IOWA CITY, Ia. — If you focused on the line of scrimmage this spring, you could see another solid foundation for Iowa’s 2017 football team.
The things the Hawkeyes typically do best — blocking and tackling — remain a strength. Running the football, especially when high-stepping tailback Akrum Wadley gets back on the field, shouldn’t be a problem. Likewise, a senior trio of linebackers figures to keep Iowa’s defense well-positioned for success against the run.
It’s what happens at the positions farther from the point of initial contact that the Hawkeyes must shore up over the next four months. At quarterback, wide receiver and safety there are questions … and opportunities.
Those were the lessons learned during the 15 spring practices that wrapped up with Friday’s under-the-lights scrimmage at Kinnick Stadium. Here’s where the Hawkeyes stand in 10 key areas heading into summer workouts and the ever-important August camp:
Stalemate at QB
Junior Tyler Wiegers and sophomore Nathan Stanley spent the spring neck-and-neck in competition to replace C.J. Beathard at quarterback. Iowa would love for one of them to prove to be head-and-shoulders above the other in August.
Neither quarterback looked game-ready Friday, combining for three interceptions and failing to sync up with the wide receivers.
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Coach Kirk Ferentz said twice last week that he expects the battle to last well into summer camp, joking that if he had to make a decision at this moment, “we’d be throwing darts.” He even left open the possibility that both Wiegers and Stanley could play in the Sept. 2 season-opener against Wyoming.
Quarterback is the ultimate “alpha dog” position. Whoever starts needs to feel he’s got the complete trust of his coaches and teammates without the need to look over his shoulder. Wiegers or Stanley could help themselves immensely if they make Ferentz’s decision easy in August.
Young looks ready
Wadley, a 1,000-yard rusher a year ago, was held out of contact this spring to keep his knees healthy. That allowed sophomore Toks Akinribade and redshirt freshman Toren Young to get some work in, and the results were encouraging.
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In particular, Young, at 5-foot-11, 220 pounds, demonstrated in an open practice in West Des Moines and in Friday’s spring game that he is difficult to bring down. His power could make him the ideal complement to Wadley’s elusiveness. Young also has the looks of a terror in short-yardage situations.
“The fact that Akrum didn't do much work out there probably was a good thing because those guys need every rep they can get,” Ferentz said of the tailback understudies. “We're going to count on those guys to play, and then we'll keep the door open for freshmen, as well.”
Eight men in
“We’re still pretty tight end-friendly around here,” Nate Vejvoda said last week.
“Tight ends are a good thing,” Brian Ferentz said moments later.
Vejvoda is one of eight tight ends at offensive coordinator Ferentz’s disposal this year, and if you sense the Hawkeyes might be about to double-down on a position they’ve long featured, you’re probably right.
Brian Ferentz spoke of his desire to create mismatches with his new offense and to get the best players on the field. There’s certainly no deeper or more intriguing position than tight end, which absorbed another big body late in spring practices when former quarterback Drew Cook was shifted over.
The group seems to be divided between those who excel at blocking (like Peter Pekar and the currently injured Nate Wieting) and those whose skill set more closely resembles a wide receiver’s (Noah Fant and Shaun Beyer).
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Vejvoda, a sophomore, said he falls squarely in the middle of that divide. And he threw one more intriguing name into the mix — redshirt freshman T.J. Hockenson of Chariton.
“I think they’re trying to get everybody to a similar level of proficiency between running and blocking,” Vejvoda said of his coaches. “(Hockenson), he’s really shown what he’s got. He’s a good blocker and really good in the pass game, too."
Hockenson certainly showed that in Friday’s spring game, pairing with Fant often to give the Hawkeyes what could be a formidable challenge for opposing defenses.
Narrow list of wideouts
Wide receiver was not a position of strength for Iowa last year, so it was concerning this spring to see senior Matt VandeBerg still hobbled from the broken foot he suffered last fall and junior Jerminic Smith removed from team activities for not living up to his academic obligations. Those are the Hawkeyes’ two experienced options at wide receiver, and neither were able to put in a full month of practice with the inexperienced quarterback duo.
Charging into that void, though, was walk-on Nick Easley. The Newton graduate, who spent the past two seasons at Iowa Western Community College, seems like a classic overachiever. He grabbed the attention of coach Kirk Ferentz and strength coach Chris Doyle immediately.
“He'll play, and he'll play more than maybe he even anticipated,” Brian Ferentz said of Easley last week. “Because we're looking for the guys that can go out there and do things the way we want them done, and I mean that 24 hours a day.”
Nick Easley, a walk-on and Newton native, grew up a Hawkeye fan.
Easley is just 5-foot-11 and projects as a slot receiver. But the Hawkeyes split him out wide as well. There’s a long line of Hawkeye wideouts that failed to live up to the spring hype. Easley might prove to be the exception.
“I like watching Jarvis Landry, Julian Edelman, guys like that. Tough dudes who run really good routes and catch the ball,” Easley said, referencing two of the NFL’s best possession receivers.
“I feel like I’ve always been a little bit of an underdog. It’s something I’m used to.”
A fine line
Iowa lost junior Dalton Ferguson to a torn ACL during spring camp. With him went a little bit of the depth on the offensive line.
