By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Kirk Ferentz heads into his 21st offseason as the Iowa football coach under pretty much the same circumstances that have existed since about 2001.
His team is coming off a good, but not great 9-4 season, and the pieces are in place for Iowa to win at least six or seven games next season.
And there is always the chance that Iowa could have one of those special seasons under Ferentz because they usually come out of nowhere and happen about every four or five years.
Three seasons have passed since Iowa finished 12-2 and played in the Rose Bowl.
The 63-year old Ferentz held what is now his traditional January postseason press conference on Thursday to look back at the 2018 season and ahead to the 2019 campaign.
Ferentz also confirmed a few news items, including that freshman defensive lineman Daviyon Nixon still is taking classes at Iowa, but is considering his options for reasons that are unclear.
One option for Nixon appears to be transferring, considering his name has appeared on the transfer portal, which was established last October and allows schools to initiate contact with players who are seeking to transfer.
“Daviyon is in class and he’s considering his options right now,” Ferentz said. “So we’ll see where that all goes.”
Nixon was expected to help at defensive tackle where Iowa has to replace starter Matt Nelson and key reserve Sam Brincks, both of whom were seniors this past season.
Defensive tackle Garrett Jensen also has decided to transfer for his senior season, while redshirt freshman Tyler Linderbaum recently switched from defensive tackle to center.
That is four fewer defensive tackles than Iowa had at the end of the season.
“That and tight end easily are our most heavily hit positions by graduation or departures,” Ferentz said. “So we’ll look at every possible avenue. It’s going to be tough to play without defensive linemen. So that’s not an option.”
One thing that has changed at Iowa, and pretty much everywhere else since Ferentz took over in 1999, is the impact from players declaring early for the NFL Draft.
There used to be an occasional early departure at Iowa, including running back Shonn Greene leaving early in 2008 and offensive lineman Brian Bulaga doing the same in 2009.
But Iowa has had six early departures in the past two seasons, including four from the 2018 team.
“That’s a high number for us, no question about it,” Ferentz said.
More than 125 college players have declared for the 2019 NFL Draft, and when you combine them with all the seniors entering the draft, it seems almost certain that some of the players who leave early won’t be among the 256 players that get drafted.
Ferentz was asked if he thinks a player needs to crash and burn publicly for a message to be sent about the risks of leaving college early.
“There already are some examples if you do your homework on it,” Ferentz said. “But it’s really hard at the front end to make that point resonate. And you’re competing with agents, too, that can be really persuasive.”
Ferentz, obviously, has mixed emotions about losing four players to the draft, including arguably the best tight end duo in program history in junior Noah Fant and third-year sophomore T.J. Hockenson. The other two players leaving early are junior defensive back Amani Hooker and junior defensive end Anthony Nelson.
But Ferentz also wants what is best for his players and he is proud of Iowa’s NFL pipeline, which has produced 66 draft picks under Ferentz, including seven in the first round.
“As I think everybody knows, it’s a national trend for guys that are going to move on to the NFL,” Ferentz said. “So I think it’s just another trend in college football that we’ll learn to adjust to and deal with and what have you.
“The biggest thing is first of all we wish all the guys that are leaving, all four players, great success in the future and I think I they’ll all experience that. So we’re happy for them. And then beyond that, it’s all about what we can do with the players we have.
Fant was the first among the four to declare for the draft and he did so shortly after the regular season. He was also the only one among the four to not play in the Outback Bowl.
Ferentz and his assistant coaches usually do enough to make Iowa bowl eligible, which has happened in 17 out of his 20 seasons as head coach. It has been that way since Ferentz first rebuilt the program.
The Hawkeyes defeated Mississippi State 27-22 in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day in Tampa, Fla., and won at least nine games for the seventh time under Ferentz.
Iowa returns a number of key players, including senior quarterback Nate Stanley, who has combined to throw 49 touchdown passes over the past two seasons, and junior defensive end A.J. Epenesa, who made first-team All-Big Ten this past season despite not starting any games.
The top three running backs also return, along with three starters on the offensive line and two starting receivers.
All three starting linebackers return, along with two starters in the secondary.
But on the flip side, Iowa has been gutted at tight end, defensive tackle, safety and kicker where Miguel Recinos has to be replace.
And the punting game has been mediocre in each of the past two seasons.
So combine all of the perceived strengths with the perceived weaknesses and you have an Iowa team that could win anywhere from six to nine games next season, or even more if all of the pieces fall into place and the ball bounces the right way las it did so often in 2015.
And to sort of borrow a line from Kirk Ferentz, that’s Iowa football.