Iowa linebackers coach Seth Wallace talks about a fluid depth chart and A.J. Epenesa
Iowa’s football coaches walked away from the spring practice session with a depth chart in mind, if not one written in ink, Seth Wallace said Wednesday on KxNO’s HawkCentral radio program.
“It’s nothing that we print off and post up in the hallway,” said Wallace, the team’s linebackers coach and assistant defensive coordinator. “But every position coach meets with their position players. We did that all last week. Most of them have an idea where they’re at.”
The Hawkeyes’ 15 spring practices concluded Friday. The players will finish up classes in the next two weeks, then head home for an NCAA-required three weeks off. When they return in June and hit the weight room with strength coach Chris Doyle, they’ll know where they stand in the pecking order at their position and what they need to work on heading into 25 practices that lead up to the Aug. 31 season-opener vs. Miami of Ohio.
And the coaches will be monitoring all of that work, as well.
“It’s very fluid,” Wallace said of the offseason depth chart. “As guys do things in the weight room and during their summer conditioning, the chart can move then, too.”
At linebacker, a clear top five
Wallace didn’t want to reveal what’s on that depth chart that he said is currently written in pencil. But when asked who his top linebacking tandems would be right now, he mentioned five names.
Iowa went to a 4-2-5 defensive alignment midway through last season, so there are only two starting spots left for a middle and weakside linebacker. Wallace said veterans Nick Niemann, Djimon Colbert and Kristian Welch are the front-runners there.
He said second-year players Dillon Doyle and Seth Benson are close behind, though.
“The combination of any of those five, I would have no problem looking at that heading into a game right now,” Wallace said.
He added that the depth at the position he coaches was perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the entire spring. Iowa had 17 linebackers listed on its roster when the spring began. It’s a group frequently tapped for special-teams duties, as well.
“They’re a great group to work with. They’re extremely competitive,” Wallace said. “They’re all students of the game. They want to know more. They want to know why.”
In the secondary, more than just a top five
Wallace didn’t want to forecast who would be the five starters in the defensive backfield when the season begins. The depth chart provided to the media indicates they would be Michael Ojemudia and Matt Hankins at cornerback, Geno Stone and Kaevon Merriweather at safety, and D.J. Johnson appeared to be a solid bet to replace Amani Hooker at the new “cash” position.
But in Friday’s final spring practice, Iowa was without Ojemudia, Hankins and backup corner Julius Brents, all sidelined by injuries not deemed serious.
That allowed young players like Riley Moss, Terry Roberts and even true freshman Daraun McKinney to shine. Wallace indicated that was consistent with what coaches saw all spring.
“There’s some young guys in that group that made some significant strides during the spring and provided us with a little more flexibility in regard to the back end. And it’s also provided us with a little more confidence moving forward that we’ve got more than just five guys,” Wallace said.
Iowa has been stockpiling talent in its secondary in recent recruiting classes. It appears to be paying off.
On the line, one big star who will likely have an NFL decision
Iowa junior defensive end A.J. Epenesa is the clear star on that side of the ball heading into 2019. He is already widely viewed as a potential top NFL Draft pick next April, and perhaps the top overall pick.
This is heady stuff for any athlete. Wallace said coaches have no concerns about how Epenesa will respond to that outside noise in what is likely his last season as a Hawkeye.
“You’re dealing with a very humble individual. You’re dealing with a very grounded individual. And somebody that’s extremely close to his family. The bond there is really pretty special,” Wallace said of Epenesa. “You don’t have to worry about him looking too far down the road.
“But I do think that constant reminder that playing your best football is the most important thing. And being the best teammate is the most important thing. And I don’t think we have to worry about him being the best teammate because he’s done an exceptional job at that.”
Mark Emmert covers University of Iowa athletics for the Des Moines Register and Iowa City Press-Citizen.