IOWA CITY, Ia. — The Iowa football team didn’t need to sweat through 15 spring practices to discover that A.J. Epenesa is a once-in-a-generation talent at defensive end.
Everyone knows that. Well, maybe everyone but Epenesa.
“I’m really not looking for the accolades,” the junior said Friday after the Hawkeyes wrapped up the spring portion of the 2019 season. “I’m just trying to be the best Hawkeye I can be and play for the guys around me. Because I really care about this team.”
Epenesa led the team with 10½ sacks a year ago despite not being a starter.
He’ll start this year. And the good news for the Iowa defense is that the three players poised to start alongside him also had very strong springs, coach Kirk Ferentz reported.
“There’s a spot open, and we’ve got four guys that are willing to step up and fill that spot. I think everyone’s excited about it,” Epenesa said of the quest to forge an entire new starting quartet.
In Friday’s open practice, junior defensive end Chauncey Golston was the star of the unit, even outshining Epenesa. Golston was disruptive from start to finish. Defensive tackles Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff were stout as well.
Iowa’s starting defensive line does not appear to be a concern.
Epenesa sets the tone.
“I have a standard for myself to be the best I can be and to play the best I can play,” he said. “I know when I’m not playing to my potential and I know that if I don’t play to my potential then I’m letting the team down.”
Epenesa will not be letting this team down. That’s lesson No. 1 from the spring. Here are nine others:
Linebackers getting a shot to stand up as defensive ends
Behind Epenesa and Golston, the Hawkeyes are still trying to identify some defensive ends. The good news is whoever lands those spots probably won’t be needed much.
Redshirt freshman John Waggoner appeared to be third in line at end, and he looked the part Friday.
But it was interesting to see how often defensive coordinator Phil Parker used a linebacker on the right end of his line. Amani Jones had been working on that, but he is out with an injury and didn’t play Friday.
Barrington Wade, at 6-foot-1, 236 pounds, got several snaps at end. Kristian Welch (6-3, 239) saw time there as well.
“It just gives us a way I think to maybe open competition up without changing what we do necessarily and give a guy a chance to maybe get on the field,” Ferentz said.
Iowa has a surplus of players at linebacker. So it’s a smart move, at least for the spring. Will it last into the fall is the question.
Also of note Friday was how often Parker blitzed his linebackers. Dillon Doyle and Seth Benson both made their way into the backfield to cause havoc. That’s another wrinkle we haven’t seen often from the Hawkeyes that may come into play this fall.
Iowa has market cornered again
The Hawkeyes were without three cornerbacks in Julius Brents, Matt Hankins and Michael Ojemudia. Hankins and Ojemudia, the presumptive starters, were on crutches after suffering injuries within minutes of each other at last Saturday’s practice, Ferentz said. They’ll be fine by the summer.
Riley Moss and Terry Roberts started in their place and looked terrific. True freshman Daraun McKinney, wearing the No. 14 that used to belong to fellow Michigander Desmond King, also displayed a great deal of juice.
This is not a surprise, but the Hawkeyes look to be in great shape at the corner position. These guys are ballhawks.
D.J. Johnson is a 'cash' with flash
That left redshirt freshman D.J. Johnson to primarily man the “cash” position, and he may have been the star of the evening. Listed at 5-10, 183 pounds, Johnson played like someone much bigger, breaking up passes, blitzing the quarterback, bursting from sideline to sideline.
Johnson has already been singled out as the player most likely to succeed Amani Hooker, the original “cash.” It was easy to see why.
Still, Ferentz urged a degree of caution with the young player.
“He’s doing some good things,” Ferentz said of Johnson. “It’s hit or miss. He’s given up some plays, too.”
Is Levi Paulsen the final piece on the offensive line?
Iowa has two standout offensive tackles in juniors Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs. But Wirfs “got rolled up on” in practice a couple of weeks back and was not in action Friday.
Levi Paulsen started in his place. But that’s clearly not where the senior will land this season.
Paulsen is penciled in at right guard, and the Hawkeyes would love to see him grab that spot. That’s because Cole Banwart seems ready to take the reins at left guard. And redshirt freshman Tyler Linderbaum, amazingly, has transitioned from defensive tackle to starting center in just four months.
“I couldn’t imagine going from being a defensive line guy and one-arm stabbing people all the time to run-blocking these guys 10 yards down the field,” Paulsen marveled, trying to explain the Linderbaum experience.
