Iowa’s offense loaded with players — and a key coach — with plenty to prove

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Quarterback Cade McNamara led Michigan to the College Football Playoff, then fell to second string. Wide receiver Kaleb Brown watched the nation’s best collection of receivers at Ohio State and thought it would take too long to see action.
Center Logan Jones concentrated so much on playing quickly, like Tyler Linderbaum, he struggled with the snap. Sixth-year receiver Nico Ragaini was a key contributor on Iowa’s most productive collection of wideouts (in 2019) and the program’s least productive over the last few generations (2022).
Then there’s offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, who presided over the Big Ten’s No. 2 scoring offense in 2020. Two years later, he guided the league’s worst statistical offense spanning at least a quarter-century.
Every person associated with Iowa’s offense has something to prove, has some reason for motivation. It’s not contrived like some elite athletes who turn a gram of negativity into a gallon of haterade. No Iowa player lacked an impetus this offseason.
“We all have that chip on our shoulder,” Ragaini said. “I think that’s the biggest piece of the puzzle for this upcoming year is playing like we have something to prove.”
Iowa could have as many as six transfers become offensive starters this fall, three from rival universities and three from lower-level programs. The other offensive returnees played for a team that averaged 251.6 yards per game, the Big Ten’s worst since coach Kirk Ferentz joined the program in 1999. In every relevant offensive category, Iowa ranked 110th or worse nationally.
If not for elite special teams and defensive units, the Hawkeyes would have struggled to reach bowl eligibility. They also were within one score in two rivalry games of qualifying for their second straight Big Ten Championship Game appearance. Yet no one on offense is lamenting the near-misses of 2023.
“To be honest, I haven’t watched the film from last year,” Ragaini said. “I definitely remember the feeling of last year, but I don’t want to feel that way again.”
In 2021, McNamara guided Michigan to the Big Ten title with a 42-3 pounding of Iowa, and the Wolverines qualified for the College Football Playoff. Last year, he was demoted to co-starter alongside J.J. McCarthy, and they split starts and reps for the first three games. Then McNamara suffered a knee injury that required season-ending surgery. McCarthy flourished, and McNamara opted for the transfer portal.
Once a team captain, McNamara has used every slice of motivation this offseason. He arrives at the football facility for workouts before 5 a.m. He wants to lead a team organically and prove himself through his work ethic. His hunger is real, and he sees the same desire from his teammates.
“I think what’s cool about it is that it’s something different for everyone,” McNamara said. “I have a lot to prove as a transfer quarterback, and I have a lot of things that I want to achieve. My motivation is to win, and guys on this team have gone through their share of things. They’ve gone through their share of adversity, whether it was last season for them or it was really anything.
“I think what’s cool about it is that for a lot of us, like the chip-on-the-shoulder mentality is very present because like honestly, a lot of us I’ve been dealt with a lot of adversity lately.”
In 2021, the 6-foot-1, 206-pound McNamara threw for 2,576 yards, 15 touchdowns and six interceptions while completing 64 percent of his passes. He presided over a team that was unrecognizable from the squad that went 2-4 during the 2020 pandemic season. His leadership was a major reason why, as his former teammates told The Athletic in March.
“I feel like you could see that in him every time you talk to him,” Ragaini said. “If you asked him how his year went last year, I think he would just have a chip on his shoulder for this upcoming year, as we all would being here.”
Cade McNamara fitting in nicely with Iowa teammates
While McNamara is Iowa’s highest-profile transfer, he’s not the only new quarterback. Former Wisconsin backup Deacon Hill left the Badgers after the program fired Paul Chryst last October. Hill committed to Fordham, but his relationship with former Wisconsin assistant and current Iowa offensive analyst Jon Budmayr led him to the Hawkeyes. Hill worked his way up to the No. 2 spot in the spring.
Transferring over and up
The Hawkeyes’ new wide receivers hail from different directions, but both see Iowa as a place to grow. Brown was a four-star, top-75 receiver when he signed with Ohio State last fall. He played in four games for the Buckeyes as a true freshman, but with elite duo Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Ebuka ahead of him, Brown weighed his options and chose the transfer portal.
