There apparently is progress being made on the offensive side of the ball.
IOWA CITY, Ia. – Iowa completed its 21st fall football practice Monday, and with the countdown to the season opener at 12 days, there's more clarity surrounding the Hawkeye product that'll take the field at 11 a.m. on Sept. 5 against Illinois State.
In meeting the news media for the final time before game-week routines begin, head coach Kirk Ferentz provided a good state-of-the-team assessment in this quote:
"We don't have the MVP in the league maybe anywhere at any position," said Ferentz, who will coach his 201st game at Iowa one week from Saturday. "But the sum of our parts has a chance to be good."
Here are 10 takeaways from Monday's interviews with Ferentz, offensive coordinator Greg Davis and defensive coordinator Phil Parker:
Running-back pecking order
In 2009, Iowa's last great season, starter Adam Robinson (834 yards) and Brandon Wegher (641 yards) effectively shared carries on the way to an 11-2 record and an Orange Bowl victory. That's the type of running-back pairing Ferentz hopes LeShun Daniels Jr. and Jordan Canzeri can be in 2015. If healthy, those are the two guys that Iowa will lean on.
Davis and Ferentz reported the offense was more effective during a closed Friday-night scrimmage than it was publicly on Kids Day Aug. 15, with Daniels and Canzeri getting more workload.
"I think we all feel pretty good about what we're seeing from Jordan and LeShun," Ferentz said. "And this is a long-term thing, not just the last couple weeks."
Derrick Mitchell Jr. has moved to "next man in" status as the No. 3, ahead of Akrum Wadley. Mitchell, who carries a solid 216 pounds on a 6-foot-1 frame, has continued to impress the coaching staff with his quick transition from receiver.
Impersonating Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon was Derrick Mitchell's first step toward becoming Iowa's spring-game sensation. What he said in his first interview with HawkCentral.com. Chad Leistikow | Hawkcentral.com
More tempo, better results
Ferentz lamented a lack of "tempo" in the Kids Day scrimmage action. The first-team offense was held without a touchdown by the first-team defense on that scorching Saturday. The more organized Friday scrimmage, though, left a better aftertaste.
Before you start thinking Iowa's going to a hurry-up offense, here's how Ferentz defines tempo:
"Just the pace, the intensity. Overall, how we look. Are we sharp? Are we crisp? Are we moving around a little bit?" Ferentz said. "Or are we just kind of going out there and getting on guys? There's a saying in football, 'hat on hat,' which a lot of coaches use as a compliment. I think that's the worst thing you can say. I can get anybody to put a hat on a hat, that's easy.
"To block somebody hard, or to tackle somebody … there's more to it than assignment drills."
(In other words, the guys are playing faster and more forceful.)
Cole Fisher enters the top three
Parker mentioned, almost in passing, that senior Cole Fisher has moved into the top three at linebacker. Translation: He's moved ahead of listed starter Bo Bower at weak-side linebacker. Sophomores Josey Jewell (middle) and Ben Niemann (outside) are on solid footing as first-teamers.
Fisher (6-2, 236) has nine career tackles, but the Omaha, Neb., product has taken a big leap in his fifth year in the program. In three open practices, Fisher has stood out with his nose for the ball (he intercepted Tyler Wiegers twice in April – at Valley Stadium for a pick-six, then at the spring game).
"He seems more comfortable," Parker said, "and the game has slowed down for him."
Look for the other two linebackers in the top six, senior Travis Perry and redshirt freshman Aaron Mends, to be deployed heavily on special teams.
A new top-four receiver
Riley McCarron's player card (5-9, 186, former walk-on) wouldn't scream impact player, but the Dubuque Wahlert alum has broken through as Iowa's No. 4 receiving option behind Tevaun Smith, Matt VandeBerg and Jacob Hillyer with a combination of versatility, position knowledge and blocking ability.
"Riley is the guy on a baseball team that is a utility player," Davis said. "He can play them all, and you feel good about it. The thing he's done, is he's really dove in to try to understand the nuances of each position. Because of that, we feel like he can go play in the slot, and he can go play outside.
"On top of that, he's tough as nails. He's gritty. He goes in and blocks safeties. That's not the fun part of being a receiver. But he does it all. That's why we're comfortable with him, and why we moved him into that fourth spot."
