INDIANAPOLIS — With the start of fall camp less than two weeks away, Kirk Ferentz knows one thing about his 23rd Iowa football team.
The Hawkeye coach said Friday at the Big Ten’s annual kickoff that a healthy start in 2021 would benefit Iowa both on and off the field.
“I know all of us want to know the answers right now, but none of us do,’’ Ferentz said. “I don’t know how good we’ll be this year, but I can say I really like our football team.’’
In his comments at Lucas Oil Stadium, Ferentz reiterated some things he said earlier this summer, echoing that he likes the way this year’s team has worked and progressed since the start of offseason drills in January.
He said that spring practices demonstrated a step forward, something he believes must continue when the Hawkeyes begin fall camp in early August for Iowa to have an opportunity to reach its potential.
Competition will continue into fall camp at several positions.
For example, Ferentz indicated that several moving parts remain on an offensive front that will be anchored by returning all-American center Tyler Linderbaum.
Iowa continues to work to replace three starters on its defensive front as well.
“The guys who are stepping in, they’re working hard and just like last year when there were three new guys, they’ve been waiting for this chance,’’ returning starting defensive end Zach VanValkenburg said.
It’s not an unusual situation.
Iowa has replaced three of the four starters on its defensive line the past two years.
“People were concerned a year ago about what might happen on the defensive front, but things worked out and I feel like that is going to happen again,’’ VanValkenburg said. “That is what we’re all working to make happen.’’
Ferentz sees another common theme developing as Iowa prepares for the start of fall camp.
The Hawkeyes will be young in back-up roles at a number of positions.
“Like most years for us at Iowa, we’re always concerned about our depth,’’ Ferentz said. “That’s something we’ll really be focused on, basically at every position, starting in August.’’
Ferentz’s other concern is off the field.
Big Ten procedures and protocols surrounding COVID-19 are expected to finalized early next month.
Ferentz estimates that at this point, around 70 percent of Iowa players have been vaccinated to protect them from the coronavirus.
“It’s a healthy number, but it’s not unanimous,’’ Ferentz said.
By comparison, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said Thursday that close to 95 percent of his team had been vaccinated.
Ferentz believes each player should reach his own decision about whether to receive the vaccine and he isn’t sure how much or even if the percentage of Hawkeyes who have received the vaccine will change by the start of camp.
“We’re not mandating it. I’m not mandating anything. I don’t think that is the proper thing to do,’’ Ferentz said.
“What we’ve tried to do is articulate to our guys what the rules are, what the standards are.’’
Fitzgerald shares Ferentz’s opinion that the decision about whether to receive the vaccine is a personal one and said he would support his players regardless of the choice they make.
Iowa players who do not choose to get the vaccine will be subject to regular PCR testing and contact tracing, similar to rules that were in place last season.
Ferentz said he is uncertain about whether daily testing will resume for those players, something the Big Ten would likely determine.
Iowa had what Ferentz labeled “a couple’’ of positive tests for the coronavirus shortly after players returned to campus in June to begin summer workouts.
The situation, Ferentz said, was somewhat eye opening for the entire team.
“That’s when the reality of it set in,’’ Ferentz said. “That’s when guys understood that if we were playing Saturday, you’re not playing.’’
He hopes that has led to some self-evaluation among Hawkeyes who had not received the vaccine.
“It’s probably something our players are evaluating right now, how valuable these opportunities are,’’ Ferentz said. “If there was one thing we learned last year, it is that nothing is assured.’’
Iowa was denied the chance to play its final two games of a 6-2 season last fall.
The Hawkeyes’ regular-season finale against Michigan was canceled because of COVID-19 issues within the Wolverines’ program and similar problems within the Missouri program led to the cancellation of Iowa’s Music City Bowl appearance.
“I do think that’s something that probably remains in our players’ thoughts, but it’s up to them to decide,’’ Ferentz said.