Leistikow's DVR Monday: Spring game provides encouraging glimpses
IOWA CITY, Ia. — DVR Monday is back … on a Tuesday. For Wednesday’s newspaper. Well, at least the concept is the same from a weekly staple of last football season.
Even though this was only Iowa’s spring game, and we all should tread gingerly so as not to read too much into it, there was some notable observations to be had upon a re-watch from Friday’s Big Ten Network broadcast.
Of high interest on game night: the first true spring quarterback competition since 2013; the intrigue of the Brian Ferentz offense; the quest to replace Brandon Snyder at free safety (Jake Gervase did just fine with three interceptions, thank you).
But there was more to delve into. So, without further delay, here is a bonus version of DVR Monday ... and the last one until September.
Hello, tight ends
Many of us predicted that a Brian Ferentz-flavored offense would be extremely tight-end-friendly, considering: 1) He coached that position while with the New England Patriots for four seasons; and 2) Tight end has historically been a Hawkeye calling card.
So, of course, five different tight ends caught 10 of the 19 completed passes thrown Friday under the Kinnick Stadium lights.
Most impressive on this night were youngsters Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, who lined up together on the majority of plays run by the No. 1 unit.
“We loved it. It was great,” Fant said. “Our tight ends were rolling. It’s always great to get that many receptions. They were pretty evenly spread out, too, so we got to see what everybody could do.”
Fant was one of the night’s obvious stars. The true sophomore caught two balls for 24 yards, but he could’ve had more. He was open often, but still-learning quarterbacks Tyler Wiegers and Nathan Stanley couldn’t find him.
Fant’s combination of speed and size (6-foot-5, 232 pounds) could make him an every-down contributor in 2017. Iowa likes having a versatile regular, and NFL-bound George Kittle must be replaced.
Alongside Fant, Hockenson showed signs of being a force. The redshirt freshman from Chariton lined up inside and out wide, and he used his 6-5, 243 frame to not only haul in a game-high four receptions but look serviceable as a blocker.
On one running play, Hockenson strong-armed Iowa’s best defensive end, Anthony Nelson, backward.
Not to be outdone, Fant — out of a fourth-and-1 power formation — bulldozed backup linebacker Nick Niemann downfield as Toren Young scampered for 10 yards.
Listed starter Peter Pekar, who is primarily a blocking tight end, didn’t play Friday. But you have to wonder if the Fant/Hockenson combo was a sign of things to come.
Freshman Shaun Beyer also had two catches, and senior Jon Wisnieski and sophomore Drew Cook had one apiece for a deep tight-end group.
During an in-game BTN interview, Brian Ferentz was asked about his new offense, and the first position he mentioned was no surprise.
“We’re just going to try to be driven by our tight ends, our fullbacks, our running backs,” he said. “Strong running game, play-action, naked (bootlegs), all that good stuff. Hopefully we can be specific week-to-week in ways that can help us.”
You may have noticed Iowa picked up a commitment over the weekend in Green Bay, Wis., running back Henry Geil — giving the Hawkeyes their second commit (out of four total) in their recruiting Class of 2018 from the state of Wisconsin.
They may be onto something.
A look on the field Friday would tell you Wisconsinites are shaping into Iowa's 2017 plans. Three Class of 2016 signees from Wisconsin are trending upward.
Of course, there’s Stanley at quarterback. He’s in a competition to become the No. 1 guy. More on the Menomonie, Wis., native in a bit.
Young, a redshirt freshman from just outside Madison, made a strong case to be the No. 2 guy behind Akrum Wadley. He’s 5-11, 220, and once he gets rolling, he’s tough to tackle.
He rushed (unofficially) 16 times for 89 yards and a touchdown Friday, a welcomed 5.6 yards a carry on what was a tough night for the offense. He outplayed Toks Akinribade.
“I liked the energy he ran with and the toughness he ran with,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said, “and he's pretty much been doing that all spring.”
And, surprise, there was Kristian Welch of tiny Iola (population 1,301) getting the most reps at middle linebacker with guaranteed starter and returning Butkus Award finalist Josey Jewell seeing limited snaps. Welch (6-3, 232) showed a nice burst, and even recorded a sack.
With new assistant Tim Polasek well-connected in Wisconsin (he starred at Concordia University there, and stalked that recruiting turf during his 10 years on North Dakota State’s staff), look for the Hawkeyes to continue to fight for (and land) recruits in the Badger State.
About the passing game
One of the things I like to capture on game re-watches is insider color commentary.
Iowa's spring game was a gift in that regard, with former Hawkeye great Chuck Long delivering solid information.
Long mentioned he was able to attend a few recent closed practices. He, too, professed a confidence in Iowa’s young tight ends. But at least two other things stood out.
On Stanley, who struggled to connect with his receivers (6-of-16 for 17 yards), Long correctly noted his powerful arm but noted: “In the practices I’ve seen, he’s a little erratic. … It’s all accuracy with him.”
That was a spot-on evaluation. Stanley made good decisions, but he’s missing guys. If he can find them more frequently and add some passing touch, he'll win the starting job.
On the Iowa offense, here was another observation from Long: “In practice, they were trying to hit the long ball a bunch. They need a little bit of work there.”
Fans certainly would embrace more deep shots in the passing game. That was a widely criticized aspect of Greg Davis’ five-year stint as offensive coordinator. Brian Ferentz is at least aware of that deficiency, and that's good news.
Defensive end is loaded
Much like at tight end, the Hawkeyes proved they are young and deep at defensive end, even with junior Parker Hesse playing limited snaps and junior Matt Nelson (foot) sidelined.
The first sack of the night went to redshirt freshman defensive end Brandon Simon (6-1, 240), who on his first snap spun past No. 2 left tackle Alaric Jackson to tag Stanley. Simon was a disruptive force.
Also causing commotion was redshirt freshman Chauncey Golston (6-5, 255). He single-handedly created a three-and-out while working with the second-team defense. On first-and-10, he overpowered right tackle Lucas LeGrand to stuff Young for no gain. On second-and-10, he crashed inside to help stop Young for a 2-yard gain. And on third-and-8, he shoved LeGrand backward so that Stanley had to rush a 6-yard completion to Beyer.
And, don't forget (I know you haven't) that five-star defensive end A.J. Epenesa arrives in June. If only Iowa had this kind of depth at defensive tackle.
Some parting thoughts
No major injuries occurred Friday. Ferentz expects everyone except Snyder and reserve offensive lineman Dalton Ferguson (both with torn ACLs) to return in June. That includes defensive tackle Nathan Bazata (lower leg), wide receiver Matt VandeBerg (foot) and fullback Drake Kulick (broken leg). ... Two of the night's four sacks came on blitzes, via Welch and cornerback Michael Ojemudia. ... The block of the night goes to redshirt freshman Cole Banwart. The backup right guard plowed into linebacker Aaron Mends to help pave Young's 14-yard path to the end zone in the third quarter. ... A final spring summation from Kirk Ferentz: "I think they've worked hard and been focused. That being said, certainly we're hardly ready to play at this point."
The Hawkeyes — and DVR Monday — will see you again in September.
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.