Iowa Football: The Quest For Vertical Explosion

By Marc Morehouse and Josh Christensen, Reporters

Iowa Hawkeyes wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley (11) pulls in a pass during an open practice Sunday, April 14, 2013 at Valley Stadium in West Des Moines. (Brian Ray/The Gazette-KCRG)

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By Grant Burkhardt

IOWA CITY, Iowa — It’s not a leap to believe that at some point in immediate offseason last December Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis thought he might need to freshen up the resume.

The numbers for Iowa’s offense were atrocious. Iowa finished in the national 100s in passing offense (187.4 yards a game), TD passes (seven), yards per attempt (5.8), pass efficiency (107.72) and in completion percentage on third downs between 4 and 6 yards (45.7 percent).

Head coach Kirk Ferentz has referenced an offseason meeting with Davis. It didn’t sound like a beer summit.

“I think the one thing that was really clear, Greg has a much better feel for where we’re at and who we are right now,” Ferentz said.

Davis met with the media Wednesday for the first time since the Hawkeyes clanged to a 4-8 record in his first season as offensive coordinator.

“You’re asking the wrong guy that,” Davis said when asked if there was a chance he would’ve gone one-and-done at Iowa. He said the meeting focused on what worked, what didn’t and where do they go from here.

So, Wednesday you heard the words “explosive” and “vertical.” Those are two things Iowa’s offense wasn’t last season, a season in which two of the top six long plays the Hawkeyes produced were interception returns by linebackers. The how-to produce included the terms play-action, long a staple in Iowa’s offense, and tight ends.

“We’ve got tight ends that will allow us to put multiple tight ends on the field, maybe have two attached, but one of them could be deployed out wide,” Davis said. “Again, you’re creating some opportunities for the defense and the way they match personnel to try to create some advantages.

“So, the tight ends need to be a big part of what we’re doing.”

Davis talked QB right off the bat. He said junior Cody Sokol, sophomore Jake Rudock and redshirt freshman C.J. Beathard remain locked in a dead heat with no one pulling away from the pack. The QBs still are rotating in and out after two snaps. During Saturday’s spring game, which will be four 15-minute quarters with a scoring system installed for the offense and defense, each QB will be allowed to “own” drives they start.

If you go three-and-out, sit down. If you drive the team 80 yards on 12 plays, hey, that might be considered separation.

“They’ve all done some really good things, but they haven’t separated themselves yet,” Davis said. “I see encouraging things by all three of them, so that part makes you happy. I wish one of them would go on and separate.”

The offense wouldn’t mind seeing that, either.

“Each guy has his own little thing that he does well,” tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz said. “No one has stepped way ahead of the other. Hopefully in these next few practices we’re going to get to know who’s going to be our top quarterback.”

Quick feet, decision making, making plays when the play breaks down, taking care of the football, those are on Davis’ checklist. It doesn’t sound as though a two-QB system is, although Davis said the necessity to see them against real competition might push this into the regular season.

“I think everybody would rather have ‘This is the guy,’ I think we all would,” Davis said. “At the same time, if that guy hasn’t emerged, then you need to evaluate them in live work. We don’t have exhibition games. If that’s the way it turns out, that’s the way we’ll do it.”

The vertical game that Iowa so lacked last season has been on the agenda all spring. Maybe what you saw at the Des Moines practice on April 14 was a preview. The tight ends found a lot of space on the seams and up the sideline. Davis was asked three times about vertical plays. His answer usually included the term “explosive play,” which he defined as a 12-yard run and a 16-yard pass.

You’re in “see it before you believe it” mode, and rightfully so after last season’s 3-yard outs to nowhere. They said they’re working on it.

“We’ve been working on our vertical game, reading coverages and doing certain things to certain coverages,” wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley said. “We’ve actually been connecting on a lot of them, too. It’s been a big emphasis every day in practice and we’re getting better at it.”

Davis was asked about the running game near the end of his news conference. With three healthy backs (Mark Weisman, Damon Bullock and Jordan Canzeri) combined with five full- and part-time starters returning on the O-line, that’s less of a worry.

During the Des Moines practice, Iowa QBs showed some zone reads and actually kept the ball and ran with it. That’s a wrinkle, albeit a minor one.

“We’ve implemented a little bit of zone read, but it won’t be a huge part [of the offense], Davis said. “It’s something that’s aggravating to the defense. . . . Just the fact that you have some of that forces the defense to play more assignment football.”

Iowa’s spring football scrimmage happens to be sponsored by Coke Zero. Iowa’s offense can’t be associated with anything that has “zero” in it.

You probably don’t get a second constructive meeting with the head coach with an Iowa Zero.

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