Leistikow: Freshmen, optimism emerge at Hawkeye scrimmage

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Amazing how perception can change in one year.

On Kids Day 2015, Iowa’s one open practice/scrimmage each summer, Drew Ott was getting mail in Iowa’s offensive backfield. His occupation of C.J. Beathard's space amplified concerns about whether the Hawkeyes could even move the chains, let alone score touchdowns.

“It’s hard to run a play when guys come in off the edge every time,” Kirk Ferentz correctly recalled Saturday after this August's Kids Day turned into a tapestry of optimism on a sunny afternoon at Kinnick Stadium.

As you know, the 2015 season turned out just fine — with the school’s first 12-0 regular season. The offensive tackles then turned out to be pretty good, too. And Ott ... he was really good until he got hurt.

So that’s my way of saying you can't make sweeping judgments in the only two hours of public Hawkeye football viewing we get between the spring game and the season opener. Especially like Saturday, when several key players — including starters Sean Welsh, George Kittle, Jay Scheel, Ben Niemann and Greg Mabin — weren’t participating in 11-on-11 drills.

(Good news there, though: All of them should be back in practice early next week.)

Beathard, who was “sacked” (touched) eight times on Kids Day 2015, thinks the offense is far ahead of where it was at this time last year.

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Iowa's Devonte Young. a true freshman, hauls in a nice sideline reception during Saturday's Kids Day scrimmage with Cedric Boswell (20) in coverage. Young was one of several youngsters that flashed potential Saturday.

Cornerback Desmond King added: “In my opinion, we have a really good team this year.”

Left tackle Cole Croston affirmed a quiet confidence.

“Maybe we weren’t getting run by as much like Drew Ott and Nate Meier last year,” Croston said, “but I’d say it’s about the same feel.”

A big week lies ahead for this team's growth — seven practices in five days, capped with Friday night’s closed scrimmage.

But here are some of the most interesting things we learned Saturday:

True freshmen are making an impact. Ferentz stopped short of saying which of his newcomers will play this year, but I think the number will far exceed the four that played last year. Let's put wide receiver Devonte Young atop the list.

“I think it’s realistic to think he’ll be in the mix,” Ferentz conceded.

Iowa showed five true freshmen on its No. 1 kickoff-coverage unit: linebackers Barrington Wade, Amani Jones, Kyle Taylor, Kristian Welch and cornerback Manny Rugamba. Jones was the first of those to get time at linebacker, and Rugamba was playing nickel with the first unit with Mabin and Michael Ojemudia out.

Of new tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, at least one will likely be pressed into action with Jon Wisnieski (left knee) out for a while.

Speaking of true freshmen, a Ferentz rarity could happen this year. Cedrick Lattimore might play as a rookie at defensive tackle. The 6-foot-5, 260-pounder from Detroit was lined up inside — even though he’s listed at end — with the No. 2 unit, and he made a powerful tackle-for-loss on Marcel Joly. Lattimore has potential to be the No. 4 tackle in the rotation with second-teamer Jake Hulett (leg fracture, out 4-6 weeks) getting hurt early in camp.

“He’s got a lot of life to him. He does things well,” Ferentz said of Lattimore. “We’ll let him keep pushing forward and see how it goes.”

Iowa’s best position group? Running back. And Eno Benjamin isn’t even here yet …

Starter LeShun Daniels Jr. and Akrum Wadley were gently used Saturday, but behind them the future looks bright. I remain a fan of No. 3 guy Derrick Mitchell Jr. At 6-1, 220, the converted receiver has a combination of speed, power and hands that needs to have a home.

True freshmen Toks Akinribade and Toren Young combined for three touchdowns in goal-to-go situations. Akinribade can cut on a dime, and Young gets yards after contact. Granted, they weren’t operating against the No. 1 defense, but both guys look the part. Akinribade seems to have a path to the No. 4 role.

Another change at center? Maybe. James Daniels took all the 11-on-11 reps there Saturday, with Welsh having been sidelined recently. (Welsh took a few non-scrimmage reps at backup right guard.) Daniels looked impressive at center, which he feels is his natural position. He and top defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson had competitive battles.

I’ve thought since the spring Welsh would end up being the center, but now I’m not so sure. And neither is the head coach.

“I could’ve made a real good argument in the spring for Sean. Now, I could make one for James,” Ferentz said. “… The good news is both of them are pretty capable at it.”

The kicking game is a work in progress. I thought redshirt sophomore Mick Ellis looked the most consistent Saturday, but Ferentz will let all four candidates — Ellis, Miguel Recinos, Keith Duncan and Caleb Shudak — compete equally again this week. Friday’s scrimmage might help winnow the field.

Good news at punter: Ferentz was surprisingly happy with both redshirt freshman Colten Rastetter (more pop) and grad-transfer Ron Coluzzi (more consistency). “Pretty good, actually,” he said. “I’m afraid to say that.”

Questions remain at receiver after Iowa scrimmage

Brandon Snyder doesn’t mess around, even in practice. The new free safety who just went on scholarship flattened at least three skill-position players: Wadley, Mitchell Jr. and Jerminic Smith. He’s going to make some highlight reels this year.

“I don’t think the one over there he was supposed to (tackle that hard),” strong safety Miles Taylor said, pointing to where the Smith-Snyder collision occurred. “He’s physical. Really physical.”

I’m a fan of Josh Jackson. The sophomore is the No. 3 corner when Mabin’s healthy, but he was impressive in the spring and on Saturday made an athletic interception of a deep ball thrown by Beathard. Look for Jackson to play a lot of nickel this fall.

Quarterback controversy? Maybe next spring, anyway. True freshman Nathan Stanley was the most impressive of Beathard’s three backups Saturday. True, Stanley was facing mostly reserves and had a lot of time to throw, but he connected with Emmanuel Ogwo for a 39-yard touchdown on a gorgeous deep throw. He had another 58-yard score to Hockenson in 7-on-7 drills, and Connor Keane dropped a potential 41-yard touchdown.

“Nate’s caught our eye,” Ferentz said, “with some of the throws he’s made.”

Stanley could make it a dramatic position battle this spring with Tyler Wiegers and Drew Cook if this kind of progress continues.

Like with Stanley, here was the bottom line Saturday: It was only 2 hours, but the future sure looked bright.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.