Leistikow: A motivational speech for Iowa football, plus 5 media-day storylines

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa’s football coaches got a lovely gift from their colleagues across America on Thursday.   


The Amway Coaches Poll, a panel of half the nation’s 130 FBS head coaches, has Iowa as the 27th team in “others receiving votes” behind the Top 25. That’s a preseason ranking of No. 52.

Among the programs listed ahead of the Hawkeyes include Memphis, San Diego State, Appalachian State, Tulsa, Western Michigan, Temple, Houston and Troy.

Kirk Ferentz, who turned 62 on Aug. 1, enters his 19th Iowa Football Media Day as a head coach on Saturday.

In football terms, it means very little. Less than little. And it’d be fair to argue that Iowa shouldn’t have gotten any top-25 votes from anyone after finishing outside the the 2016 final poll thanks to an Outback Bowl drubbing by Florida.

But it’s a wonderful motivational card that Kirk Ferentz and his staff can play during the dog days of August.

“Men, the coaches in this country think we are an average football team. And that’s putting it nicely. They look at us, they look at our roster, and they’re not intimidated one (darn) bit. There are seven other Big Ten teams that got more votes than the Iowa Hawkeyes this week. Seven. Four of those teams are in our own division. I know some of you guys aren’t real great at math, but that means fifth place out of seven.

“One of those teams picked ahead of us? Nebraska. Most of you in this room were here the day after Thanksgiving and remember how we whipped their (butts) up and down that field on national TV. Oh, and another one of those teams that people think is better than us: Minnesota. Let those guys up north talk all they want; you guys just keep your head down, work hard and do everything that you’re supposed to do. And we’ll see who’s talking in November.

“And, by the way, you know who else our colleagues across this country think more highly of than the 2017 Iowa Hawkeyes? That’s right, the Wyoming Cowboys. Men, that’s our first opponent on Sept. 2, right here at Kinnick Stadium. And that’s the only opponent that you should be focused on, the only one we’re working toward, this entire month. If you guys stick to the plan, put in your work, listen to us, get to bed on time, eat what you’re supposed to eat and play 60 tough, smart and physical minutes every Saturday, then …

“Men, you can prove a lot of people wrong this fall.”

And that brings us to Iowa Football Media Day.

It’s Saturday. It’s the unofficial kickoff to football season, in some ways.

It’s an annual event I look forward to. For journalists like me, it’s basically the one day out of 365 that we have unrestricted access to every assistant coach and almost every non-true-freshman player on the roster.

We can’t talk to everyone we want to talk to. It always goes way too fast.

Much like preparation for the season. Four weeks from Saturday comes that Wyoming opener. That game counts. The pressure’s already on.

There are dozens of storylines I’ll be following all August – but for space purposes I’ve boiled it down to five that we can examine coming out of media day.

No. 1: When does a QB get named?

I’d put the chances that Ferentz names a starting quarterback Saturday at about 1.5 percent. He’ll say that it remains too close to call between Nathan Stanley and Tyler Wiegers.

I’ll be curious to know how true freshman Peyton Mansell is faring through the first four or five practices of fall camp, and what the plans might be for presumed third-stringer Ryan Boyle.

Probably the best info we can hope for Saturday: Clues about where the race stands between Stanley (the big-armed sophomore) and Wiegers (the program-seasoned redshirt junior) and insight on whether coaches would be willing to take the competition into the regular season.

Prediction: We’ll get a starter announcement 2-3 weeks from now, as was the case Aug. 23, 2013, via a Friday-morning university tweet, when Jake Rudock was selected over C.J. Beathard and Cody Sokol in a three-way competition.

No. 2: Who’s No. 2 at receiver?

Assuming Matt VandeBerg and his foot are A-OK to play for the first time in almost a year, who joins him regularly on the field will be an ongoing August mystery.

Junior-college transfer Nick Easley, for now, is atop the other wide-receiver spot on the latest depth chart. But that depth chart came out in July, before four true-freshman contenders jumped into practices: Max Cooper, Henry Marchese, Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette.

Prediction: One of the Smiths will ultimately break through as No. 2. (Just think of the Smith logjam here if Jerminic Smith had stuck around.) Iowa needs an athletic, tall, speedy target to join the reliable VandeBerg and slot receiver Easley to help spread the field.

No. 3: What are the plans for two grad transfers?

This will be the first chance for Iowa media to swarm around running back James Butler, the new graduate-transfer arrival from Nevada. He rushed for 3,300-plus yards in three seasons in the Mountain West Conference.

We’ll get some questions answered about how ready and how much he is expected to contribute, and what that might mean for the workloads of senior Akrum Wadley and freshman Toren Young.

I’m not sure what, if anything, we’ll find out about the grad-transfer of former New Mexico receiver Matt Quarells. News broke last week that he was headed to Iowa City, but the 6-foot-1, 195-pounder (who has two years of remaining eligibility) hadn’t appeared on the Hawkeyes’ official roster as of Friday morning. He’d be another candidate as an answer to No. 2.

Prediction: Butler (5-9, 210) will be used a lot, maybe even as a return man, to keep 1,000-yard rusher Wadley (5-11, 195) as fresh and explosive as possible throughout the season. He also might be the preferred third-down back, with a reputation as a solid blocker. I’ll say Wadley averages 15 to 18 touches a game, Butler 12 to 15. Quarells’ potential impact will remain an August curiosity.

No. 4: How early will Tristan Wirfs, A.J. Epenesa contribute?

Ferentz often says the closer a player is to the snap of the football, the harder it is to play as a true freshman.

Iowa has rarely dispatched a first-year player on its offensive line. Two years ago, James Daniels was one of those special talents that broke through. Might Wirfs be the next to get that shot?

The Mount Vernon product is a massive (6-5, 315), strong athlete who might be too talented to keep off the field. While we aren’t permitted to talk to Wirfs on Saturday, new offensive-line coach Tim Polasek has already marveled about how (size-wise) he looks like a veteran.

And what about the five-star prize in Epenesa? Defensive coordinator Phil Parker has suggested we’ll see Epenesa (6-5, 270) for 10 to 15 snaps a game this fall, but is that still the plan? And will the snaps come at end or tackle or both?

Prediction: Both guys see the field in 2017, and Epenesa has the bigger immediate impact.

Iowa kicker Keith Duncan makes the game winning kick Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016, as Iowa upsets No. 2 Michigan 14-13 at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

No. 5: Who does all the kicking?

In Chicago a few weeks ago, Ferentz said this to a national audience: “Our kicking competition is in full effect.”

Excited yet?

This is another battle that might rage into late August. Yes, Keith Duncan won the job as a true freshman last year – and his right leg was true enough to beat Michigan, 14-13 – but Iowa didn’t trust him beyond 40 yards. Long kicks were occasionally left to Miguel Recinos, who is still here, and walk-on Caleb Shudak is back after redshirting.

Somebody also needs to replace Ron Coluzzi's terrific work on kickoffs and as a punter. Iowa gave a scholarship to incoming freshman punter Ryan Gersonde, who is expected to challenge walk-on Colten Rastetter for the job. (Did you know: Both kick with their left foot.)

Prediction: We won’t get a final answer Saturday. But on Sept. 2, it’ll be: Duncan on all placements; Recinos on kickoffs; Rastetter on punts.

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.