IOWA CITY, Ia. – The final public glimpse of organized Iowa football before the Sept. 5 opener is Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. There’s intense curiosity over what the 2015 Hawkeyes will look like under the direction of C.J. Beathard/Kirk Ferentz 3.0, and every clue either leads to answers or speculation.
Both can be fun, but not everything that is seen during the noon Kids Day open practice (gates open at 11 a.m) should be over-analyzed.
To help your journey through the afternoon, which will include some live scrimmaging, here are five things that you should care a lot about, and five less-pressing matters that still merit monitoring:
THINGS TO CARE MOST ABOUT …
The new offensive tackles: Boone Myers and Ike Boettger had a rough spring. Word is they’re making progress. But what does progress look like? At media day, Ferentz warned, “We’ve got to be ready for some ups and downs, just like any time you break in new players at new positions.” That casts realistic concern about the sustainability of Iowa’s offense and the ability to protect quarterback C.J. Beathard.
Drew Ott is a really good defensive end, but there are a lot of really good pass rushers in the Big Ten. If Myers, on the left side replacing Brandon Scherff, can show tangible progress since spring ball against Ott, that would be encouraging. If not, three weeks until Illinois State will seem to go quickly.
And on the flip side: If developing the offensive line is Iowa’s No. 1 concern in fall camp, getting new defensive tackles ready is No. 2. Jaleel Johnson and Nathan Bazata have the first crack at replacing gone-to-the-NFL Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat.
How do we measure their ability to clog the middle Saturday? Iowa’s best offensive lineman is its fifth-year senior center, Austin Blythe, so seeing Johnson, Bazata and top backup Faith Ekakitie win some battles is probably the best thing to look for. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker referred to Johnson’s play as “violent” (in a good way) on this week’s Big Ten Network Iowa special.
The running back rotation is of high interest as fall camp begins.
The validation of LeShun Daniels Jr.: In naming the junior No. 1 on the depth chart despite just 51 career carries, there’s an underlying wish that Daniels becomes the bell cow runner that Iowa hasn’t had since Marcus Coker in 2011. Daniels has all the physical tools to be that guy, and he’s done everything the coaches have asked, including cutting his weight to a lean 225 pounds.
Daniels might not get more than a handful of carries Saturday, after getting dinged a week ago by Miles Taylor. But seeing him turn a stacked-up run into a 3-yard gain or an outside-stretch run into a big play (something converted fullback Mark Weisman couldn’t do enough of as a three-year starter) would help validate his No. 1 status.
The offense scoring touchdowns. Sounds obvious and simple, but the only touchdown we saw in two open spring practices was the first-team offense operating against the second/third-team defense. Crummy weather didn’t help Beathard in the April 25 spring game. A third public offensive dud on what is expected to be a calm, 90-degree day would be a concern.
Beathard and Tevaun Smith say the offense is clicking now more than it did in the spring. Even if the defense has the advantage of knowing what plays are probably coming, evidence of Beathard turning his howitzer arm into “explosive plays” would be a plus.
Ferentz comments post-scrimmage (and no key injuries): What the coach says to the news media afterward could be as telling as anything seen on the field. If there are any personnel absences (for instance, starters Jordan Walsh and Jordan Lomax weren’t practicing during a short photo/video opportunity Wednesday), scrimmage injuries or position-battle movements, we should learn about them then.
DON’T WORRY ABOUT, BUT BE INTERESTED IN …
True freshman wide receivers: Iowa has a clear top three at receiver in Smith, Matt VandeBerg and Jacob Hillyer, and they have position flexibility. So the search isn’t on for a true freshman to start, but the Hawkeyes could use some contributors here.
Emmanuel Ogwo has gotten the most buzz with his speed; Adrian Falconer was cited by Ferentz to the Big Ten Network as taking the early lead among rookies; and Jerminic Smith was fielding punts (along with Ogwo) earlier this week. Seeing what they can do in a practice setting — and whether they get any time with the No. 1 offense — will be an indicator of how coaches feel about their progress.
Eric Graham: Same deal. Iowa doesn’t need him to break through now, but he’s received message-board buzz this week, partly fueled by a photo at HawkeyeReport.com that showed him standing next to Daniels with a chiseled physique. Iowa has a clear top four at running back, with Daniels at No. 1, Jordan Canzeri No. 2 and the likely third-down back and Akrum Wadley and Derrick Mitchell Jr. right behind them.
But the mystery of Graham, a true freshman from Alabama who was a late academic qualifier and got an 11th-hour offer from Iowa after Karan Higdon de-committed for Michigan, could partly be revealed Saturday.
The linebacker rotation: There’s still three weeks left in camp after this, but competition continues among starters Bo Bower, Josey Jewell and Ben Niemann and backups Aaron Mends, Travis Perry and Cole Fisher for playing time. All six looked good against the offense this spring.
Iowa’s ability to contain outside running attacks is a high concern, and the linebackers play a huge part in that. Illinois State brings athleticism to the table in the opener with quarterback Tre Roberson (4,250 total yards, 41 touchdowns in 2014) and running back Marshaun Coprich (2,274 rush yards, 27 touchdowns) coming to town. Who is enlisted to stop them, and where, is of interest.
The punts, and who’s returning them: Iowa hasn’t listed return specialists on its fall depth chart, but Desmond King a week ago said he’s the main punt returner and in the mix for kickoff returns. Assistant coaches LeVar Woods and Chris White confirmed that’s the plan in interviews with HawkCentral.com. However, King will need backup and competition. He muffed a short punt against Maryland last year, a costly turnover in a 38-31 loss.
Saturday’s scrimmage won’t likely offer any “live” returns — too much injury risk. Where King (and others) catch the punts is important, too. Are they getting away from bouncing 35-yard shanks from Dillon Kidd and Marshall Koehn? Or are they chasing down 55-yard boomers? Punter is one of the few jobs that are in competition, and it could be that way until September.
An assessment of Wiegers, Boyle and Cook: Let’s face the facts, if Beathard gets hurt at any point this season, Iowa’s fortunes could nose-dive. Ferentz went all-in by naming him the starter six days after the TaxSlayer Bowl loss, leading to Jake Rudock’s departure for Michigan.
Expecting redshirt freshman Tyler Wiegers to show anywhere near Beathard’s development isn’t realistic, but it is important that he demonstrate progress from a shaky spring. “He’s playing a little bit faster out there, a little bit more confident,” Ferentz said on media day.
Iowa needs to pick a third quarterback as an emergency backup and for road trips. Saturday marks the first time for fans to see true freshmen and Iowa prep stars Ryan Boyle and Drew Cook in a Hawkeye uniform. Offensive coordinator Greg Davis said last week that both were eager to learn but added, “They’ve been thrown in the deep end. They’re not ready to really compete.”
KIDS DAY OVERVIEW
What: “Kids Day at Kinnick,” Iowa’s only open football practice of fall camp
When, where: Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. Gates open at 11 a.m., practice begins at noon.
Need to know: Admission and parking is free. ... Player autographs will begin around 11:30, along the front of the west and south stands. Free schedule posters, cards, magnets, key tags, and rosters will be available inside all open gates.
Activities: Activities will be held in the Krause Family Plaza, beginning at 9 a.m., including inflatable games, face painting, temporary tattoos and a chance to meet Herky the Hawk. The Iowa mascot will be available for photos from 10:30 to 11 a.m. ... Stuff Etc, a consignment store, is also hosting a clothing drive to benefit the UI Children’s Hospital. Fans are encouraged to bring any gently used clothing (adult and youth sizes accepted), household items and toys. A donation truck will be set up between 8:30 a.m. and noon.