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Hawkeye coaches speak: 10 things we learned, from praise for linebackers to a caution for the QB

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — There was a parade of Iowa football coaches Thursday in the north end zone of Kinnick Stadium.

Each one, minus quarterbacks coach Ken O'Keefe, met with the media about a season coming up fast. There was talk about Hawkeye players who will be relied upon, and others who may be emerging. There was discussion about allegations of mistreatment in the program that cropped up over the summer.

Here are 10 things caught our attention:

Phil Parker has praise for linebackers, claims concern about defensive backs

Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker went on the offensive from his opening statement Thursday, asserting that his least-experienced personnel group is actually the strength of his team. Furthermore, Parker claimed that there were more questions about the defensive secondary, which he oversees, than any other unit.

Parker has a group of linebackers that have barely been battle-tested in Big Ten Conference football games. Kristian Welch has graduated. Djimon Colbert, with 22 starts for the Hawkeyes, has decided to sit out the 2020 season over concerns about the possible impact of COVID-19. Dillon Doyle has transferred to Baylor, where he is starting.

So perhaps Parker was just trying to publicly build up a linebacker corps that is about to be thrown into the fire when he praised them for their size and work ethic. And maybe he was telling his defensive backs, who bring the most playing experience into the fall, that he is holding them to a higher standard. That’s certainly fitting with Parker’s coaching style — that no athlete ever “arrives,” and that all playing time must be earned.

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz speaks during a Hawkeye football media day news conference, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

More:Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker says players told him not to change his blunt style

Five linebackers battling for two spots

Parker has five linebackers vying for playing time when the season gets going Oct. 24 at Purdue. It’s likely that only two of them will need to start in a 4-2-5 alignment. They are senior Nick Niemann (6-foot-4, 233 pounds) at the weakside spot and sophomore Jack Campbell (6-5, 243) in the middle. Top backups are senior Barrington Wade (6-1, 236), sophomore Seth Benson (6-0, 231) and redshirt freshman Jestin Jacobs (6-4, 235). 

Seth Wallace, who coaches Iowa’s linebackers, said the plan is to groom Campbell as a middle linebacker, because that allows him to play in tighter spaces and rely on his strength and not speed. Niemann is a faster player and can better handle playing in the open field, where pass coverage becomes paramount.

As to whether this group truly becomes a strength this season, much of that will clearly depend on how quickly Parker and Wallace can get the young quintet up to speed. The first matchup is perhaps the most daunting — against a Boilermaker team that thrives on a passing game featuring NFL-caliber talent at wide receiver.

Previously:Jay and Nick Niemann are reunited as Hawkeyes, and couldn't be happier

Seth Wallace says he's cleared the air with Jack Kallenberger

Seth Wallace wanted to address a pointed allegation made by a former Hawkeye this summer. So much so that Wallace stayed after his allotted time at the podium in the hope that the media would ask him about it.

Jack Kallenberger, a former defensive lineman at Iowa, said on social media in June that he was belittled during his career by Wallace because of a learning disability. Kallenberger ended up leaving the team.

Wallace told reporters that he and Kallenberger have had a lengthy conversation about the incidents.

“I think it was extremely positive,” Wallace said. “It was an opportunity to build a relationship and I think growth on both ends.”

Wallace said he also has spoken to Kallenberger’s father, Jay, and to his brother, Mark, who remains a junior offensive tackle for the Hawkeyes.

But Wallace said he doesn’t think his approach with his players needs to change.

“The value of relationships is where I think anything starts. And that’s my mission moving forward,” Wallace said. “I think it’s always been my mission.”

Kaevon Merriweather is a primary figure in Iowa secondary

Kaevon Merriweather is not listed as a starter in Parker’s secondary, but the sophomore may hold the key to what transpires in the back end of the defense this season. That’s because Dane Belton, also a sophomore, is a top option to play both the cash position and strong safety. Belton showed impressive progress at the pivotal cash position last season and there’s little doubt that’s where Parker would like him to remain.

That would require Merriweather to prove himself capable of being a high-caliber strong safety, one year after he lost a starting job to Jack Koerner. Koerner remains a starter at free safety.

If Belton needs to move farther back in Parker’s defense, then Riley Moss would be the next option to man the cash spot, which would rob Iowa of a starting cornerback. Julius Brents is in line to be the next man in at cornerback.

The good news for Parker is that he believes Brents has been one of his best players in recent practices.

The other positive is that he clearly has faith in Belton to succeed wherever he’s placed.

“I expect more out of Dane, too,” Parker said. “I think he has the ability to play multiple positions.”

Leistikow:The impressive rise of Dane Belton, a versatile chess piece in Iowa's defense

Kelvin Bell is hard sell for defensive linemen looking for playing time

Defensive line coach Kelvin Bell was incredulous when told that Parker believes the Hawkeyes could rotate 8-10 players in that position group.

“I don’t want to put guys out there where I have to turn around and not watch,” Bell joked.

Or perhaps he wasn’t joking.

Iowa lost three starters on its defensive line, including second-round NFL Draft pick A.J. Epenesa. That’s opportunity for some Hawkeyes that have not seen much playing time. That’s also cause for grave concern for Bell, who is typically reluctant to praise players before they’ve appeared in a game.

“I don’t want to put too much sugar on one guy and throw dirt on the other one,” Bell said.

