By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Not to put any undue pressure on the Iowa offensive line, but if the running game struggles next season, Tim Lester is likely to struggle as the new offensive coordinator.
Lester made a point in saying in his introductory press conference on Tuesday that Iowa has to run the ball first and foremost for the offense to start moving in the right direction.
While fans are hoping for structural changes to the passing game, and for more imagination and more aggressive play calling, what they should hope for more than anything is that the running game will finally live up to its reputation.
The pieces are certainly in place as Iowa returns five running backs on scholarship, assuming they all return, as well as multiple offensive linemen that have started multiple games.
Iowa also has added 6-foot-7, 360-pound left tackle and 2023 Southeast Polk graduate Kadyn Proctor, who started all 14 games at left tackle for Alabama last season as a true freshman.
Should the offensive line struggle next season, it won’t be from a lack of experience or depth, unless injuries become a problem.
It would instead be from a lack of execution, and whether that is due to inferior talent, inferior play calling or both would be open for debate.
It was no surprise that Lester emphasized the importance of running the ball because that mindset probably helped him get the job.
Fans are clamoring for Iowa to evolve on offense by modernizing the passing game, and by taking more chances down field.
And that’s fine to want those changes.
But if the running game fails to do its part, any changes to the passing game probably won’t matter.
Lester was asked Tuesday about his schemes, tendencies, and formations as a player caller.
He summed up his answer by bringing up the running game.
“But none of those work if you can’t run the ball,” Lester said. “So, you go to a place if you want to run an offense that’s going to be physical and run the ball, you’ve got to go to a place that can run the ball. I have looked at the numbers there to make sure that that can happen, and we’ve had success, and we have to continue to have success to get the rest of it to go.
“So, that combination of those things make me really excited about what’s coming.”
Iowa wants to be physical and run the ball.
It’s the cornerstone to Kirk Ferentz’s offense, and that will never change, nor should it because of how Iowa recruits under Kirk Ferentz.
A consistent running game that stays ahead of the chains helps to mask other weaknesses on offense.
“The one thing I know everybody wants to know is what we’re going to be about, and I can tell you right now that we’re going to be a physical football team,” Lester said. “We’re going to be disciplined, and we’re going to be aggressive in everything we do, from run game to pass game to keepers to RPOs to tempos.
“One thing I’ve learned in my time as a former quarterback, quarterback coach, offensive coordinator, head coach at pretty much every level, it’s about putting your players in the best position to succeed.”
Cade McNamara is expected to be Iowa’s starting quarterback next season, assuming he fully recovers from a knee injury that caused him to miss the final nine games last season.
McNamara has suffered season-ending knee injuries in each of the past two seasons.
Nobody would benefit from a productive rushing attack more than he would.
Iowa is known as a power running team under Kirk Ferentz, but that reputation isn’t always deserved, considering the numerous times that Iowa has finished in the lower half of the Big Ten in rushing.
So, again, talk all you want about overhauling the passing game and being more aggressive with playing.
But if the running game struggles, it probably won’t matter who is calling the plays or what plays are called.
Brian Ferentz lost his job as the Iowa offensive coordinator this past October because somebody had to be accountable for the stunning decline on offense.
In fairness to Brian Ferentz, though, he rarely had the luxury of calling plays with help from a productive running game.
At this point, it seems pretty apparent that it doesn’t matter who Kirk Ferentz has as his offensive coordinator if the running game fails to produce.
Tim Lester might figure a way to change that trend, but don’t count on it.