Howe: Time for Progress

Iowa opens spring practice today coming off one of its worst seasons under Coach Kirk Ferentz. The Hawkeyes and their head man need to reverse field with a program headed in the wrong direction.

Iowa CITY, Iowa - Iowa football opens spring practice today with about as little fan fare as there's been since Kirk Ferentz took over the program in 1999. A degree of apathy exits because the Hawkeyes tackle 2013 coming off one of the worst seasons the program has seen since the early years of this coaching regime.

To a degree, the Iowa basketball program has replaced its gridiron counterpart as the apple of the faithful's eye. The Hawkeyes sold out two NIT games last week, blowing away what other schools around the country drew to the event.

Iowa football stands at a crossroads after a 4-8 season that followed an underwhelming 2011 and an underachieving 2010. Ferentz, despite a track record of success that rivals any coach in program history, is absorbing discontent on his radio show and criticism in the media and on fan message boards. He ranks as one of the highest paid coaches in the country and with that comes large expectations.

To his credit, the normally conservative Ferentz has opened up to change. Six assistants dotting his roster have arrived since the end of the '11 campaign. He sent long-time position coaches Lester Erb and Erik Campbell packing this offseason.

Time will tell if these moves benefit the program. There's little doubt that they need to do just that. Iowa fans are loyal and file into Kinnick Stadium each fall like they're giving away money but even they will sourer if things don't start heading in a positive direction in '13.

Improvement must begin on offense. Last year's attack, a term used very loosely here, elicits comparisons to the nonsensical system of former basketball coach, Todd Lickliter.

First-year offensive Coordinator Greg Davis never was on the same page as his quarterback, James Vandenberg. The coach attempted to make a home run hitter bunt. Try as he might, the senior signal caller struck out again and again.

At this time last year, Davis said he would adjust his game plan around the skill sets of players he inherited. Then, he did the opposite and failed miserably. Vandenberg wasn't built for his quick-read passing attack and the receivers were not capable of turning short receptions into big gains.

Give Davis a mulligan for adjustment time. It's human nature to default to your comfort zone and he probably felt things at some point would click between he and Vandenberg and the wideouts. Now, it's time to produce.

Ferentz hired Davis' wide receivers coach at Texas, Bobby Kennedy. Erb was replaced by Chris White, now in charge of running backs. You have to think Davis had some input in that decision.

In addition to staff changes, Iowa added five receivers in the 2013 recruiting class and a pair running backs, Jonathan Parker and Akrum Wadley, who likely will factor into the passing game. The Hawkeyes also signed Texas Quarterback Nic Shimonek, who Davis hand picked.

Making excuses for Davis going forward will prove to be a difficult task, especially when you consider what should be a strong offensive line that loses one starter and a running game that returns it's top two rushers from '12 in Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock.

Iowa showed up well defensively early last season but crumbled down the stretch. Michigan Quarterback Devin Gardner hasn't found an open receiver yet but he still would have time against the Hawkeye pass rush. It's only been several months.

Yes, that's an exaggeration, one that speaks to the most glaring weakness on that side of the ball. Iowa must find a way to pressure opposing quarterbacks or it will be another long fall.

Dominic Alvis represents Iowa's only known commodity at defensive end. His 4.5 career sacks are the most by anyone on the roster at that position.

Iowa is banking on production from a group of unproven talent including Drew Ott, Riley McMinn, Marcus Spears, Daumantas Venckus-Cucchiara and Nate Meier. Redshirt freshman Faith Ekakitie appears more suited for inside on the line but is athletic enough to perhaps provide help on the edge.

Defensive Coordinator Phil Parker and his staff may need to find other ways to keep offenses honest if they can't generate a consistent pass rush from their front. Blitzing must be more efficient than it showed in '12.

Spring brings about hope and a clean slate for the players and coaches. It's a huge component in preparing for the Sept. 1 opener against Northern Illinois, who played in January's Orange Bowl.

Iowa fans are forgiving. They stick with their football team like a member of their family. Don't mistake that loyalty for acceptance, however.

Ferentz, the dean of Big Ten coaches, heads into Year 15 at the helm facing the third rebuilding project during that run. Each one of them brings less patience from his followers. Progress starts today.

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