Spring Time for Injuries and Expectations

April 11, 2005

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz and his players took a break from spring football on Saturday to assess the team’s progress after 10 practices, addressing position changes, a litany of injuries on an already new defensive line, and playing the high expectation game.

The overwhelming consensus was that the Hawkeyes have a ways to go, despite raking in individual nominations for some of the nation’s highest honors and being ranked by some analysts in the top 10.

“We’re plodding along,” Ferentz said. “Right now we’re just trying to look at the big picture and not any final tallies or anything like that.”

Quarterback Drew Tate, whose game-winning walk-off touchdown pass to Warren Holloway in the Capital One Bowl was one of the best moments of the 2004 football season nationwide, agreed with his coach.

“It’s been going all right. As an offense, we’ve had a lot of problems and we’ve worked through a lot of problems,” he said. “We’re just trying to figure out who we are and what we can do. We’re trying to figure out a lot of things right now. A lot of things aren’t going to be easy.”

Injuries have been by far the most difficult thing to deal with this spring, according to Ferentz. In addition to physical injuries, the team has also had combat a bout of mononucleosis.

“It’s been a little bit of a fire drill,” Ferentz said. “It’s been a little bit of a challenge.”

Defensive linemen Richard Kittrell and Grant McCracken have both been out with mono since the first week of spring practice. Kenny Iwebema, a defensive end, has been out with a fever for the last few days of practice.

“We’ve had a lot more mono in the last five years,” the coach said, citing cases last year with quarterbacks Drew Tate and Jason Manson. “I don’t remember so much mono being around. Maybe it’s something in the air right now.”

Wide receiver Matt Melloy and linebacker Chris Brevi both have foot and ankle problems forcing them to miss most of the spring. Defensive end Bryan Mattison had a mid-foot injury that required a surgical procedure last Friday, and offensive lineman Lee Gray is out with a knee injury.

Mattison’s surgery was considered a “proactive” move by Ferentz.

“He should be full speed before fall,” he said. “This is just an aggressive treatment so he can come back aggressively instead of weaning his way through it, but you hate to see surgery any time.”

Defensive linemen Ettore Ewen and Alex Wilcox are also both out with injuries.

The injury situation has made an already cloudy picture of a defensive line just that much hazier.

“Those guys will help fill in the picture,” Ferentz said. “At the end of the day, we’re just trying to play great team defense. You just rely on your experience wherever it may be.

“We had the luxury last year where we had basically four guys who are going to be in NFL camps and three of them are going to get drafted and two of them are going to be in the first 50 picks,” the coach said of his defensive line. “Anytime you lose players of that stature it’s going to look different. There’s no question.

“But I think what we’ve got to do is rely on playing great team defense. If the guys coming in, whoever those guys may be, it’ll probably be more like six or eight guys coming in. They’ll have to play team defense and take care of their roles. And our other guys are going to compensate a little bit,” Ferentz added.

“We’re just trying to figure out who we are and what we can do. We’re trying to figure out a lot of things right now. A lot of things aren’t going to be easy.”
Quarterback Drew Tate

On Saturday, Ted Bentler, Jake Spratt, Nate Roos, and Matt Kroul were the four on the inside of the line, and they drew the praises of their coach.

“It looked like they did a good job,” Ferentz said. “I think we’re doing some better things. The defense has improved the past few weeks.”

On the clearer side of the picture, though, linebacker Chad Greenway is starting to work back into the system, along with the string of running backs that were felled last season to a string of anterior cruciate ligament injuries. Marcus Schnoor, one of the first to be injured, is also working his way back.

And, Ferentz said, all the injuries should be healed by the start of the fall practice season, if not by summer camp.

The spring hasn’t really seen many position changes, except for Mike Follett and Mitch King moving to the defensive line. Both were considered linebackers going into the spring.

Ferentz said he approached Follett last week.

“I had thought about it about a week ago, and I approached him about it on Tuesday,” he said. “He’s going to give that a shot, and so far so good. I think we have a real opportunity there.

“I think our goal is to still try and get the best 11 guys on the field, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

The Hawkeyes have been ranked in the top 10 of many preseason polls and have been pegged by analysts to vie for the national championship at the 2006 Rose Bowl. But Feretnz, in standard form, isn’t putting much stock in them.

“We like to think we’re competitive each year, but obviously the people who came up with those predictions haven’t been to practice the last week or two,” he said. “That would maybe temper some enthusiasm. We have a lot of work to do. It’s like every year. I think with the exception of 2002 we had a pretty strong ball club at this time of year and then went into the preseason pretty strong. But we’ve had a lot of work to do, and I think we’re in that situation right now.”

And despite not coming in under the radar this year, Ferentz maintains that the Hawkeyes are still not an elite team.

“We’re still not an elite team. I assure you. I promise you,” Ferentz said. “In 2002, we did have a pretty good ball club in the spring and we had a good ball club in August. But the last few years we’ve had to climb a mountain and we’re in that same position right now.

“We’re just doing things OK. Chances are if we end up being a top 10 team it’ll be more in the second half of the season, if things go all right and we do things right. But we’re not there yet,” he added.

Wide receiver Ed Hinkel agreed with his coach and said the chip-on-the-shoulder mentality that the Hawkeyes are known for won’t go away any time soon.

“We have to fight for everything we earn,” he said. “If we don’t play with a chip on our shoulder, we’re going to be in for a fight. We have to ignore it all and focus on practice.”

Barry Pump, hawkeyesports.com