Ferentz said he'd like another two receivers to join the receiver-rotation party. That wish list would include redshirt freshman Jay Scheel, the listed No. 2 behind VandeBerg who Monday wore a red no-contact jersey (Ferentz classified Scheel's injury as "a little nick"), as well as true freshmen Adrian Falconer, Emmanuel Ogwo and Jerminic Smith.
The Iowa offensive coordinator likes what he has seen in the offensive line, particularly with new tackles Boone Myers and Ike Boettger.
Speaking of the freshmen …
This is a big stretch for Ferentz and his staff to evaluate and make decisions on which true freshmen will get playing time, and which might be automatic red-shirts. Game planning specifically for Illinois State begins later this week.
Reading into Ferentz's comments, it seems four to seven freshmen could get the green light. Offensive lineman James Daniels seems like a sure bet, and the three receivers are getting a strong look. On top of those four, Ferentz identified safety Michael Ojemudia (who made an athletic interception of Drew Cook on Kids Day) as a possibility, as well as "maybe two" linebackers (most likely on special teams). Among new linebackers, Justin Jinning appeared to provide the most jump on Kids Day.
"If they can factor in there and we can really justify them being good special-teams guys, the guys on defense in particular," Ferentz said, "at the end of the week, we'll make that decision."
The Iowa head coach will make some decisions on receivers, James Daniels and more soon.
Guard play more defined
James Daniels worked a little bit with the No. 1 unit on Kids Day at left guard, but that was mostly because Jordan Walsh was out with a soft-tissue injury. Walsh is back at practice, and with fellow 2014 starter Sean Welsh getting back up to speed after missing spring ball (non-football reasons), Iowa is more stable in the middle of its line. Eric Simmons is the super-utility guy as a backup at either guard or center, with Daniels (6-4, 285) having the most raw potential.
Daniels could be a natural candidate to take over at center after fifth-year stalwart Austin Blythe departs, but for now all his reps are at guard.
"(Enrolling early) here last spring has really helped him understand the speed of the game," Davis said.
The tackle rotation
Right tackle starter Ike Boettger and backup Cole Croston have taken reps at left tackle, but that starting position continues to belong to Boone Myers – despite having his lunch handed to him by Drew Ott on Kids Day. The goal in working in Boettger and Croston behind Myers is to create flexibility on both sides, with Croston being the key swing guy. Indianola product Keegan Render is the fourth tackle.
"We're still playing with some different combinations," Davis said.
Good news, it seems, at punter
The punting job remains up for grabs between senior incumbent Dillon Kidd and senior placekicker Marshall Koehn. This position was a sore thumb a year ago (Iowa ranked 117th in FBS in net punting), but the addition of rocket-legged Koehn to the competition seems to be paying off.
"I'm happy to say, knock on wood, both Dillon and Marshall are punting it well," Ferentz said.
In the return game, Desmond King and McCarron are handling punts, with King as the more explosive option. Ferentz said a decision on kickoff returns could be revealed next week during his regular Tuesday news conference.
'Blackout' uniform reveal excites team
In a 53-second video posted by the Hawkeye football Twitter account, players had an excited reaction to the alternate uniforms they'll get to wear during the 7 p.m. home game Nov. 14 against Minnesota. The uniform design hasn't gone public yet, but it's a "Blackout" night at Kinnick Stadium, so there's probably a good chance it'll come from Nike's Pro Combat line with a heavy dose of black. Iowa's traditional home attire is black tops, gold pants.
Ferentz, 60, joked about the alternate jerseys' significance.
"It's a new era, right? New millennium and all that stuff," he said. "We had some sharp young guys think about some stuff and come up with some ideas and did a little unveiling with our players yesterday. It was well-received."
He then added with a trademark Ferentz snort, "It's amazing to me what interests people."
What about quarterback?
It's the 10th takeaway, and would you believe this is the first mention of C.J. Beathard? Well, he's still the starting quarterback, in case you were wondering. But Ferentz did offer, unprompted, that backup Tyler Wiegers has made a lot of progress since the spring. No decision has been made on a No. 3 between true freshmen Cook and Ryan Boyle.
"It's kind of a little bit like the (offensive) line. With every week, he's stepping up a little bit," Ferentz said of Wiegers. "He made a really nice throw yesterday. Once or twice a day, he'll throw a couple balls that you're (thinking), 'OK, that's what we're looking for.' He's making progress."