Depth chart analysis: Battle for QB tops list for Iowa Hawkeyes
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Kirk Ferentz hasn’t been shy about pointing out the weak areas of his 19th Iowa football team. The question marks are primarily on the perimeter — as in wide receivers, cornerbacks and especially quarterback, Ferentz has said repeatedly this spring and summer.
Of course, there’s also this late-July quote from the veteran Hawkeyes coach: “Depth charts really are pretty meaningless almost everywhere this time of year. But a month from now, six weeks from now, they start to have a little bit more relevance.”
That’s what summer camp is for, and Iowa’s football team is one week into that process of identifying starters and key reserves for the season that begins Sept. 2 vs. Wyoming.
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Below is a depth-chart breakdown of where the Hawkeyes stand, with a depth confidence on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being most confident) for each of the eight categories:
Locked-in: No one yet.
August camp intrigue: This is the biggie. Junior Tyler Wiegers (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) was the primary backup two seasons ago, completing 3-of-4 passes. But he was supplanted by true freshman Nathan Stanley (6-5, 235) at this time a year ago and never saw the field as a sophomore. Stanley went 5-for-9 in limited action but didn’t show enough to earn the starting job after the graduation of two-year starter C.J. Beathard. There’s a new quarterbacks coach in Ken O’Keefe, a new offensive coordinator in Brian Ferentz, and hints that a new offensive philosophy is being forged. Stanley and Wiegers will battle for at least the next three weeks to earn enough trust from the coaching staff to be declared the starter. Or else we’ll still be having this discussion in September.
Depth confidence: 4. The good news is Iowa has two quarterbacks who have played some, so whoever is handed the back-up job will be accustomed to that role. Sophomore Ryan Boyle (6-1, 208) has returned to quarterback after a one-year experiment at wide receiver and is entrenched as the third-stringer.
Locked-in: Senior Akrum Wadley (5-11, 195) is the most dynamic athlete on Iowa’s roster, a 1,000-yard rusher a year ago who seemed poised to build on those stats as the Hawkeyes’ undisputed top tailback.
August camp intrigue: And then … the Hawkeyes picked up graduate-transfer James Butler (5-9, 216) from Nevada, where he had rushed for 3,300 yards in three seasons. Suddenly, the backfield is looking like a job-share again for Wadley (which Iowa did so effectively last season that LeShun Daniels Jr. also rushed for more than 1,000 yards). With two seniors atop the depth chart, the biggest question for August becomes what happens to sophomore Toks Akinribade (6-0, 208) and redshirt freshman Toren Young (5-11, 220). Both were expected to spell Wadley at times this season. Will Butler and/or Wadley be used in the return game? Will they be split out wide at times in order to get both on the field together? It’s an embarrassment of riches for the Hawkeyes now. At fullback, senior Drake Kulick (6-1, 240) returns after his gruesome broken leg suffered in the season finale against Nebraska. Sophomore Brady Ross (6-1, 245) also has plenty of experience in a role that Iowa alone has utilized well in recent years.
Depth confidence: 9. Wadley is a star. Butler is eager to prove that he can chew through Big Ten Conference defenses just as he did in the Mountain West. Young was impressive in spring practices, and Akinribade provides a shiftiness that the Hawkeyes can use somewhere down the line. This is a stacked position for Iowa.
Wide receivers/tight ends
Locked-in: Matt VandeBerg (6-1, 195) got a fifth year of eligibility after breaking his foot four games into what would have been his senior season. He is hard-working and gifted, the perfect leader for the youngest and least-accomplished position group the Hawkeyes have.
August camp intrigue: No wide receiver other than VandeBerg has caught a pass in a Hawkeye uniform. For a team already trying to identify a quarterback, this is a huge problem — and opportunity. Junior Adrian Falconer (6-1, 192), sophomores Devonte Young (6-0, 200) and Dominique Dafney (6-2, 225), plus junior-college transfer Nick Easley (5-11, 203) will get long looks. It’s the true freshman class that is most tantalizing, however. Brandon Smith (6-3, 205) and Ihmir Smith-Marsette (6-2, 175) have breakout potential. Wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland said Saturday that Smith-Marsette has already established himself as the deep's best vertical threat. Max Cooper (6-0, 175) and Henry Marchese (6-3, 190) are also eager to show they belong. And then there’s the late wild card — graduate-transfer Matt Quarells (6-1, 195). He’s joining Iowa after two years of primarily being a blocker at New Mexico. But he’s a former star sprinter in high school and has two years of eligibility remaining. Eligibility is in long supply for Iowa’s receivers. Now it’s time for someone to show ability. At tight end, there’s strength in numbers if not experience. Sophomore Noah Fant (6-5, 232) and redshirt freshman T.J. Hockenson (6-5, 243) sit atop the depth chart and give Iowa two big, athletic targets in the passing game. Blocking will be their challenge. Senior Peter Pekar (6-4, 252) and sophomore Nate Wieting (6-4, 250) have the blocking part down, but want to show they can catch the ball as well. Redshirt freshman Shaun Beyer (6-5, 222) brings a wide receiver’s skill set to a vital position for the Hawkeyes. It’ll be a tight end smorgasbord for Iowa fans to gorge on, particularly if the wide receivers don’t force their way onto the field.
Depth confidence: 3. So much youth, and VandeBerg’s injury history, make this a boom-or-bust position for the Hawkeyes this fall.
