Leistikow: 4 things Hawkeye fans want to see on Kids Day and 1 they don’t

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Starting three weeks from Saturday, the games count.

This Saturday, of course, doesn’t.

Still — even if there’s not a ton of tangible meaning — there’s plenty of intrigue surrounding Iowa’s "Kids Day" open practice at Kinnick Stadium. Gates open at 11 a.m., with live football action beginning around noon.

If history is a guide, there will be somewhere around 100 scrimmage snaps taken in the 11-on-11 portion. That gives fans and media a lot to chew on during their final public viewing of the team until the Sept. 2 opener vs. Wyoming.

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz signs autographs for young fans during last year's Kids Day open practice at Kinnick Stadium.

Coaches have a much larger body of work from which to draw conclusions. So, we all should be careful, as always, not read too much into this football-wise. It’s a fun event for kids, though, and the weather should be great. So come out if you can, and bring the sun block.

Meantime, here are four things all Hawkeye fans should want to see Saturday, and one thing they don’t.

Iowa wide receiver Matt VandeBerg and his wife, Laura, pose for a photo during media day on Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017.

No significant injuries

Let’s get the one “don’t-wanna-see” thing out of the way. Injuries happen in football. Wisconsin got a harsh reminder of that this week when star middle linebacker Jack Cichy — who was projected as a possible first-round NFL Draft pick — was lost for the season with a torn ACL in his right knee.

Also this week, Nebraska lost a freshman receiver for the season during a blocking drill.

A year ago on Kids Day, there was panic in Iowa City when word got out that quarterback C.J. Beathard had an unspecified injury to his knee. By late morning, an Internet meme was circulating of Beathard barking out signals with a Photoshopped prosthetic leg.

It turned out Beathard's knee was just sprained, and he started all of Iowa's 13 games.

Entering 2017, after already losing starting safety Brandon Snyder (ACL) in the spring and with receiver Matt VandeBerg breaking his foot twice in a span of six months, Iowa doesn’t need another significant injury blow.

Perhaps the five guys Iowa can least afford to lose: middle linebacker Josey Jewell (a healthy Butkus Award finalist would be a good advantage), offensive linemen James Daniels and Sean Welsh (Iowa’s two most dominant blockers), running back Akrum Wadley (a once-a-decade playmaker here) and outside linebacker Ben Niemann (who plays perhaps the most critical position in Iowa’s 4-3 scheme and has unproven backups).

Get to September with those five (plus VandeBerg) in tact, and that’d be a health win.

Quarterback progress

The 2015 Kids Day story might be told again in 2025. And 2035. It’s the No. 1 lesson of why we can’t read too much into how Iowa’s offense performs in mid-August. Beathard stunk that day (10-of-24, 106 yards, eight sacks), because he could barely get a pass off with the relentless pursuit from first-team defensive ends Drew Ott and Nate Meier.

Legitimate concerns about Iowa’s offensive tackles were there. And that offense wound up averaging more than 30 points a game and going 12-0 in the 2015 regular season.

With that in mind, we should all be cautious not to anoint one quarterback over the other in the Nathan Stanley vs. Tyler Wiegers battle on Saturday (unless, of course, Kirk Ferentz does it first). But it would be nice to see both leading contenders improve over their combined (unofficial) spring-game statistics: 17-for-35, 111 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions.

Iowa wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland answers questions during media day Saturday. The first-year Hawkeye assistant has three weeks to forge a group capable of making an impact this fall.

Reliable wide receivers

Who will contribute at perhaps the 2017 offseason’s biggest question-mark position?

First, watch for who lines up with the No. 1 and No. 2 units.

It seems pretty certain that listed starters VandeBerg and Nick Easley, the junior-college walk-on, are in the plans. But Iowa typically needs a four-man receiver rotation, at least.

On media day, junior Adrian Falconer’s name surfaced as having an early-August impact.

During a recent open practice, sophomore Devonte Young was running with the 1s.

Then there are the freshmen. Three of them are showing up frequently in university-published videos and photo galleries — Max Cooper, Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette. Saturday marks their first appearance in the black and gold in front of Hawkeye fans.

And finally, Matt Quarells is here. The New Mexico grad transfer's paperwork delay is apparently complete, as he surfaced in Iowa practice photos Friday. He wouldn't be in Iowa City if he didn't anticipate playing right away.

As offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz has said many times, this is a position where Iowa is selling opportunity. Someone needs to take ownership. Performing well on a spotlight stage could serve as an important step.

Booming punts

The loss of consistent punter Ron Coluzzi shouldn’t be minimized. Without him, Iowa might not have beaten then-unbeaten Michigan a year ago. His 54-yard punt set up Jaleel Johnson’s game-turning safety.

Iowa will no doubt play field-position football this fall, as it has for the last 18 years. So keep an eye in the sky, on the flight of balls coming from the left foots of redshirt sophomore walk-on Colten Rastetter and true freshman scholarship punter Ryan Gersonde.

But look early; often on Kids Day, the kicking stuff happens before the noon practice heats up. If you see distance and consistency, draw some comfort from it.

This will be a quietly important position battle through fall camp.

Promising freshmen

A year ago on Kids Day, I remember tight end T.J. Hockenson impressively pulled down a long touchdown pass from Stanley in 7-on-7 drills.

Neither player did much last fall as first-year freshmen — Hockenson redshirted, Stanley played sparingly as a backup. But perhaps it was a sign of things to come. A year later, both are listed as starters.

Aside from receivers, expect more instant freshmen impact on defense. And Saturday is a chance to see them all.

The most interesting newcomer to watch will be A.J. Epenesa, the five-star recruit who is expected to contribute right away on Iowa’s defensive line.

Also keep an eye on the secondary. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker has suggested that rookies Matt Hankins, Trey Creamer and Josh Turner will all play this fall. There may be others.

On offense, this will be the first and likely only glimpse we’ll have of rookie quarterback Peyton Mansell until spring practice. It’ll also be interesting to see how well new running backs Kyshaun Bryan and Ivory Kelly-Martin fare. I would expect both to redshirt, presuming the top four of Wadley, James Butler, Toren Young and Toks Akinribade remain healthy.

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.

'Kids Day at Kinnick' details

When, where: Saturday, Kinnick Stadium.

Key times: At 9 a.m., Krause Family Plaza opens. There will be inflatable games, face painting, prizes and a chance to meet Herky the Hawk (from 10:30 to 11). Kinnick gates open at 11. Autographs will be signed at 11:30 (kids only). Practice begins at noon.

Parking, admission: Free. Enter at Gate A (south end zone) or Gate E (press-box side).

Concessions: Open, with items being sold at discounted prices. 

Coverage: Follow's Chad Leistikow (@ChadLeistikow), Mark Emmert (@MarkEmmert) and Matthew Bain (@MatthewBain_) for the day's news and analysis.