Leistikow: Excitement surrounds Iowa's young offensive talent
TAMPA, Fla. — You might have heard there’s a football game here Monday between Iowa and Florida.
Yet I’m sitting here writing a column about players who will likely have little-to-no impact in deciding the Outback Bowl winner.
One of the major benefits of qualifying for a bowl game, especially at Iowa, is extra practice time to develop younger players.
So, with a few days left to get into the X’s and O’s of a Big Ten vs. SEC matchup, it felt like a good day to poke under the hood of Hawkeye football in 2017, 2018 and beyond.
Iowa made offensive coordinator Greg Davis available to reporters for about 12 minutes Thursday, along with five senior offensive players. So that’s the side of the ball I’m focused on today — wondering what names will be in charge of gaining more yards in 2017 than the 2016 offense that ranks 120th in FBS.
Here’s one last caveat before we dive in. You’re not going to see any “he stinks” or “he should transfer” quotes. That’s not how coaches or teammates talk about their colleagues.
So, there are a lot of positive comments in here. And guess what? It’s football. It’s OK to get excited about a game.
True freshman Nathan Stanley wouldn’t have had his redshirt burned if he wasn’t prominent in Iowa’s future plans.
“Nate has exceeded expectations for a freshman,” Davis said. “When we signed him, I told him to plan on redshirting, but expect to play.
“(Yet) he kept doing things in camp that were not freshman-like. He didn’t repeat mistakes. … Mentally, he was on top of it.”
The 6-foot-5 Wisconsin native, who has bulked up to over 230 pounds, has worked all season as C.J. Beathard’s backup, primarily to be that much further ahead when spring ball starts.
Of course, Stanley hasn’t been named the starter for the 2017 opener vs. Wyoming. There will be an “open competition” this spring between him, Tyler Wiegers and Drew Cook.
“He’s a bright guy. He’s got a big arm,” Davis said of Stanley. “He’s got to really work on the little things that big-armed guys have to work on, and that’s anticipation, trusting your feet. He hasn’t seen a ton of blitz work yet.”
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If Akrum Wadley returns for his senior year — and outgoing running back LeShun Daniels Jr. expects his running mate will — then the question will be about Wadley’s 2017 backups.
Converted back Derrick Mitchell Jr. will be a senior, but he’s seemingly faded from the plans. True freshman Toks Akinribade (6-0, 205) generated excitement in preseason camp, and he got third-team carries late in the year.
And don’t forget Toren Young, a 5-11, 220-pound wrecking ball who loves contact.
“We’ve all seen their talent. They’re good guys. They want to learn. They want to get better,” Daniels said. “Throughout the entire year, we’ve seen the evolution of those guys.”
If you were to make comparisons — and why not, this is supposed to be fun — perhaps Akinribade could be a bigger version of Wadley, and Young a clone of Daniels.
Daniels on Young: “He’s definitely more my style. Extremely downhill type of guy. He runs hard. Guys bounce off of him.”
Daniels on Akinribade: “He’s obviously a little bigger than Akrum. ... But he has good speed. He can make you miss.”
This has been a sore subject in 2016, but the good news of Matt VandeBerg’s medical hardship waiver being approved gives that position some returning experience. Who joins him?
Lots of names came up Thursday.
Davis saw big jumps during bowl prep from sophomore Adrian Falconer and freshman Devonte Young, both of whom are still looking for their first career catches.
When outgoing senior Riley McCarron was asked about it, he mentioned Young and Jay Scheel.
“Those two guys,” McCarron said, “they have all the talent in the world.”
Scheel’s an interesting one. After getting so much offseason hype and competing for a starting role, he only wound up with five catches for the season. What held him back?
Injuries, Davis said. Unfortunately, that’s been the story of the redshirt sophomore’s career.
“He’s not stayed healthy,” Davis said. “And where it has really hurt him is at the end of routes. … It’s at the end of routes when all the stress goes down to planting and getting out, that’s where it’s hurt him.”
As for the future?
Davis said Jerminic Smith (23 catches, 314 yards) is “continuing to grow.” The recruiting class of 2017 will be receiver-heavy, too.
And don’t forget Ryan Boyle. The former Dowling Catholic quarterback is still getting acclimated to a new position. McCarron thinks Boyle's work ethic and patience will be rewarded.
“It hasn’t even been a full year yet. And you see a ton of improvement out of him,” McCarron said. “If he continues to work and all that good stuff, yeah, he can be a good receiver.”
Offensive line/tight end
All of the above will operate behind five returning starters on the offensive line: Boone Myers, Keegan Render, James Daniels, Sean Welsh and Ike Boettger.
At tight end, outgoing senior George Kittle has good things to say about his possible successors in freshmen Noah Fant, T.J. Hockenson and Shaun Beyer.
Fant (6-5, 220) was used a lot this year as a third tight end, catching nine balls for 70 yards. Improved blocking is what he needs to take the next step.
“Noah is a guy that can really run. He’s a tough matchup,” Davis said. “He needs a great offseason in the weight room, getting stronger. It’ll help him play more snaps.”
Kittle said Hockenson (listed 6-5, 230) has “taken huge steps” in bowl prep. In what way?
“The fact that he still runs like he’s 200 pounds and he makes catches at 200 pounds,” Kittle said. “He looks like a wide receiver at 240. He’s going to be a special kid.”
Put them together with returning blocking tight ends Peter Pekar and Nate Wieting, and this could be one of Iowa’s higher-upside position groups of 2017.
Kittle, rated one of college football’s top tight ends, finished by saying this: “Noah, Hockenson and Beyer are light-years ahead of where I was when I first got here.”
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.