Leistikow: A fan's guide to Hawkeyes' Valley Stadium practice
If you’re coming to Valley Stadium on Friday night for the autographs, your focus should be on guys such as Josey Jewell, Akrum Wadley and Sean Welsh — Iowa football seniors you’ll see on NFL Draft boards next April.
If you’re coming to get a feel for the future of Hawkeye football, your eyes should dig deeper into the roster.
That’s where my curiosity will lie when Kirk Ferentz’s Hawkeyes make the 250-mile, round-trip journey to publicly stage one of their 15 spring practices at the football home of Dowling Catholic and Valley high schools.
Spring can provide experience to the inexperienced. For fans (and media), it’s an early gauge for whether momentum can be sustained once the likes of Jewell, Wadley, Welsh and (injured) Matt VandeBerg are no longer Hawkeyes.
To help you along during the practice, which will run (roughly) from 6:30-8 p.m. Friday, I’ve assembled a five-part viewer’s guide.
But first, here are things you shouldn’t expect to see:
The real Brian Ferentz offense: The new offensive coordinator’s system is a high-interest storyline for the 2017 Hawkeyes, but it’s also in the early stages of installation. What’s shown Friday won’t be representative of the September’s official grand opening.
A ton of yardage: Two years ago at Valley in excellent weather conditions, the first-team offense could barely get a first down against the first-team defense. When the games counted, that 2015 team would average more than 30 points a game and post a 12-2 record. Offensive spring struggles are normal.
Wadley getting tackled: The star running back's contact is being limited this spring after a January procedure to clean up a knee issue. That’ll mean an extended look at first-year players Toks Akinribade (No. 22) and Toren Young (No. 28). And that leads me to the viewer’s guide.
Here are five things to watch, with roster numbers, Friday in West Des Moines:
Kirk and Brian Ferentz have said that there is an open competition to replace C.J. Beathard at quarterback, with sophomore Nathan Stanley (No. 4) and junior Tyler Wiegers (No. 8) leading the pack.
But how open is it, really?
See how many reps Stanley gets with the first-team offense vs. Wiegers. Is it equal? Or does it seem like Stanley’s job to lose?
Stanley is the listed No. 1. That's notable, considering he jumped Wiegers into the No. 2 slot as a true freshman. It’s a sign that coaches see him as their best future hope.
Keep an eye, too, on how much command and authority Stanley shows over the offense, both in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage.
Follow routes, not the ball
Getting open was difficult in 2016 for Iowa receivers, especially after VandeBerg and tight end George Kittle got hurt.
Beathard was more than capable of making throws; he just didn’t have open receivers.
So, on Friday, instead of focusing on whether Stanley or Wiegers is completing passes, look for the routes that receivers and tight ends are taking.
Who’s getting clear separation from defenders? Who is finding open space? Even if Stanley doesn’t see them now, he’ll see the practice film, and he’ll learn from it.
My eyes are especially tuned to Devonte Young (No. 80) and Adrian Falconer (No. 82), who have played a combined three years in the program but don’t have a career catch. Also: Is a strong winter from junior-college transfer Nick Easley (No. 84) translating to a strong spring?
The No. 2 offensive line
It’s easy to assume Iowa’s front five will be fine this year, with returning starters across the board. But it’s easy to forget a big reason the Hawkeyes lost to FCS North Dakota State at Kinnick Stadium: Their best two linemen, Welsh and center James Daniels, missed the game with injuries.
In other words, strong depth — not just names on a depth chart — is very important. New offensive line coach Tim Polasek said Wednesday that the search is on for finding linemen Nos. 6-8.
The need is real. In 2015, the Hawkeyes needed seven. In 2016, they needed eight.
The main guy I’m watching is left tackle Alaric Jackson (No. 77). I like the redshirt freshman’s size: 6-foot-7, 320 pounds. Polasek likes the stuff you can't measure: Jackson’s grit, toughness and desire to improve.
I’m especially interested in Jackson’s pass protection, which has been an area of weakness for Iowa since Brandon Scherff departed.
The 2018 linebackers
Last year’s starting linebackers will likely be this year’s: Seniors Ben Niemann (outside), Bo Bower (weak-side) and Jewell (middle).
So, this will probably be one of the few full viewings of the to-be-determined 2018 starters.
Jewell told me recently that sophomore Amani Jones (No. 52) has a knack for the ball; and he would know. Jones is the listed No. 2 weak-side linebacker. Jewell said similar things about junior Jack Hockaday (No. 48).
Behind Jones is another guy fans wonder about. Physical, fast junior Aaron Mends (No. 31) has been a mystery since losing his starting job to Bower last August. If Mends can put himself in the right places — i.e., avoid getting burned — it’ll be a sign he’s grasping the mental side of being an Iowa linebacker.
I’m also curious about Kristian Welch (No. 34), the No. 3 outside linebacker behind two seniors. Like Jones, he played mostly on special teams last fall as a true freshman. In his first spring at one of the most important positions in Iowa’s 4-3 defense, let’s see what he’s got.
It’s difficult to keep more than four scholarship quarterbacks happy, and a fifth, Peyton Mansell, arrives in June. Iowa City Regina’s Drew Cook (No. 18) and Dowling’s Ryan Boyle (No. 11) enter their second spring battling for the No. 3 QB job. Whoever ends up No. 4 might have to evaluate his Hawkeye quarterbacking future.
Keep an eye on athletic, redshirt freshmen tight ends T.J. Hockenson (No. 39) of Chariton and Shaun Beyer (No. 42) of Cedar Rapids Kennedy. Even if they're behind in the blocking aspect of their position, can they contribute as receivers in 2017?
I’ve heard good things about Algona offensive lineman Cole Banwart (No. 61), the listed No. 3 center.
One more: Running back Noah Clayberg (No. 33), the first player to grayshirt in the Kirk Ferentz era, has to be hungry for this moment, 17 months removed from leading Pella to a Class 3-A championship.
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.
‘SWARM DES MOINES' DETAILS
WHAT: Iowa football open practice at Valley Stadium, West Des Moines
ADMISSION: Free. No outside food or drink are permitted inside the stadium; there will be concessions.
GATES OPEN: 5 p.m.
PRACTICE BEGINS: Roughly 6:15-6:30 p.m.
FOR THE KIDS: Autograph sessions and a youth clinic (ages 7-12) will take place following practice at roughly 8 p.m. Clinic participants will be capped at 300 and must have a signed parent/guardian permission slip. Only UI-distributed items can be autographed.
WEB STREAM: Available for free on Hawkeye All-Access, http://www.hawkeyesports.com/watch/