Paulsen plays exclusively on the right side of the offensive line, he said. That’s where he’s more comfortable. He needs to be more than comfortable, though, for Ferentz to give him the job. The head coach said there’s still some movement going on in that position group, which probably means Paulsen has some work to do.
“The opportunity is at guard for me, for sure,” Paulsen said. “Everybody’s just got to be ready to step in when it’s their moment. At Iowa, we play a very physical style of offensive line play, in my personal opinion, and sometimes it takes a toll on guys’ bodies.”
Is running back trio now a duo?
Ferentz said that he wants to get the offensive line stabilized so he can accurately assess the state of his running game. That seemed like a valid point based on Friday’s practice.
The defense is always a step ahead of the offense in spring scrimmages. But there were precious few holes for Iowa’s tailbacks in the middle of the line.
Ferentz did say that juniors Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young had been impressive this spring and were the clear top two at running back. Ivory Kelly-Martin, last year’s opening-game starter, was slowed by injury this spring. But maybe he’s fallen a notch in the coach’s estimation.
Ragaini on the rise, Smith-Marsette stuck in neutral
The Hawkeyes showed a four-wide receiver look on the first play of the live scrimmage portion of Friday’s practice. Those were juniors Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette, plus redshirt freshmen Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy.
Those are also the four mentioned by wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland in his meeting with reporters this month. Essentially, the only four he spoke of.
Smith made a tough catch on a seam route and seems the clear No. 1 option among the group. That’s no surprise.
But Ragaini was the star of the day, backing up the praise that’s been sent his way all spring.
“He’s a very explosive guy, somebody that we can depend on in the wide receiver room this year and he’s going to help us improve and move forward,” Smith-Marsette said of Ragaini.
As for Smith-Marsette himself?
“My spring was limited,” he said, speaking of two weeks of missed practices with “a little injury.”
The limits seem to go beyond that. Both Copeland and Ferentz pointed out that the speedy Smith-Marsette wasn’t the player they wanted to see this spring. Ferentz indicated some impatience with Smith-Marsette still making youthful mistakes.
Smith-Marsette is the team’s top kickoff and punt returner for now. But it’s clear that his coaches are putting the onus on him to start producing in the receiving game as well. Or risk losing playing time to someone younger.
Running low on tight ends
Senior Nate Wieting got the start as expected at tight end. And he did show he can catch the ball, something he hasn’t been called on to do much in his career here. Shaun Beyer was the next man in. Drew Cook was out with an injury.
That meant Iowa, a year after featuring NFL-bound T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant at tight end, was oddly lacking plays designed to feature that position Friday.
The Hawkeyes may be happy with the options they have at tight end. But it’s worth noting that Rutgers transfer Travis Vokolek will be making an official visit here. There may be others who follow suit. Who wouldn’t want to play tight end at Iowa these days?
So the tight ends on display Friday may not be the only ones fans see come August.
The only quarterback battle is at No. 2
Starting quarterback Nate Stanley didn’t play much Friday. He doesn’t really need to at this point.
Redshirt freshman Spencer Petras and sophomore Peyton Mansell got the bulk of the snaps. Mansell threw a beautiful fade route to Brandon Smith for a touchdown. He also telegraphed a pass that became an easy interception. Petras didn’t light things up either, but looked much more firmly in command of the huddle than a year ago at this time.
Ferentz said that battle to be Stanley’s backup was far from decided. Even true freshman Alex Padilla got some time Friday.
“Somebody’s a snap away from being in the game,” Ferentz noted.
No word yet on who that somebody will be, though.
Kickers also in dead heat
Junior Keith Duncan made both of his field-goal attempts Friday. Junior Caleb Shudak split his two tries. Ferentz said that competition was “pretty much a coin toss.”
It, too, is likely to extend into the fall.
At punter, Ryan Gersonde got the first kick and sent one soaring 72 yards after a bounce. Incumbent Colten Rastetter went next and didn’t have quite the distance. Neither has achieved separation in that battle this spring, but it’s likely a moot point. Graduate transfer Michael Sleep-Dalton arrives this summer, and it’s unlikely he’s coming all the way from Arizona to be a backup.
Mark Emmert covers University of Iowa athletics for the Des Moines Register and Iowa City Press-Citizen.