Things to keep an eye on as Kirk Ferentz's team progresses through spring camp. James Kramer/The Register
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Whose right arm is the right one for the Iowa football team?
That is the predominant question heading into the 2017 season, which officially begins Wednesday with the first of 15 spring practices.
The Hawkeyes spent last fall putting Nathan Stanley in position to seize control of the quarterbacking duties this spring. The 6-foot-5, 235-pounder out of Menomonie, Wis. — wearer of Brett Favre’s No. 4 — didn’t redshirt as a freshman so that he could get practice repetitions with the starting offense. He rose past sophomore Tyler Wiegers to No. 2 on the depth chart, even getting into seven games as a rookie.
But if you think Stanley has a clear path to being the heir apparent to the graduated C.J. Beathard, think again. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz told reporters Monday that nothing has been decided yet when it comes to the team’s most important position.
“We’ll let the guys compete,” Ferentz said.
That would put Wiegers right back in the mix after a season spent entirely on the sideline.
A closer look at the quarterback race and four other storylines to watch as a new spring dawns for the Hawkeyes:
Under center and under pressure
Whoever takes the reins of the Iowa offense will be a first-year starter with a first-year offensive coordinator in Brian Ferentz, Kirk’s son, and a “new” quarterbacks coach in Ken O’Keefe.
O’Keefe, of course, was offensive coordinator at Iowa from 1999-2011 and mentored signal-callers such as Brad Banks, Ricky Stanzi and Drew Tate. But he was with the Miami Dolphins the previous five seasons and is just getting acquainted with Stanley, Wiegers and Drew Cook, who is listed as the third-string quarterback.
It will be a lot to adapt to for whoever gets the starting nod, and getting on the same page starts in earnest now.
Kirk Ferentz is entering his 19th season as Iowa’s head coach. His preference, he reiterated, is to pick a starting quarterback and stick with that decision, barring injury.
“It starts with the huddle, right up through taking the snap. First of all, calling the play in the huddle, then taking the snap and making good decisions after that point,” Ferentz said of what he’s looking for. “We realize all the guys are inexperienced. None of them have been in a game very much.”
Stanley completed 5 of 9 passes for 62 yards last year. Wiegers went 3-for-4 for 32 yards in 2015. One of them is about to get thrown into the fire.
“Names and some of the terminology will be different — nomenclature. But it's still football, making reads, that type of thing,” Ferentz said.
Who will catch on?
It would be a big boost for whoever the quarterback is if the Hawkeyes can identify some pass-catching options. And the sooner the better.
Iowa’s most experienced receiver, senior Matt VandeBerg, is sitting out spring practice to let his injured right foot heal. So Stanley and Wiegers will be throwing to a group of wideouts led by junior Jerminic Smith (23 catches last year), sophomore Devonte Young, junior Adrian Falconer and newcomer Nick Easley, a walk-on transfer from Iowa Western Community College. None of the latter three have ever caught a pass in an FBS game.
Coaching that group will be the recently hired Kelton Copeland.
“It's a great opportunity right now for those players. We've got a couple guys — like Jerminic Smith, Adrian Falconer — that have been here. They're going into their third years now. They have a chance to take dramatic steps forward,” Ferentz said.
“Historically, in our program, when our team does well, we have guys in the second, third, fourth years that are really starting … to show they can go out and play successfully in the Big Ten. That's kind of what we're hoping to see — those guys take those kinds of steps.”
Tight end offers a similarly inexperienced group: Senior Peter Pekar is listed as the starter after having a single catch last season; sophomore Noah Fant backs him up, coming off a promising debut season that included nine receptions and a touchdown; redshirt freshmen Shaun Beyer and T.J. Hockenson should be given every opportunity to prove themselves as well.
Somehow, Iowa needs to find a collection of receivers that can elevate its 2016 status as the 117th-best passing team in FBS.
Clearing the way for A.J.?
A.J. Epenesa won’t arrive on campus for months, but the Hawkeyes’ top recruit will cast a large shadow this spring. The 6-foot-5, 275-pounder is the No. 1-ranked defensive end in the nation and is talented enough to demand immediate playing time.
Will we see defensive line coach Reese Morgan start shuffling his players right away in order to make room for Epenesa?
Iowa has an experienced defensive line group returning, led by senior Nathan Bazata inside. Sophomore Cedrick Lattimore, at 6-5, 295, is listed as the starter next to him. The Hawkeyes have a battle-tested trio of defensive ends back in juniors Parker Hesse and Matt Nelson, plus sophomore Anthony Nelson.
Matt Nelson started every game last year but is listed as a backup to Anthony (no relation) as spring begins. A sign that Matt may be headed inside as the offseason progresses?
“That may be something we toy with. It would be part of the equation,” Ferentz said of the 6-8, 285-pound Matt Nelson.
“If he does, that gives us a little bit more flexibility. I know, mentally, he can handle both — that's not an issue. Physically, can you do both? That's a different story. It's different playing inside.”
Hawkeye coaches are also high on backup defensive tackles Brady Reiff and Jake Hulett. Whatever happens, it’s safe to say that Morgan has more good options at his disposal this year than any other Iowa position coach. It will be fascinating to watch what happens to them all.
Many happy returns?
Desmond King leaves a big void at cornerback for Iowa, but Joshua Jackson, Manny Rugamba and Michael Ojemudia offer an enticing trio of options to replace him.
But what King also did so well was return kicks — 27 kickoffs for 750 yards and 26 punts for 264 last season. That’s 1,014 yards of crucial field position that will need to be replaced.
Young, the sophomore receiver from Waldorf, Md., enters spring as the No. 1 option at returner. VandeBerg is listed as his backup. Neither returned a kick last year, although Young took second-team repetitions on the kickoff unit.
Don’t overlook how important it will be for Iowa to find a player with game-breaking potential — which Young seems to have — who is trustworthy enough to make smart decisions with the football near his own goal line.
LeVar Woods, in his 10th season on Ferentz’s staff, was promoted to special-teams coach this winter and will help tutor King’s replacement.
“Who is going to field punts, return punts for us?” Ferentz said in his opening statement to reporters Monday. “Desmond did such an outstanding job for us. Those are things we'll be looking at — on our radar — as we go along.”
Friday night lights
Fans will get two chances to see how this all looks this spring — at 6:15 p.m. on April 7 at West Des Moines Valley High School, and in the open practice that concludes drills on April 21 at Kinnick Stadium.
That will be a 7 p.m. Friday start, after the event has been held on Saturdays for years. Will it be an actual game this year, instead of a series of drills? That certainly would make it more attractive to the Big Ten Network, if it were considering providing live coverage. The decision will be Ferentz’s, and he wasn’t tipping his hand Monday.
“We also shifted the spring game to Friday night — thought that would be something our fans would enjoy also,” he said. “Just something a little different, from that standpoint.”