James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens are all talented tackling machines. But it was also their senior leadership, Ferentz said, that helped Iowa bounce back from last year’s 4-8 season to 8-4 this year and a spot in Wednesday’s Outback Bowl against LSU.
“They’re all different stories, interesting guys,” Ferentz said. “We expected them to play well, but they helped lead our football team.”
The Tigers’ Les Miles could only look on, perhaps in envy, perhaps wondering what his own defense might have looked like with a few more seniors.
He rarely has the luxury of fourth-year guys in a program that has become a pipeline to the NFL, mostly from earlyentry juniors.
“What you’re really talking about is how do you shape leadership,” Miles said. “We’ve tried to do that with those guys that would be the top players.” Translation: LSU depends mostly on junior leadership. “You grow them and grow your team that way,” Miles said.
Last year the Tigers famously lost 11 juniors who left early (counting suspended Tyrann Mathieu), all but gutting a proud defense that certainly has had its ups and downs while rebuilding this season.
Miles had a senior quarterback — but Zach Mettenberger was lost in the regular season finale against Arkansas and a true freshman Anthony Jennings will start in his place.
Miles has said often that the Tigers recruit with the idea that many will gone by the time they’re seniors.
But, LSU seems to be getting hit harder and harder by the lure of the NFL.
Most assume the Tigers will lose at least five more juniors this season, perhaps as many as eight.
Star wide receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham both said Saturday that they will wait until getting back home after Wednesday’s bowl before seriously exploring their options.
“Not much,” Landry said Saturday when asked how much he’s thought about his future. “After this game, I’ll head back to Baton Rouge and the days after I’ll make a decision whether I’ll stay or if I’ll go.
“My focus has been on this season, making plays and being a leader.”
But it would be a surprise if either of the play-making receivers was back at LSU next year — some NFL websites have reported that both have already made the decision to enter the draft.
Running back Jeremy Hill is also eligible as a third-year sophomore. Fellow running backs Kenny Hilliard and Alfred Blue are also thinking about it, along with offensive tackle La’el Collins. Both defensive tackles, Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson, will have decisions to make even though they were far from dominant this season.
Miles will talk with all of them, he said, although the subject hasn’t really come up with the season still in progress.
“I consistently say that I’m going to change my approach because many of the approaches that I’ve used have not been very successful,” Miles said with a smile.
But the bottom line doesn’t change.
“It’s really their decision,” Miles said. “You put out the information that will be accurate to their particular situation.”
Miles wouldn’t be specific about how many juniors he expects to lose.
“I think there’s a number of guys who are looking forward to staying,” he said. “There’s a number of guys that it pays for them to leave.”
Those from last year’s mass exodus had mixed results. Basically, those who were projected to go high — defensive end Barkevious Mingo, safety Eric Reid, tackle Bennie Logan. etc. — are thriving in the NFL as rookies this season.
Others, like cornerback Tharold Simon and punter Brad Wing, might have benefited from a senior year. Wing is out of football and Simon is on the physically unable to perform reserve list for the Seattle Seahawks.
Ferentz hasn’t had nearly the problem that Miles and LSU has had. He’s lost only five juniors to the draft in his 15 seasons at Iowa.
But he can sympathize.
“It’s getting tougher and tougher,” he said. “There are a lot of people on the outside who are working very proactively and, in some cases, creatively, to endear themselves (to players). I want to make sure our guys have a good realistic view of what’s going to happen. I think sometimes guys don’t realize just how competitive the NFL really is.
“There are a lot of good football players out there. It’s a very competitive place to work. It’s business.”
And a business decision.