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Why Iowa hiring Tim Lester can provide much-needed offensive boost for Hawkeyes to emerge as CFP contender

The longest offensive coordinator search in the history of the world — or my memory, at least — has finally concluded. Iowa made it official on Wednesday that Green Bay Packers analyst and former Western Michigan head coach Tim Lester will be the new Hawkeyes offensive coordinator. Let the field-position battle commence.

It’s not the most exciting hire of this cycle, but it was never going to be. After decades of success playing a certain style of football, Kirk Ferentz wasn’t going to drastically change everything Iowa does offensively as he approaches the age of 70. However, just because Iowa won’t be coming out with four-receiver sets and running an Air Raid next season doesn’t mean Lester isn’t an upgrade over Brian Ferentz. A quick look at the numbers tells us this.

Here’s a look at how Western Michigan’s offense fared during Lester’s seven seasons in charge compared to Iowa’s with the younger Ferentz as offensive coordinator. You can see there’s a drastic difference in most areas.

Stat Tim Lester at WMU (2017-22) Brian Ferentz at Iowa (2017-23)

Points per Possession

2.32

1.74

Success Rate

43.0%

38.7%

Rush Rate

57.0%

52.2%

Yards per Play

5.9

4.9

EPA per Pass

0.17

-0.02

EPA per Rush

0.01

-0.07

Explosive Play Rate

16.0%

9.8%

Air Yards per Attempt

10.1

8.0

Passing Efficiency

138.1

119.2

Now, these numbers come with a caveat. The defenses Western Michigan faced in the MAC were not the same caliber as what Iowa’s dealt with in the Big Ten. What’s more interesting to me than the raw numbers, however, is what they suggest.

We think of Iowa as a run-heavy offense, but Lester’s Broncos teams ran the ball more often than Iowa. So, we could see the Hawkeyes run the ball more now that Ferentz is gone. The key difference will be what the passing game looks like.

As the numbers tell, Western Michigan may not have thrown as often, but its passing attack was more vertical than Iowa’s. It averaged 10.1 per attempt to Iowa’s 8.0. It also threw past the first down marker on average (+1.2 air yards to the sticks per throw), while Iowa threw in front (-0.8). How is that explained by approach or philosophy?

I’m no expert when it comes to building an offense or scheming a passing game, but thankfully, I know people who can explain it to me like I’m 5 years old. One current college assistant who has faced both Lester’s Western Michigan offenses and Ferentz’s Iowa offenses told me the biggest difference was that, “Iowa schemes plays so their QB doesn’t screw things up. Flood concepts with a basic progression of reads. Lester’s teams did a better job of scheming a receiver open.” Lester’s offenses also implemented a lot of run-pass option and ran almost exclusively out of the shotgun. That would be a significant shift from Iowa’s current offense where it ran plays out of the shotgun only 42.7% of the time under Ferentz.

One area in which Lester’s approach has shown dividends is in the development of wide receivers. Iowa receiver Nico Ragaini caught 31 passes for 255 yards in 2023 as the most productive wideout on the team. Iowa has not had a wide receiver finish a season with more than 500 yards since Ihmir Smith-Marsette in 2019 (Smith-Marsette would’ve done so in 2020 had there been a full season). Smith-Marsette is also the last Iowa wide receiver to be drafted out of Iowa (Charlie Jones transferred to Purdue before being drafted). Smith-Marsette, taken in the fifth round of the 2021 NFL Draft, is also the only Iowa WR drafted since Ferentz took over as offensive coordinator.

At Western Michigan, Lester inherited a roster that featured Dwayne Eskridge, who caught 105 passes for 2,139 yards and 14 touchdowns in four seasons under Lester (and he only played in 10 games between 2019-20). He would be taken in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft by the Seattle Seahawks. Once he was gone, Lester replaced Eskridge with a low-rated, three-star prospect out of Ohio who was a defensive back named Skyy Moore. Moore had over 800 yards as a freshman and finished with 171 receptions for 2,482 yards and 16 touchdowns in 30 games before he became a second-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Between Eskridge and Moore, Lester recruited another three-star prospect out of suburban Chicago named Jayden Reed, who caught 56 passes for 797 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman before transferring to Michigan State and eventually becoming a second-round pick of the Green Bay Packers in the 2023 NFL Draft. So, between the 2021 and 2023 NFL Draft, Lester either developed or recruited a three-star receiver into a second-round draft pick.

Iowa has produced tight ends like they’re grown in cornfields, but perhaps Lester can help expand on that to producing receivers as well. That would make Iowa’s offense more dynamic and difficult to defend. As things stand currently, Iowa doesn’t have a sell to high-end receiver prospects. They need to find under-the-radar guys and develop them like they’ve done at so many other positions under the elder Ferentz. Perhaps Lester can provide it.

Lastly, Lester’s offenses did this with different QBs with different strengths and weaknesses. That’s an indication Lester can put together a game plan suited to his personnel, not the other way around.

So, while it’s not a sexy hire, if I’m an Iowa fan, there’s reason to be optimistic about this move. After all, it’s not as if Lester needs to find a way to get this team scoring 40 points per game. Iowa won 28 games the last three seasons averaging 18.9 points per game. Consistently scoring 24 points per game could be enough to get the Hawkeyes to the College Football Playoff.

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