Opinion | Cade McNamara will need an adequate supporting cast to fix Iowa football’s offense

The Hawkeyes will need to add depth at wide receiver and along their offensive line to help the graduate transfer succeed.


Grace Smith

Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara carries the ball during the Big Ten Championship game between No. 13 Iowa and No. 2 Michigan at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana, on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021.

Austin Hanson, Pregame Editor

Iowa football head coach Kirk Ferentz and his coaching staff took a bold first step in the renovation of their offense Thursday evening, adding former Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara to their 2023 roster via the transfer portal.

Rumors of McNamara’s interest in Iowa began to circulate Monday afternoon, when his decision to enter the portal became public. At the time, I was admittedly skeptical about the reports.

Even when ESPN’s Pete Thamel — perhaps the most reliable source in the college football — tweeted McNamara was coming to Iowa on Thursday, I had my doubts. I didn’t believe it until the very moment McNamara posted a photo of himself adequately photoshopped into an Iowa uniform on Instagram and Twitter.

The news was exciting, and I’m sure Iowa fans are still amped about their team getting a new quarterback through the portal. The move was one-of-a-kind for the Hawkeyes.

Rarely, if ever, has Iowa brought in a transfer player as highly sought after as McNamara. In 2021, McNamara threw for 2,470 yards, 15 touchdowns, and four interceptions in 14 games, leading Michigan to the College Football Playoff. 

The ex-Wolverine starter likely had a number of programs with championship pedigree greater than Iowa’s pursuing him. Some reports even suggested Notre Dame could be a landing spot for McNamara.

How Ferentz brought McNamara to Iowa is beyond me. The Hawkeyes ranked outside the top 120 in the 131-team FBS in passing, total, rushing, and scoring offense at the end of the 2022 regular season.

Yet, Ferentz found a way to convince one of the top portal quarterbacks, arguably, to come to Iowa City. The move itself is very un-Ferentz-like. Traditionally, Ferentz has not made changes at quarterback once he decides to start an upperclassman.

Spencer Petras, who has been the Hawkeyes’ top QB since 2020, does have one year of collegiate eligibility remaining. McNamara’s commitment to Iowa clouds Petras’ future. Will Petras return to Iowa next season to compete against McNamara for the starting job? Will he transfer to another school or decide to end his college career?

The answers to those questions remain to be seen, but Ferentz seemed to assert who his starting quarterback will be next year by getting McNamara. Guys like McNamara don’t commit to a school without being promised a chance to start.

McNamara isn’t going to fix Iowa’s ailing offense alone. While backup quarterback Alex Padilla, who entered the transfer portal on Tuesday, and Petras may not have done much to help the Hawkeyes fix their problems, they certainly weren’t the only cause of the Hawkeyes’ woes on offense.

Iowa currently lacks the requisite weapons to support McNamara. With top tight end Sam LaPorta likely leaving for the 2023 NFL Draft and wide receiver Keagan Johnson entering the transfer portal, the Hawkeyes will have to find a way to get McNamara some reliable pass-catchers.

I like what Nico Ragaini and Diante Vines bring to the Hawkeyes’ wide receiver room. I also think tight end Luke Lachey has a lot of upside. He caught 25 passes for 362 yards and three touchdowns playing behind LaPorta this season.

Still, Iowa lacks depth at receiver. Behind the two aforementioned wideouts on the depth chart are two-sport athlete Brody Brecht and walk-ons Jack Johnson and Alec Wick.

Brecht caught nine passes for 87 yards during the regular season. Wick had two receptions for 31 yards, and Jack Johnson did not record any stats.

Iowa will also need to improve along its offensive line because McNamara isn’t exactly known for his mobility. And coming off a devastating leg injury, he’ll need solid protection. On 30 rushing attempts in 2021, McNamara gained 27 yards and scored a touchdown.

If five-star offensive lineman Kadyn Proctor — who played high school football at Southeast Polk near Des Moines — remains committed to Iowa, that will only help McNamara play better. Perhaps, McNamara’s presence will even reinforce Proctor’s commitment to Iowa — even after his visit to Oregon in early November.

Iowa’s offensive line, however, likely needs more help than Proctor can provide. Through 12 regular season games, the Hawkeyes ranked 12th in the Big Ten Conference in sacks allowed with 37.

Since George Barnett took over as the Hawkeyes’ line coach two years ago, Iowa has surrendered 69 sacks in 26 contests.

The Hawkeyes will also have to think about who will call their plays going forward. Under the direction of current offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz — Kirk Ferentz’s son — Iowa has struggled. On more occasions than I can count on both hands this season, the Hawkeyes made some head-scratching decisions on offense.

In many third-down situations, the Hawkeyes would choose to throw the ball short of the line to gain. In their 27-14 loss to the Wolverines at Kinnick Stadium on Oct. 1, the Hawkeyes had a chance to change the tone of the game with less than six minutes remaining in the contest. Iowa drove the ball to the Michigan 6-yard line, and instead of running the ball or throwing ahead of the sticks on a fourth-and-2 play, the Hawkeyes threw a 1-yard pass to LaPorta.

That moment is most exemplary of Brian Ferentz’s questionable play calling this season. It’s difficult to determine if the play was executed as called, but the point still stands.

I’m not certain Kirk Ferentz will make changes at offensive coordinator or O-line coach, but McNamara’s addition at least seems to signal that Kirk Ferentz recognizes things have to change. As he said multiple times this season, the Hawkeyes aren’t going to win many games unless they start finding ways to score more points.

Without any further portal additions or personnel changes, it’s difficult to say Iowa’s offense will look much different under McNamara’s direction. But if Iowa finds a way to build the right staff and roster around McNamara, the Hawkeyes could be a legitimate threat in the conference title race — not just in the West.