By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – In barely half of his rookie season with the Detroit Lions, Sam LaPorta already has established himself as one of the best tight ends in the NFL.
He had over 100 receiving yards in Sunday’s 33-28 victory over New Orleans, and he is the latest on a growing list of former Iowa Hawkeye tight ends under Kirk Ferentz that have flourished in the NFL.
LaPorta fits the Iowa mold in so many ways as a former unheralded recruit who had just one Power Five scholarship offer coming out of high school in Illinois.
The Iowa coaches saw potential in LaPorta where other coaches apparently didn’t see it.
Even though he played wide receiver in high school, the Iowa coaches were convinced that LaPorta could make the switch to tight end in college, and now look at him, a star in the making whose decision to be a Hawkeye would change the course of his life.
Iowa is often referred to as Tight End U, and with the number of former Hawkeye tight ends starring in the NFL, that title is well deserved.
From George Kittle to T.J. Hockenson to Noah Fant to LaPorta, the list of former Iowa tight ends currently playing in the NFL is impressive.
It’s easy to forget, or to overlook, the good parts about Kirk Ferentz’s offense, especially the day after having watched Iowa fall to Michigan 26-0 in the Big Ten Championship game.
It marks the second time this season that Iowa has been shutout, the other being the 31-0 loss to Penn State in the Big Ten opener.
The Iowa offense performed woefully against Michigan, gaining just 155 yards, and converting on just three of 15 third-down plays, while wasting yet another strong performance by the Iowa defense, and by star punter Tory Taylor.
Iowa is ranked at or near the bottom nationally in multiple offensive statistical categories.
Injuries to starting quarterback Cade McNamara and to the top two tight ends on the team, Luke Lachey and Erick All, have certainly been a huge factor.
But Iowa’s offensive woes go beyond just three players, no matter how important they might be.
Iowa’s problems on offense are caused by several factors, but mostly by the inability to recruit and develop receivers and quarterbacks, and the inability to build dependable and sturdy offensive lines on a consistent basis.
You notice that I didn’t say offensive linemen, but rather offensive lines, and that’s because Iowa has a long and distinguished history of producing individual stars on the offensive line under Kirk Ferentz, but rarely has the whole been better than the parts.
Right now, there isn’t an offensive lineman on the team that has risen anywhere close to star level, so that is a concern moving forward.
The running back position isn’t a strength right now, but it’s far from being a weakness when everyone is healthy.
Leshon Williams, Kaleb Johnson and Jaziun Patterson have all shown that they’re capable of producing at this level.
But it’s hard to sustain success when so much around you is borderline dysfunctional.
Iowa is in the unusual position of being a 10-win team that will face Tennessee in the 2024 Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day despite having arguably the worst offense in major college football.
Even for the short time when everybody was healthy on offense this season, the performance of the offense left much to be desired.
The situation became so bad on offense that Iowa Interim Athletic Director Beth Goetz announced with four games left in the regular season that Brian Ferentz would be fired as the offensive coordinator once the season ends.
It was stunning to see Kirk Ferentz’s son fired by an interim athletic director, and there wasn’t anything Kirk Ferentz could do about it.
It seems highly unlikely at this stage in his career that Kirk Ferentz would agree to overhaul or restructure his offense.
He’s 68-years-old and has won a lot of games as a college head coach, including 196 as the Iowa head coach, which ranks third all-time in the Big Ten behind Woody Hayes and Amos Alonzo Stagg.
Kirk Ferentz believes that football, and offense, should be played a certain way and his way has been pretty successful over an extended period.
However, there is no denying that Iowa’s current offense is in a stunning decline despite being the home of Tight End U.
LaPorta was a star for Iowa at tight end last season, while Kaleb Johnson set a UI freshman rushing record with 779 yards, and yet, the offense was awful due mostly to subpar performances at quarterback, receiver and on the offensive line.
You hate to single out positions in a team sport, but there is no denying where the problems exist for Iowa on offense.
If Kirk Ferentz is unwilling to change his style of offense, he needs to at least address the problems at quarterback, receiver and on the offensive line.
Why is it that Iowa can produce star tight ends one after another, while the quarterbacks and receivers rarely come anywhere close to stardom?
Why is it that Iowa can produce individual stars on the offensive line on a somewhat consistent basis, but rarely have the offensive lines performed at a star level as a group?
It would be easy to say that it all starts with recruiting, but Iowa has recruited wide receivers that were as heralded, or in some cases, even more heralded than LaPorta was in high school.
Part of what’s cool about Iowa’s success with developing tight ends is that most of them were unheralded recruits who would go on to defy the odds under Kirk Ferentz.
So, is it simply a case in which Kirk Ferentz’s offense caters more to tight ends with his conservative and methodical approach?
Or is it because Kirk Ferentz and his assistant coaches are better at finding and developing hidden gems at tight end than receiver and quarterback?
Or is both?
I would say it’s both.
Iowa’s offense is obviously tight end friendly, and that could make it more difficult to recruit playmaking receivers.
It also makes it harder to compile big passing statistics that would appeal to quarterback recruits that want to be aggressive and throw down field.
It seems to have reached the critical point where Kirk Ferentz should make recruiting receivers and quarterbacks even more of a priority.
If that means raiding the transfer portal, then so be it.
If that means recruiting more mobile quarterbacks, then so be it because something has to change in a hurry.
If it means being more imaginative then please do.
And if means spending more NIL money, then you have to do it or fall further behind because offensive skill players, and especially quarterbacks, don’t come cheap.
It’s easy to assume that Iowa’s defense will always be a strength under Phil Parker.
But what if that weren’t the case for a season?
What if the defense wasn’t rock solid?
And what if Iowa didn’t have one of the best punters in the nation to flip field position?
That is sobering and scary to even think about.
Kirk Ferentz has almost a month to prepare for the bowl game, and the extra time also should allow him to start preparing to replace his son as offensive coordinator, as hard as that that might be.
Kirk Ferentz held a zoom call with the media on Sunday to talk about the Citrus Bowl and about other topics.
He was asked again about the quarterback competition in which Deacon Hill has started the last eight games since Cade McNamara was injured against Michigan State in the fifth game.
“We watch them in practice every day,” Kirk Ferentz said. “Deacon gives us our best chance.”
Hill has been mediocre at best behind center, even with a 6-2 record as a starter.
But in fairness, he wasn’t expected to be the starting quarterback this season, nor should he be blamed for being Iowa’s best option at quarterback.
Offenses have evolved over the years to where now there is more emphasis on getting playmakers in space on the perimeter.
But you wouldn’t know that by watching Iowa play offense.
Iowa struggles to get the ball to playmakers in space, and the coaches also struggle to recruit playmakers who can make plays in space.
That’s not an opinion, it’s a fact.
There are times when Iowa struggles just to complete a pass to a wide receiver, while most other teams make it look so easy and routine.
To think that Brian Ferentz is solely to blame for that would be foolish.
Kirk Ferentz wouldn’t have to completely overhaul his offense to show that he is willing to evolve and change with the times.
But he has to get more productivity from his receivers and from his quarterback, and his offensive line has to perform better as a group or it could more of the same.
He has to figure a way to make Iowa more appealing to receivers and quarterbacks.
This is critical point in Kirk Ferentz’s coaching career and how he moves forward on offense could go a long way in shaping his final legacy.