By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Since the early days under Kirk Ferentz, back when Kyle McCann started over Brad Banks at quarterback for the entire 2001 season, I’ve believed that Kirk Ferentz plays who he truly believes gives the Iowa football team the best chance to win.
Because why wouldn’t he?
Kirk Ferentz is paid lots of money to win games, and to think that he would play favorites or use petty grievances to decide who plays is just silly and disrespectful to Iowa’s all-time winningest football coach.
But with that being said, Kirk Ferentz’s handling of the quarterback position, sometimes, makes you scratch your head.
Like when James Vandenberg took every snap at quarterback during a 4-8 season in 2012.
Or like right now with his refusal to give another quarterback, besides Deacon Hill, a chance to play since Cade McNamara was injured in the fifth game against Michigan State.
Third-year sophomore backup Joe Labas hasn’t taken a single snap this season, and now he is in the transfer portal.
And who can blame him?
No disrespect to Deacon Hill, but he’s been mediocre at best this season, and in his defense, he hasn’t had much help, and he’s playing way ahead of schedule.
Injuries to key players have certainly been a factor in Iowa’s offensive struggles.
But the Iowa offense has been historically bad from a statistical standpoint since the start of last season, so bad that offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz will be relieved of his duties after the season.
Kirk Ferentz, as stubborn as some accuse him of being, won’t hesitate to replace a player if he believes it will improve Iowa’s chance of winning.
In fact, he just did it in the heat of moment when he had Marshall Meeder attempt the potential game winning field goal against Nebraska rather than two-year starter Drew Stevens, who up until recently, had been a reliable force as a kicker.
Stevens was having a rough day against Nebraska, so Kirk Ferentz made a switch, and it paid off as Meeder would go on to make a 38-yard field goal to give Iowa a 13-10 victory.
Sophomore Kaleb Brown has gone from barely playing in the first eight games to now being Iowa’s number one wide receiver target.
Quarterback, on the other hand, has been Deacon Hill or bust since McNamara went down, and when Kirk Ferentz is asked about it, he says they watch the quarterbacks every day in practice and that Hill gives Iowa its best chance of winning.
Okay, fair enough.
But why hasn’t Labas at least been given a chance to play?
It makes sense why Marco Lainez hasn’t played since he’s a true freshman and just might not be ready.
But Labas is a third-year sophomore that helped Iowa win a bowl game as the starter against Kentucky in the 2022 Music City Bowl.
He didn’t make a huge impact in Iowa’s 21-0 victory, but he threw a touchdown pass, and he protected the football for the most part.
He was a game manager, which is Deacon Hill on his best day.
I’m not suggesting that Hill should be benched, but rather just pointing out that the refusal to try anybody else at quarterback under the circumstances is just odd.
It could be that Kirk Ferentz doesn’t want to disrupt a winning formula, because despite how poorly the offense has performed, Deacon Hill is 6-2 as the starter and Iowa will have won 11 games if it beats Tennessee in the 2024 Citrus Bowl.
Or, it could just be that Labas hasn’t performed well enough in practice to convince Kirk Ferentz that he deserves a chance to play.
Or, maybe, it’s a little of both.
Fans and the media clamored for Kirk Ferentz to bench Spencer Petras in favor of Alex Padilla.
But when Padilla finally had a chance to play when Petras was injured in the 2021 and 2022 seasons, he wasn’t any better than Petras, and was maybe even worse.
Kirk Ferentz stuck with Jake Rudock for two seasons over C.J. Beathard, because for one, Rudock, when healthy, was pretty good.
Rudock also led Iowa to eight wins in his first season as a starter in 2013, and to a 5-3 record in the Big Ten.
Iowa had finished just 4-8 the previous season with an offense that was horrible.
So, for Iowa to have won eight games with Rudock as a first-year starter was cause for optimism and reason to believe in Rudock.
That belief started to fade, however, during the 2014 season as Rudock started to struggle.
Iowa would go on to finish 7-6, capped by a 45-28 loss to Tennessee in the 2015 TaxSlayer Bowl.
Kirk Ferentz then announced just a few days after the 2014 season that Beathard would replace Rudock as the starter.
Rudock then bolted for Michigan where he started for a 10-win team in 2015, while Beathard led Iowa to the Rose Bowl and to 12 wins in 2015.
So, it worked out for both quarterbacks, and for Kirk Ferentz.
Kirk Ferentz also benched Jake Christensen four games into the 2008 season for Ricky Stanzi, and that would prove to be the right move as Stanzi would go on to lead Iowa to three straight bowl games.
As for playing McCann over Brad Banks in 2001, it was a case in which Banks wasn’t ready to be the full-time starter after having transferred from junior college. Even Banks has said as much.
Iowa also won seven games in 2001, including a bowl game, after having won just three games in 2000.
Kirk Ferentz has a breaking point with his quarterback. It just takes a while to reach that point.
The fact that Deacon Hill transferred from Wisconsin, where he had played briefly in one game last season, but then moved ahead of Joe Labas for the No. 2 spot in spring practice makes you wonder about Iowa’s ability right now to develop quarterbacks.
In just a matter of weeks, Hill moved past a quarterback that had been in the program for two years, and that had more game experience than Hill.
Labas was slowed by an injury in the summer and during the early part of this season. But he has been healthy for a while now, and yet, he couldn’t convince the coaches to play him for just a series or two, even with offense producing at a historically low level.
It would have been shocking if Labas hadn’t entered the transfer portal because he apparently doesn’t have the confidence of the Iowa coaches, or he would have at least been given a series or two to see if he could provide a spark for a struggling offense.
Iowa now has Hill, Lainez and freshman walk-on Tommy Poholsky as available quarterbacks for the Citrus Bowl, assuming none of them enter the portal.
McNamara also plans to return for next season, while Iowa also will add Florida native James Resar as a true freshman quarterback next season.
Iowa appears to be all-in on McNamara for next season, so it’s unlikely that Kirk Ferentz is looking to add a proven quarterback from the portal.
Iowa is throwing all its eggs in McNamara’s basket and relying on Deacon Hill to fill the void until McNamara is ready to return, or so it would seem.
Labas, obviously, didn’t figure in the plans because how else do you explain him not even getting a chance to play during a season in which the offense has mostly been horrendous?
A message was sent and received, and now Labas is gone.