"Until you see players live ... it's not quite the same." Ferentz likes what he has seen with Nixon so far. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Daviyon Nixon and the Iowa football team are going to try to make things work one more time.
The sophomore defensive tackle will be on the field when spring practices begin Wednesday after flirting with a potential transfer during the offseason, the latest twist in two years of drama.
The Hawkeyes sure could use Nixon, having lost last year’s starters — Matt Nelson and Sam Brincks — to graduation.
Coach Kirk Ferentz, at his news conference previewing the spring session Tuesday, said he’s happy the 6-foot-3, 306-pound Wisconsin native decided to stick around.
“My interfaces with him — and I think it’s true of all of us — have been nothing but positive. I was super impressed with him last year because he was on the scout team, redshirting. The guy just likes football,” Ferentz said of Nixon. “He likes his teammates. He likes being out there. (There’s a) good enthusiasm to him — a good vibe. That’s not always the case when guys are on the scout team. That’s not the most enjoyable place to be for a lot of guys.”
Nixon is not listed on the spring depth chart — seniors Brady Reiff and Cedrick Lattimore are the starting defensive tackles, backed up by junior Austin Schulte and redshirt freshman Nathan Nelson, for now — but he has been the most-discussed defensive linemen Hawkeye fans have never seen.
A three-star recruit, Nixon spent a season at Iowa Western Community College to improve his grades. While there, he picked up an offer from Alabama, which certainly got a lot of attention in Iowa. But Nixon stuck with his pledge and came to Iowa City last summer, only to take what was called an “academic redshirt” season.
Then came his decision to enter the NCAA’s “transfer portal.” Once again, he’s sticking with the Hawkeyes.
“There’s always a leap of faith there. … I think we’ve been through quite a road right here with Daviyon,” Ferentz said.
Iowa also picked up graduate transfer Zach VanValkenburg last month. At 6-4, 265 pounds, he projects more as a defensive end than tackle, but the Michigan native has two years of eligibility remaining and could bulk up enough to move inside.
VanValkenburg starred at Division II Hillsdale College in Michigan and then put his name into the transfer portal, where Iowa found him.
“We liked his profile, liked his tape,” Ferentz said of VanValkenburg. “He’s just really mature, smart, very academically motivated.”
Iowa is set at starting ends with juniors A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston, stars of the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl win over Mississippi State. But Ferentz wants a rotation at least six deep, and preferably eight, on the line. Nixon and VanValkenburg figure to get plenty of chances to prove their worth.
Kelvin Bell tapped to coach defensive line; search for additional coach begins
They’ll have a new position coach for the Hawkeyes. Ferentz announced that Kelvin Bell will take over as full-time defensive line coach for the retired Reese Morgan. Bell, whose Iowa playing career was cut short by injury, had been assisting Morgan while serving as recruiting coordinator the past three seasons.
Ferentz praised Bell’s “unique perspective on our program” and noted that the move “allows us to keep the continuity on the staff.”
He will search for a 10th assistant coach, but is in no hurry. Ferentz wants someone who can handle the defensive side of the ball — preferably an assistant to Bell. He said he’s open-minded on whether to bring on a veteran or younger coach.
As for the recruiting aspect, Ferentz indicated those duties will be spread among his existing staff instead of falling largely on one coach. He will make an announcement later on that.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz speaks Tuesday before the start of spring practice, his first as a head coach since 2000 without Reese Morgan in the building. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central
The 4-2-5 defense is here to stay, but who will replace Amani Hooker?
Ferentz was asked if the switch to a 4-2-5 defense, which happened five games into last season, was going to be permanent.
“The good news is we have multiple options. The bad news is I can’t keep up with them,” he joked.
The depth chart indicates a 4-3-4 setup, but that’s obviously just a starting point. Ferentz later said the 4-2-5 is “part of our DNA now, moving forward.”
