Leistikow: What I learned about the Iowa Hawkeyes at Big Ten Media Days

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

CHICAGO — By mid-afternoon Tuesday, Big Ten Conference signage was already being taken down at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place.

But before closing the book on the league’s media days here, what did we learn?

Here is my CliffsNotes version, with a heavy Iowa slant.

Iowa senior tailback Akrum Wadley, talking with coaches during a practice this spring, is on the "watch list" for the Maxwell Award given to college football's top player.

Kirk Ferentz doesn’t seem worried about his quarterback situation.

In fact, nobody in the Hawkeye camp does.

That should probably be re-assurance that, despite a rocky spring game for top contenders Nathan Stanley and Tyler Wiegers, things might be just fine there.

“The good news,” the Hawkeye coach in his 19th year told reporters here, “is if you’re big into tendencies — which I know you guys are — we’ve done OK with new quarterbacks.”

Fact check: true.

Four of Iowa’s five national top-10 finishes under Ferentz came with first-year starters: Brad Banks (2002), Nathan Chandler (2003), Drew Tate (2004) and C.J. Beathard (2015).

Akrum Wadley still needs to prove himself to Ferentz.

The coach didn’t seem to care for talk about why Iowa’s top returning playmaker wasn’t in Chicago, and on Monday he said this of Wadley’s January decision to return to Iowa rather than going to the NFL:

“I don't mean this in a disrespectful way: I thought that was a little bit premature. We've been with Akrum now for four years, coached in the National Football League, and I think we were aware of some things that we felt like he needed to do.”

Ferentz was complimentary of Wadley on the back end of his comments, though, saying the 5-foot-11, 195-pound senior has come a long way in his Hawkeye journey, from being a fumbling liability to a reliable cog in the wheel.

Wadley was Iowa’s top rusher, top scorer and second-leading receiver a year ago.

“We think he's poised to have a tremendous year,” Ferentz said. “Has a great attitude, loves football, is good with his teammates — I'm thrilled he's on our football team.”

Nevada Wolf Pack running back James Butler (20) runs with the ball against the UNLV Rebels during the third quarter at Sam Boyd Stadium.

From complimentary to complementary: Whither James Butler?

It sounds like Iowa has ambitious plans for Wadley and the new graduate transfer running back from Nevada.

Ferentz said this week he envisioned lining up both guys at wide receiver in practice to see what would happen.

“We’d be foolish not to consider that,” Ferentz said. “… It’s our job to figure out who can line up at receiver and play well and give us some octane out there.”

Iowa coaches like T.J. Hockenson (38), and they got him involved frequently during their spring game Friday night.

That’s another way of saying Iowa needs a lot of help at receiver.

But we already knew that.

What we didn’t know for sure, though, is Iowa seems to be gravitating toward big, fast tight ends in new coordinator Brian Ferentz’s offense.

The Hawkeyes not only listed as many tight-end starters (two) as wide receivers on Monday's release of the pre-fall depth chart, but the names were new atop the No. 1 line: true sophomore Noah Fant and redshirt freshman T.J. Hockenson.

“We’ve got to look at those positions kind of jointly,” Ferentz said of wide receiver and tight end, “to figure out what’s the best way to try to move the ball through the air.”

That was a huge problem for Iowa last year, even with third-round NFL Draft pick C.J. Beathard behind center.

Ferentz was asked: How many receivers would you like to have in the rotation?

“Two would be a really good start. I don’t want to be greedy,” Ferentz dead-panned, a reference to having just one proven returning wideout in Matt VandeBerg. “But it’d be nice to feel like you have four guys that can go in and out. That’s not always realistic.”

Iowa sophomore tight end Noah Fant catches a pass at the team's spring game Friday in Kinnick Stadium.

Fant seems to be ready for a big year.

Ferentz used a fun analogy to describe the growth he made after getting limited snaps and action as a true freshman (nine catches, 70 yards).

“It kind of gets the growing process accelerated a little bit,” Ferentz said. “What’s that stuff my wife puts on her flowers?”

Miracle-Gro, someone said.

“He looks like a college guy now,” Ferentz said. “A year ago, he looked like an eighth-grade guy. And I mean that in a happy way — a nice way.

“Now, I think he gets the gravity of this stuff. And I think he’s got a little better feel of how good he could be, too.”

The addition of Kevin Spencer is a big deal.

He's a new quality-control assistant at Iowa.

“Kevin just fell right out of the sky,” Ferentz said. “What a stroke of good luck and fortune that was.”

As Ferentz tells it, Spencer, 63, isn’t looking to be a college coach. “He just wants to help out,” with an interest in being at the Division I level for the first time.

Spencer was the NFL’s special teams coach of the year in 2003, working for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He’s worked under Bill Belichick, Bill Cowher and Ken Whisenhunt — quite the pedigree.

And he’ll assist special teams coordinator LeVar Woods.

When Iowa’s had really good seasons, it's usually correlated with strong special teams play. Ferentz spoke this week of holes he saw in that area during last fall's 8-5 campaign.

Spencer will undoubtedly help shore those up.

Iowa’s November win over Nebraska was even more impressive than the 40-10 final indicated.

Ferentz revealed that several linemen on both sides of the ball were home with the flu during that short week of preparation.

“If the media had been able to see our Monday practice — I remember this distinctly — there would have been a lot of stories written,” Ferentz said. “… To say, on a short week, 'that was concerning would be an understatement. But the guys bounced back from it.”

Speaking of Big Ten West rivals…

Here are some final thoughts on what challenges the Hawkeyes are facing:

Trending up: I liked what I heard from Northwestern, Minnesota and even Purdue.

I think Northwestern has the division’s best quarterback, in Clayton Thorson, and maybe the best running back, in Justin Jackson — although Iowa has the best tandem, in Wadley and Butler. I wouldn’t be shocked if Pat Fitzgerald gets the Wildcats to the top this fall.

P.J. Fleck (Minnesota) and Jeff Brohm (Purdue) are upgrades at their respective schools but are at least a year away from a breakthrough.

More:Fleck, Brohm present stark contrast in styles

Trending down: Nebraska and Illinois have the same thing in common: They lack an identity.

The Huskers are switching to a 3-4 defense, and coach Mike Riley identified significant question marks in the secondary — problematic no matter how good transfer QB Tanner Lee is. Nebraska media are questioning the program's physicality.

I’ve got Illinois last in the West, and that opinion is unchanged.

About the same: Consistent with what I published last week, I think Wisconsin wins the division, with Iowa finishing third.

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.