that satisfies Ferentz. Iowa's offense may have ranked 11th in the Big Ten in 2012, but I expect Davis will see enough improvement to keep his job for another year.

Grade: C+