But there’s no question that starting group, all upperclassmen, is the class of the offense heading into August camp.
Senior guard Sean Welsh leads the way up front, and he said the focus this spring was on improving pass protection and finding out who is next in line when he, Ike Boettger and Boone Myers graduate.
That list includes Alaric Jackson, twins Landan and Levi Paulsen, and Ross Reynolds.
Barring injury, they’ll have to wait their turn.
Welsh said pass-blocking has gotten better. The film shows it.
“My measure of it is consistency. How consistently are we keeping the quarterback clean? Is he getting pressured?” Welsh said.
This group works well together, and should be able to buy some extra time for whoever ends up under center.
Plugging a hole in the middle
If Nathan Bazata’s ankle heals, and sophomore Cedrick Lattimore proves he can absorb a heavy load of snaps, the Hawkeyes should be in good shape at defensive tackle. But “if” is not a comforting word to coaches or fans, so the spring was devoted to identifying other options for the interior of the defense.
Bazata is a senior who can lead a young group, if he’s on the field. Lattimore showed great promise as a freshman.
Behind them, sophomore Brady Reiff emerged as the most-talked-about defensive player of the camp, a counterpart to Easley on offense. Coaches took every opportunity to tout the emergence of the younger brother of former Hawkeye star offensive lineman Riley Reiff. An ankle injury late in spring camp kept Brady Reiff off the field Friday, but he will be an intriguing player to watch in August.
There also was talk early on of maybe moving junior Matt Nelson inside from defensive end, but any experimentation there ended when he also suffered a foot injury. That still may be a plan. Sam Brincks is another end who could shuffle inside, defensive coordinator Phil Parker said.
“We're trying to keep balance. I think we have enough guys,” Parker said, before adding what may have been a caution.
“Obviously, we have a lot of linebackers that we can have and put into our bandit package, our raider package, so that's something we're looking at also.”
There are plenty of options to be backups at defensive tackle, guys who can give the starters a rest. But if those starters aren’t Bazata and Lattimore, the situation becomes much more urgent.
The unseen force
A.J. Epenesa is not yet on Iowa’s depth chart, seeing as he doesn’t arrive on campus until June. But he loomed as large as any current player when it came to speculation about playing time on the defensive line.
The five-star recruit seems to be a ready-made contributor at defensive end. Or could Epenesa, at 275 pounds, be an option to move inside and shore up a thinner position group?
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Parker certainly wasn’t tipping his hand about an athlete he has yet to be able to coach.
“Whatever the best fit for him when he gets here, we'll have to determine that,” Parker said. “If we can get 15, 20 plays out of him during the game, I think that would be very good.”
Sure, but which game? The season-opener against Wyoming?
The buzz about Epenesa, and his role, will only grow between now and then.
Backing up the 'backers
Iowa is so set at linebacker — with returning senior starters Bo Bower, Josey Jewell and Ben Niemann — that that trio hardly needed a spring full of practices to prove anything. So they did plenty of sitting and let coaches get a look at some potential 2018 starters.
That’s quite a luxury.
Sophomores Kristian Welch and Angelo Gabutt got chances to show they can be the middle linebacker of the future. Classmate Amani Jones moved past junior Aaron Mends on the depth chart.
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Parker was cautious about looking too far ahead.
“I think there are guys with good athletic ability that can move, they're tough, smart,” Parker said. “But to understand the system and try to play like those (current starters), they need more reps and that's what we've been doing.”
Safety in numbers
The loss of junior free safety Brandon Snyder to an ACL injury was the worst development of the spring for Iowa. He was the quarterback of the back-end of the defense with a nose for the football.
Senior Miles Taylor remains the starter at strong safety, and on Friday he was paired with junior Jake Gervase. All Gervase did was steal the show with three interceptions; one ended in a touchdown and the other two nearly did as well.
Not to be overlooked is the fact Amani Hooker and Noah Clayberg also played exceptionally well in the reserve roles. If that trend continues, the Hawkeyes will find themselves with plenty of good options.
Gervase, a junior from Davenport Assumption, already sounded like a veteran leader after his breakout performance Friday.
“Spring ball is 15 practices of grunt work. It’s not fun. Coach Ferentz always says, ‘You don’t have a bowl game waiting for you after spring ball,’” Gervase said. “It’s about coming out here and working as a unit, getting better on both sides of the ball. And I think we did that throughout the night.”
Next King in?
The Hawkeyes will be breaking in two new starting cornerbacks this fall, but that doesn’t mean they’re starting from scratch. Josh Jackson and Manny Rugamba got valuable experience last year. Michael Ojemudia is slotted in as the nickel corner. There’s not enough depth yet at that spot, but that’s certainly a strong trio to start with.
Rugamba, a sophomore, appears to be the emerging star of the group. Not that he is eager for any comparison for graduated all-American Desmond King.
“I wouldn’t say I’m a Desmond King replacement. I just feel like I’m Manny Rugamba,” he said Friday. “It’s big shoes to fill, but I’m not trying to fill shoes.
“I’m trying to make my own.”
That’s as good a motto as any for the 2017 Hawkeyes. Fans will get their next look at the progress being made in four months.