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Spring Q&A: Iowa's Kirk Ferentz

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Kirk Ferentz's calm and controlled demeanor is his hallmark, but the Iowa head coach has run through the full gamut of emotions in the last two years. His team endured three mediocre seasons from 2005-07 and stumbled off the field with a wave of player arrests in 2007 and the first half of 2008. With some suggesting Ferentz was on the hot seat, Iowa rebounded last fall to go 9-4 and became the lone Big Ten team to win its bowl game (Outback). The Hawkeyes regained their swagger on defense and punished teams with Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene. Ferentz restored his reputation as one of the league's top coaches, but he came under fire recently after several more player arrests, including his son, James, an offensive lineman for the Hawkeyes.

Ferentz is hoping for continued improvement on the field and much better conduct off of it in 2009. Iowa likely enters the fall as a top-20 team but must fill several holes on both sides of the ball. Here's an excerpt from our conversation last week in Iowa City (get Ferentz's thoughts on the recent arrests here).

You mentioned before the spring that the margin for error here is still small. Do you still sense a hunger among the guys even after such a strong finish in 2008?

Kirk Ferentz: If there's not, we'll have a tough time. Nobody's going to mistake us for Southern Cal. Their backups are a little different than ours, so we better have an edge and we better be trying to maximize what we have.

Do you know more about this team that you did at this point last year?

KF: We're a more experienced team. Last year at this time, we had a lot of work to do. That's the way it is every year here typically. We have more experienced players coming back, but we still have a lot of things that are unanswered, things that we need to see get resolved. Hopefully, we'll be able to replace the guys that we lost and fill some needs, and hopefully, sooner than later.

Most people look at your program and think, 'No Shonn Greene, no Shonn Greene.' But the two guys in the middle of the defensive line, [Mitch] King and [Matt] Kroul, are they almost bigger losses?

KF: I don't know if we've had anybody be a four-year starter outside of Bruce Nelson in our 10 years. That's pretty unusual, and those guys both played well in 2005 as redshirt freshmen, so it's a huge loss in terms of experience, production, also leadership. Those guys were both great leaders. So there's a loss there, but the good news there is we've got two ends who have played [Christian Ballard and Adrian Clayborn]. It's almost like the flip of last year. We were green on the outside, and now we're green on the inside. So far, the competition inside has been good. We're going to be OK.

As far as leadership up front, is that a wait-and-see thing?

KF: Both Ballard and Adrian are both leading. Adrian's done a good job. They're really helping the guys set tempo. The whole group overall is doing good, but those guys are working hard. Collectively, we'll be OK. Adrian's one of the best kids we've had in our program. He's just a tremendous young guy. He played well last year, really came alive the year before. We're counting on him to really play well the next two years.

You always hear that Iowa's defensive scheme is so vanilla. But how were you able to make so many plays last year [led Big Ten with 32 takeaways]? Was it the scheme? Was is the players?

KF: I can't totally explain the takeaway thing, but I hope it continues. It's not like we did anything dramatically different. We didn't necessarily alter our game plans or the way we go about things. I've always felt like takeaways are the result of a team playing smart and sound and then hustling. A lot of times, it's being opportunistic. For instance, Pat [Angerer] got his hands on a lot of balls. I can't imagine we've had a linebacker with more interceptions [5]. A lot of that is just really being smart.

It starts with your preparation during the week and then making the play once you have that opportunity, which he did. It was good to see that production. If you told me our defense ranked fifth in the country in scoring, I would have said, 'Jeez, I didn't know that.' Same thing about the turnovers or the way we played in the [red zone]. But we did pretty well in all those areas. It wasn't like we did it with flash, but at the end of the year, it looked pretty good on paper. And the interesting thing is we were really a young team on defense last year. We were extremely young.

From an offensive standpoint, you said there are some questions. Is there one that stands out? Running back? Ricky Stanzi's development?

KF: We're young in spots. You start inside, we lost two seniors who really played well [guard Seth Olsen and center Rob Bruggeman], probably will both be drafted. Seth played three and a half years, almost a four-year starter, and Bruggy played like a five-year starter. He really played as well as anybody we've had playing center. So we have to figure that equation out, but we've got some interesting competition going on. In time, we'll get that resolved. Andy Brodell quietly really played well for us last year, and we've got some work to do on the outside there. The running back position, basically you'd have to be foolish to think somebody's going to do what Shonn did, because nobody else in the country did. But as a group, it's kind of like the defensive tackle position, using a couple, three people, we'll be OK back there. I don't see one guy having as many carries as Shonn had, and certainly not as many yards.

How has Ricky progressed this spring, and what areas would you like to see him improve?

KF: He's obviously a more mature player than he was a year ago. Last year at this time, he was kind of like Pat Angerer. He was just a guy. That's when he started to ascend and make his move, and I think he's just on a natural track of progression. So we're pleased with that. And we've seen the leadership expand with him as well. That's something you think with maturity and experience is going to happen, and we've seen that. So we're real optimistic that he'll continue on.

The biggest thing is just taking care of the ball. We lost four games last year, and the reasons we lost are all very traceable. If we can clean that up a little bit, that's going to help us. The one thing you hope from an experienced quarterback is he's going to be making better decisions with each opportunity, and I think we'll see that.

Your schedule, at least on the road, seems pretty tough.

KF: And we might have set a league record with three night games. I don't know if that's ever happened before. Penn State and Michigan I knew about, and then I just found out this week that we're playing at Michigan State, too. It will be a good challenge for us.

You received a new contract during t
he offseason. Are you fairly comfortable that this will be the last stop for you?

KF: I'm 53, so I don't know how many more years I've got. We'll see. I don't think that far out, I really don't. We'll worry about this year, and then we'll go from there. But my plan is to coach for a long time, and my plan is to be here for a long time. That's been my plan from Day 1.

There's so much flux in coaching, but you've been here 10 years, same coordinators. How has that benefited what you've been able to do?

KF: You go back through the eighties, it was the same way here. Quite frankly, it was one of the reasons I was interested in coming back here and eager to come back, excited to come back. This is one of the last bastions in college athletics where there is some stability. Certainly you can say that about Penn State. For the most part, you can say it about Nebraska. But there aren't a lot of places.

Growing up in Pittsburgh, I've always felt like the Steelers were unique. It's one of the reasons the Steelers have been so competitive. Continuity is really important in any organization. If you have the right people, and we've been lucky, we've got a lot of good people working you, continuity really helps everybody. Hopefully, that will continue.

It's a little scary. I went to Connecticut, and they send former players newsletters. The year I got hired, it was myself, Randy Edsall, Bob Stoops, Tom Tuberbille and Tom Bowden [as FBS head coaches]. That was going into [2008], were were the only survivors, and that's only 10 years ago. And obviously, two of them fell during the year, both Tommys. Randy and Bob and myself are the only three survivors from that year. So it's a good commentary on college sports. We're getting more like the NFL [says sarcastically]. It's the world we live in.

So I appreciate that. And I've never been worried about my job security, even back in '99. Because there's no sense worrying about it. Whatever's going to happen is going to happen. But at least there's a more realistic chance here. We're not an over-reactive organization or university, and that's been the history. Hopefully, it will stay that way.