But Bell said redshirt freshman Logan Lee, who was recruited at Iowa as a tight end, has been playing both defensive end and tackle at 6-5, 267 pounds. Sophomore John Waggoner, who played end last year, is now listed as second string at tackle. Jack Heflin, a graduate transfer tackle from Northern Illinois, is also working his way into Bell’s plans.

The key for the young players is to show their versatility, Bell said.

“I don’t want to be selective about where I play him,” he said of Waggoner, a graduate of West Des Moines Dowling Catholic.

Bell did dole out a little “sugar” for two of his seniors. He said defensive end Chauncey Golston, his lone returning starter, and defensive tackle Austin Schulte are both so mature that he would trust them to coach the linemen while he stepped out of the room.

Not that it will come to that.

Bell did acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, by the end of the season, the Hawkeyes might be able to comfortably use as many defensive linemen as Parker asserted.

Derrick Foster proud of Ivory Kelly-Martin for speaking up on race issues

Derrick Foster is the relative newcomer on the Iowa coaching staff. He said he was surprised this summer to hear dozens of Black former Hawkeye players come forward with allegations that they were treated in a degrading manner because of their race.

Foster, who is Black, said his first two seasons on the staff had led him to believe the culture was more welcoming.

But he also said that he was happy to see changes occurring in the football program. And Foster was even more excited to see one of his running backs, Ivory Kelly-Martin, take a leading role in pushing for a more open environment.

“When he spoke, we listened,” Foster said of Kelly-Martin, a redshirt junior from Plainfield, Illinois. “I was proud of him. … That takes a lot of courage.”

Kelly-Martin volunteered to redshirt last season when he realized his playing time was diminishing behind Tyler Goodson and Mekhi Sargent. He did so for the good of the team, Foster said. But the running back remained highly engaged in what was happening at practices and games.

“This wasn’t an off season for him,” Foster said. “If I turned around and asked him a question at practice, he was well aware of what was going on.”

Profile:Meet Derrick Foster, the Alabama native who is Iowa's newest assistant football coach

Kelton Copeland has some core veterans, but there are always newcomers to talk about

Wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland has arguably the most talented group of Hawkeyes at his disposal. Brandon Smith, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Tyrone Tracy Jr. and Nico Ragaini are proven veterans. They shouldn’t need any more options at that position, if everyone stays healthy.

But this is wide receiver we’re talking about. There’s always a newcomer that catches the public’s attention. This year, it’s Charlie Jones, a transfer from Buffalo who had to sit out last season.

Copeland smiled as soon as Jones’ name was brought up. He was well aware of the buzz.

Copeland conceded that Jones has been “promising” during practice sessions, and that he does have a chance to crack the lineup at wideout. Copeland also threw two more names out for fans to chew on — redshirt freshman Desmond Hutson and true freshman Quavon Matthews.

Copeland then reversed course and tried to tamp down expectations.

“Potential is one thing. But it’s all about production,” Copeland cautioned.

“Sometimes you guys (the media) can be our own worst enemy.”

Copeland tells his players: “As soon as you believe in your own hype, that’s when you settle.”

Alaric Jackson is back for Iowa to anchor its offensive line.

Tim Polasek becoming a vegan believer, thanks to Alaric Jackson

Senior offensive tackle Alaric Jackson has cut meat out of his diet, an unusual move for a 320-pound athlete whose primary job is to displace other men of similar size.

It’s certainly not a path that his position coach, Tim Polasek, is prepared to take. Polasek’s hobbies include making jerky.

But Polasek appreciates what he’s seen from the new-look Jackson, a potential first-round NFL Draft pick.

“He’s quicker. He’s more sudden,” Polasek said of Jackson. “I see a change in the morning. He’s got more energy. So maybe there is something to (veganism).”

Can an all-American lose his starting spot? LeVar Woods says maybe

Keith Duncan was a consensus all-American kicker last year for Iowa, a legend in the making after game-winning field goals against Michigan as a freshman and at Nebraska (topped off by a kiss for the crowd) as a junior.

So, obviously Duncan is the undisputed Hawkeye kicker again this fall, right?

Special teams coach LeVar Woods said not to make assumptions.

Nobody’s playing time is secure, Woods said, including Duncan’s. That means Caleb Shudak is still pushing his friend for the right to kick field goals and not just handle kickoffs.

It certainly seems unlikely that Duncan, who even Woods believes was “snubbed” last year for the Lou Groza Award given to the top kicker in college football, will lose his job. But that was Woods’ way of keeping Duncan on his toes.

More:Iowa's Keith Duncan reaches out to all who helped memorable Hawkeye season happen

Kirk Ferentz wants to ease mind of new starting quarterback Spencer Petras

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz doesn’t want his new starting quarterback, Spencer Petras, to feel the weight of the season on his shoulders. Petras is a redshirt sophomore taking over the position from three-year starter Nate Stanley.

Ferentz wants Petras to understand that his coaches aren’t expecting him to dazzle from his first start.

“You don’t have to win the game,” Ferentz is telling Petras. “It’s really important for Spencer to realize, ‘just go out and play your position. We’re not counting on you to save our team.’ ”

In time, of course, the hope is that there will be games that Petras will be capable of winning primarily based on his own talent. But, this year, Ferentz is confident there’s enough skill surrounding his quarterback to let him grow into that player.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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