Iowa takeaways: Stanley must run more, no hurry on 10th assistant, urgent need at linebacker
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The next step in Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley’s development is to run more and fumble less, coach Kirk Ferentz said Wednesday at his season-ending news conference.
Stanley finished his sophomore season — his first as a starter — with 26 touchdown passes against only six interceptions. But he completed only 55.8 percent of his passes to rank ninth in the Big Ten Conference and ended up with minus-115 yards rushing — a result of taking sacks instead of trying to salvage yards when his protection broke down.
“I thought he did a lot of good things. Kodak moment for me is the ball coming out of his hand against Wyoming and Michigan State, and those are things he’ll have to clean up,” Ferentz said of Stanley, who lost five fumbles in Iowa’s 8-5 season.
“I think another step he’s got to make is learning when to pull it down and run. It’s not something he did very well this year. But that’s something experience will teach you. And it’s probably part of the reason I’m really excited about next year.”
Ball security was a concern for Ferentz in general. The Hawkeyes fumbled 21 times and lost 13 of them, ranking in a tie for 115th out of 129 FBS teams in the latter category.
It becomes even more imperative for Stanley to show improvement as a junior, because there’s no experienced quarterback behind him on Iowa’s roster now. Tyler Wiegers was his backup this season but he transferred to Eastern Michigan this month for his final season of eligibility.
Ferentz said the backup quarterback competition for 2018 is “wide open.” The three candidates are junior Ryan Boyle, redshirt freshman Peyton Mansell and true freshman Spencer Petras, who arrives on campus Thursday. None has ever taken a snap at quarterback in a college game.
Ferentz had high praise for Wiegers, who graduated in December before returning to play in his home state.
“I don't foresee that as a selfish move at all. I think quarterbacks are a unique discussion to mem personally, when they transfer,” Ferentz said.
“We haven't had a better kid in our program in 19 years than Tyler Wiegers. What a tremendous young man, tremendous family. He's done everything we've asked him to do, and I can't tell you all the things he does, work-wise, like extra work that I've seen him do. … So I'm happy for him. I'm really excited. I hope he has a great year, and I think he will.”
Taking time on new assistant
Major-college football teams are able to add a 10th assistant coach this year, a step many programs have already taken. Ferentz said he’s been anticipating the change for nearly a year but is in no hurry to announce how he’s going to fill that spot.
“I think I know where we're going on this whole thing, but I also think there's no compelling reason to pull the trigger right now or make a decision,” he said. “So we'll tread water here for a little bit and just see what the landscape looks like and probably do something here mid-month, late month, somewhere in that ballpark. Possibly early February.”
Ferentz said LeVar Woods will be the full-time special teams coach next season after splitting those duties with Seth Wallace this year. Those two replaced Chris White, who was dismissed after last season. Woods also coached tight ends, while Wallace was in charge of linebackers and was elevated to an assistant defensive coordinator role.
“I think that will help fortify the efforts in the defensive room, just give him one thing to concentrate on,” Ferentz said of Wallace. “I think it will help our special teams, and I thought LeVar did a great job with that transition this year. He was tremendous. Seems really comfortable in that role.”
Iowa’s special teams were a mixed bag. Placekicker Miguel Recinos had a strong season, but punter Colten Rastetter struggled mightily and ended up averaging 37.8 yards per kick, with only 11 of his 55 pinning opponents inside their 20-yard line.
The punt return game didn’t offer much value, either, with three Hawkeyes combining for 123 returns yards all season. Ferentz even said at the outset of his remarks Wednesday that the punt game is one area where major improvement is needed.
Ferentz said that doesn’t necessarily mean the 10th assistant needs to be on the defensive side of the ball. He said the priority there is for someone who can help with recruiting and managing the daily activities of more than 100 student-athletes.
Matt Nelson out again
Defensive lineman Matt Nelson will miss spring practices again this year after suffering an undisclosed injury in the second half of Iowa’s Pinstripe Bowl victory on Dec. 27. Nelson is expected to be ready for the summer session, Ferentz said.
Nelson missed most of last spring with a right foot injury. When that healed, he was moved from defensive end to defensive tackle and became a starter there by season’s end. Nelson finished with 23 tackles and one sack.
Defensive line appears to be one of Iowa’s biggest strengths heading into 2018, but Ferentz cautioned against underestimating the graduation loss of defensive tackle Nathan Bazata.
“The guy we're losing is the ringleader of that group ... he gives us toughness and grit up there,” Ferentz said of Bazata. “We can make a lot of improvement up front. Those guys, their best football is still way ahead of them. I think that's a good thing.
“And we're going to need it. Because we really aren't that deep, in my mind.”
Bare depth chart at linebacker
If defensive line is a thin position, what does that make linebacker? Iowa loses starters Bo Bower, Josey Jewell and Ben Niemann at those crucial spots, and Ferentz didn’t offer much encouragement that their replacements are ready for prime time.
He termed the linebacker competition as “wide open also.”
“Part of December was looking at our entire roster,” Ferentz said of the bowl preparation time. “I can tell you right now, in my mind at least, nobody's emerged.
“I wouldn't even want to predict who is going to line up where for the first ballgame. But it's obviously going to be something we look at closely.”
The void at linebacker is the biggest story for Iowa heading into 2018. Bower, Jewell and Niemann combined for 306 tackles this season.
The search will likely begin with seniors Jack Hockaday and Aaron Mends, juniors Amani Jones and Kristian Welch, and sophomores Ben Niemann and Barrington Wade among current linebackers. Iowa also might look at moving Jake Gervase, Amani Hooker or Brandon Snyder from safety to fill the outside linebacker role.
The last time Iowa replaced three senior linebackers was in 2014. That team finished 7-6 and allowed 4.42 yards per carry. Ferentz said improving run defense is another priority for 2018. That starts with identifying the right linebackers.
A two-man crew at running back
Iowa loses running backs Akrum Wadley and James Butler to graduation, taking with them 1,505 rushing yards. That leaves sophomores Toren Young (193 yards rushing in 2017) and Ivory Kelly-Martin (184) as the entire depth chart at that position entering spring practice.
Both of those backs showed promise, but primarily played in mop-up duty. Young didn’t even appear in the Pinstripe Bowl.
“Flip a coin,” Ferentz said when asked in which order he would list Young and Kelly-Martin on a depth chart. “Toren is a really, really impressive young man. I think he's going to play really well for us. And Ivory has already shown some really good things. That's where it's at, and we'll have to develop more depth there, for sure.”
History shows that two running backs won't be nearly enough to get Iowa through an entire season.
Butler missed four games with an elbow injury in 2017, placing a greater burden on Wadley. He came to Iowa as a graduate transfer from Nevada. The Hawkeyes could use another one of those this year, or hope that someone among a trio of sophomore Kyshaun Bryan or incoming freshmen Henry Geil or Samson Evans can make a big leap up the depth chart.