The question seems to be who replaces Amani Hooker at the “star” position. Hooker was a safety who was moved closer to the line of scrimmage last year in place of the usual outside linebacker spot. He excelled enough to be named the top defensive back in the Big Ten Conference and an early entrant in the NFL draft.
“Amani’s a very unique player for us,” Ferentz acknowledged. “Hopefully, there’s another story like that.”
Candidates include senior cornerback Michael Ojemudia. But that would require sophomores Julius Brents or Riley Moss rising to the level of being able to replace him at corner. Redshirt freshman D.J. Johnson is another player who could get a look there.
It’s also possible that Nick Niemann stays put at outside linebacker, where he is currently listed as the starter. Ferentz said Niemann will also get the chance to compete at inside linebacker.
The starting safeties are junior Geno Stone and sophomore Kaevon Merriweather. If one of them were to move, then senior John Milani or sophomore Jack Koerner would be next in line for a starting spot.
It’s a lot to sort through for Iowa’s coaches. But they have five months to figure it out and defensive coordinator Phil Parker has a great track record of developing the right guy for the right scheme.
How to replace two star tight ends: With two improved wide receivers?
Iowa had two tight ends last year — T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant — who are likely first-round NFL draft choices. That would be historic. But it also leaves a large void for this team.
Senior Nate Wieting is listed as a starter this spring, but he is known for his blocking prowess. He caught two passes last season. The other three tight ends listed on the depth chart — junior Shaun Beyer, sophomore Tommy Kujawa and senior Drew Cook — combined for zero receptions.
So it’s no wonder that Ferentz twice turned questions about tight end into answers about wide receivers.
“The good news is we don’t have high school kids out there playing wide receiver now,” Ferentz said early on. “We did two years ago. Now, we’ve got guys that have actually played in college games.”
That would be juniors Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette. Ferentz anticipates each getting more targets to the outside of the field from senior quarterback Nate Stanley.
Iowa also must replace slot receiver Nick Easley, who led the team with 52 catches last year.
The front-runner there, Ferentz said, is redshirt freshman Nico Ragaini. He praised the Connecticut native’s growth in his first year with the team.
“It’s a position where you’ve got to go out and beat man coverage underneath,” Ferentz noted. “Some guys have a better knack at that than others.”
One running back 'underestimated' and another 'appreciative'
The Hawkeyes are down to two running backs on the depth chart, but that’s just temporary. Ivory Kelly-Martin is still battling back from injury and is a week or two away from being able to fully participate in practices, Ferentz said.
Mekhi Sargent is listed as the starter. Toren Young is his backup.
Ferentz heaped praise on both.
“I think we underestimated Toren,” Ferentz said. “He’s not a dodger by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s a guy who’s really productive and energizes our team, I think, when he’s got the ball.”
Young ran for 637 yards and five touchdowns. Sargent, an Iowa Western transfer, emerged midseason and became the starter by the end. He ran for 745 yards and nine touchdowns.
“I can’t say enough about him coming in here, just how humble he is, appreciative and excited to be on a Division I program,” Ferentz said of Sargent.
Kelly-Martin entered last season as the starter but was hampered by injuries and gained only 341 yards in nine games.
Iowa averaged 4.0 yards per carry a year ago. That number needs to get better, however things get divided up.
Turf replacement at Kinnick nixes open practice for spring
Flooding in and around Kinnick Stadium last summer has necessitated the replacement of turf and a review of the drainage system. That, in turn, means there will be no practice open to the public when spring practices conclude April 26.
Ferentz apologized to fans for that fact.
“It’s most important to get this addressed now — get on it as fast as we can — so we don’t have any complications in August,” he said. “And for all the people who were going to come to the spring game, hopefully, they’ll show up for Kids Day and maybe double the crowd that we usually get there. That will be the next time we’re out there with the public.”
Some Iowa players will sign autographs at a Hawkeye baseball game at 2 p.m. on April 20. The team’s seniors will continue to put on a skills camp for children in the Des Moines area after spring practices conclude. That has not yet been scheduled.