Locked-in: A veteran unit that features (from left to right): senior Boone Myers (6-5, 310), junior Keegan Render (6-4, 310), junior James Daniels (6-4, 295), senior Sean Welsh (6-3, 295) and senior Ike Boettger (6-6, 307). There are 96 career starts among the quintet.
August camp intrigue: None, really. Only injuries can derail a group of starters that shared in winning a trophy as the best in the nation last year. The battles will be for back-up spots. Players to keep an eye on include redshirt freshman tackle Alaric Jackson (6-7, 320), redshirt freshman center Spencer Williams (6-3, 295) and true freshman Tristan Wirfs (6-5, 315), who will be aiming to make an immediate impact.
Depth confidence: 6. The only problem with having established starters is that the reserves remain mostly untested in game action. Junior Lucas LeGrand (6-5, 295) would probably be the next man in if injury strikes.
Locked-in: A terrific trio of Iowa-born ends in juniors Parker Hesse (6-3, 257) and Matt Nelson (6-8, 285) and sophomore Anthony Nelson (6-7, 260). Senior Nathan Bazata (6-2, 287) will anchor the inside, but is returning from injury. Sophomore Cedrick Lattimore (6-5, 295) is the lone newcomer, expected to raise his profile considerably after the graduation of Jaleel Johnson.
August camp intrigue: Finding capable fill-ins at defensive tackle is the urgent priority. Sophomore Brady Reiff (6-3, 260) is an undersized option who has consistently drawn raves from coaches. Sophomore Garret Jansen (6-2, 280) is the other listed backup as camp begins. Senior Jake Hulett (6-3, 289) and sophomore Jake Newborg (6-3, 290) will also get a chance. But all eyes will be on highly touted freshman A.J. Epenesa (6-5, 270), who is an end by trade, but is talented enough to play anywhere. Where Iowa coaches slot Epenesa in will create a domino effect on the rest of the line, if not this year, then certainly next.
Depth confidence: 8. It was just a year ago that defensive end was the Hawkeyes’ biggest concern. That position is a strength now, especially when you factor in redshirt freshmen Chauncey Golston (6-5, 255) and Brandon Simon (6-1, 240). Tackle becomes an issue only if Bazata isn’t fully recovered or Lattimore proves incapable of playing up to his potential.
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Locked-in: No one on the team is more locked-in than senior middle linebacker Josey Jewell (6-2, 236). His intensity fuels the entire defense. He is surrounded by fellow seniors Bo Bower (6-2, 235) and Ben Niemann (6-3, 233) to form the latest in great linebacking trios at Iowa.
August camp intrigue: Who is next in line when those three graduate? There figures to be sparse playing time this year for any backups, although they will fill important special-teams roles. Sophomores Kristian Welch (6-3, 232) and Amani Jones (6-0, 235) will try to make their cases for becoming two-year starters in 2018-19; both are having strong camps. Junior Aaron Mends (6-0, 227) will try to halt his mysterious slide down the depth chart.
Depth confidence: 6. Much like offensive line, this number is swayed by the lack of playing time for anyone beyond the starters. Senior Kevin Ward (6-1, 217) and junior Jack Hockaday (6-1, 232) have shown they will be ready if called upon. But that’s a big “if.”
Locked-in: Miles Taylor (5-10, 203) is the lone senior of the group, starting for the third year but looking to regain his confidence. Junior Joshua Jackson (6-1, 192) and sophomore Manny Rugamba (6-0, 185) will get their first starting opportunities at cornerback.
August camp intrigue: The springtime knee injury suffered by junior free safety Brandon Snyder will reverberate throughout the season. He is cerebral, daring and had a year’s worth of starts under his belt. Into that void will step either junior Jake Gervase (6-1, 210) or sophomore Amani Hooker (6-0, 210). Gervase was the star of the spring game with three interceptions, but is still an unknown. Hooker is skilled but similarly inexperienced. Free safety is a leadership position, and defensive coordinator Phil Parker will be looking for that foremost.
Depth confidence: 3. Sophomore Michael Ojemudia (6-2, 200) gives Iowa a good third option at cornerback and in nickel packages. But someone among a freshman group that includes Matt Hankins (6-1, 175), Camron Harrell (5-10, 181), Geno Stone (6-0, 195) and Josh Turner (6-0, 180) will have to prove himself quickly. Hankins has already shown that he looks to be that guy, according to defensive coordinator Phil Parker and two players. Any further injuries in the secondary could prove disastrous.
Locked-in: Sophomore Keith Duncan (5-11, 173) entered Hawkeye lore last fall by drilling the game-winning field goal against Michigan. Senior Tyler Kluver (6-0, 220) gives Iowa a reliable option at long-snapper.
August camp intrigue: Every other job seems up for grabs. And even Duncan may need to fend off another challenge from junior Miguel Recinos (6-1, 192), who handled field goals longer than 40 yards last year, making 1-of-3. Punter seems to be a battle between sophomore Colten Rastetter (6-2, 210) and freshman Ryan Gersonde (6-4, 185). Someone will also have to take over the holding duties that graduated punter (and quote machine) Ron Coluzzi handled last season. Plus, there’s an opening for punt and kickoff returner after Desmond King graduated. Butler and Wadley may be called on there, but VandeBerg and Young also have some experience.
Depth confidence: 2. It’s a lot to sort out for a group of players who can make the difference between winning and losing in close games. LeVar Woods is coaching special teams for the first time, but Ferentz also brought in NFL veteran Kevin Spencer to help the process.