“From the time that I got off the airplane, to the time that I left, I felt it was pretty much special here,” Brown said. “I felt like I liked the community, honestly, like the community — I was real peaceful — is different from the city that I grew up in. I feel like it’s a place where I could definitely just put my head down and grind.”
Brown, a Chicago St. Rita’s product, had a checklist for what he wanted in a new program.
“My reason for just basically leaving is just how stacked we were at Ohio State,” Brown said. “Definitely quarterback stability, and then a place where I could work for a spot and play immediately. So those boxes were pretty much checked. And then it was an easy decision for me.”
At Charleston Southern, Seth Anderson was the Big South Offensive Freshman of the Year last fall with 42 catches for 628 yards and seven touchdowns. The time was right to make a move upward toward a major program.
New tight end Erick All was a co-team captain with McNamara at Michigan and arrived at Iowa as almost a package deal. All played only three games last fall after a back injury required surgery, but he caught 38 passes for 437 yards and two touchdowns in 2021.
Along the offensive line, graduate transfers Rusty Feth and Daijon Parker came from lower-level programs. Feth was a second-team All-MAC center for Miami (Ohio) last year but will play guard at Iowa. Parker competed at Division II Saginaw Valley State in Michigan and wants to show he belongs at a power program.
“It’s a great opportunity for me,” Feth said. “I’m very, very grateful to be here, very grateful that they gave me the opportunity to play. I have one year left, and I have to make the most out of it.”
“This is the happiest I’ve been in my life,” Parker said. “I enjoy being in the building every day. There’s no down days here. I really enjoy being here, being an Iowa Hawkeye so much. It’s still like surreal to me. I still try to stay grounded and take it all in because just coming from D-II to here, you don’t see that a lot.”
Holding over
The Hawkeyes return all but five starts from last year’s offensive line, but the inexperienced unit never seemed to gel. After the seventh game, Connor Colby moved from right tackle to left guard. Jones, who was a defensive tackle until the spring of 2022, frequently struggled with the snap because he was firing out too quickly. Left tackle Mason Richman battled through a knee injury that required surgery.
All three were underclassmen. Now as juniors, Richman has 25 career starts, Colby has 24 and Jones has a full season of experience. Jones also holds the program record with a 700-pound squat.
“First game, I had no idea what I was doing,” Jones said. “I was like, ‘Holy crap.’ As the season went on, I started to learn a little bit more and understand what I was doing and the why I was doing it versus just going out there and memorizing what I had to do.
“I think having a chip on our shoulder, it’s definitely gonna help us.”
Ragaini has 125 career catches and led the team with 46 receptions way back in 2019. He missed three games last year after breaking his foot in training camp. Fellow receiver Diante Vines missed half the season with a broken wrist and ended up with 10 catches. Tight end Luke Lachey led the Hawkeyes in touchdown receptions with four, but he was playing alongside NFL second-round pick Sam LaPorta, who commanded considerable attention.
Perhaps nobody has more to prove than Brian Ferentz, the much-maligned assistant. Every aspect of Iowa’s offense fell far short of an industry standard. Whether it was entirely his fault or he was victimized by circumstances beyond his control, he has taken the blame. A former offensive lineman, Ferentz looks philosophically at the players wanting to prove themselves after facing some level of adversity in 2022.
“At the end of the day, what you’ve got to do is wake up and try to prove to yourself that you’re doing the best you can,” Brian Ferentz said. “No, that’s not exciting and it’s not fun. And also chip on a shoulder, these young guys have pride. They all have big egos. And they all should because it’s the best part of being like 20 years old. I’m sure Cade does. I’m sure Mason Richman does, I’m sure Connor Colby (does), I’m sure everybody (does).”
As long as the motivation remains manageable and in the program’s best interest, this something-to-prove mindset can fuel the offseason — and upcoming campaign — within limits.
“We all need to kind of keep what’s important as the most important thing, which is maximizing your ability, doing the best you can,” Ferentz said. “That’s it. None of us need to prove anything to anybody else. What we need to do is fulfill our commitment to one another, to give our best effort, and be the best version of whoever we are, or whatever we are as a group. And I think we can do that.
“That egotistical chip on your shoulder, I think that can be healthy. I think that can help fuel that other part. But if we lose sight of the other part, then none of that matters and is completely unhealthy. And it won’t just backfire; it’ll sabotage what you’re trying to do.”

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