Leistikow: Analyzing Iowa football's Week 1 depth chart, starting quarterback decision
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Naming a true sophomore his Week 1 starting quarterback for the first time since 2004 isn’t the only area where veteran Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is going younger with Iowa football.
But it’s certainly the place to start.
Nathan Stanley, who turned 20 on Saturday, will take the Hawkeyes' first snap for their season opener Saturday against Wyoming, a Monday revelation that will get further context Tuesday at Ferentz’s first game-week press conference of the season.
But from everything we have heard, read and reported on Stanley, this was — for the second straight year — a very close call over redshirt junior Tyler Wiegers. Stanley nudged ahead of Wiegers for last year’s backup role, too.
Yet at the same time, Ferentz has told us that whoever won the job, it would be his to keep — barring performance struggles, of course.
Though Ferentz has repeatedly referenced the three-way QB battle of 1987 when assessing the Stanley/Wiegers run-off, he was always firmly opposed to rotating who takes the snaps on a series-to-series or week-to-week basis.
“You don’t want whoever it is in there playing, looking over their shoulder on every snap,” Ferentz said last week. “That’s not healthy. We don’t want that at any position.”
In Stanley, Iowa is banking on a young man with uncommon maturity to potentially be its quarterback for the next three years — much how it played out when Drew Tate won the job as a true sophomore in 2004.
A year ago this September, I wrote a piece about Stanley — after he emerged as C.J. Beathard’s backup — and interviewed those close to him back home in Menomonie, Wis.
The takeaway: He was a quiet, confident, athletic gamer — no matter the sport — who puts in all the work and then some.
“Very humble,” his high school coach, Joe LaBuda, told me then. “About as classy a kid as you’re ever going to find.”
On Iowa’s media day, strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle said Stanley was “closer to 240” pounds over his listed, 6-5, 235 frame, after arriving on campus listed at 212.
He’s put in the work; he's earned the job — it wasn't awarded by default.
Here’s something else Doyle said about Stanley that should have Hawkeye fans excited:
“He’s mature beyond his years,” Doyle said. “That’s partly why you saw him accelerate in his progression last year (as a true freshman).
“One thing for sure: Nate Stanley, he really is a mature guy that comes to work every day — no drama, focused — (a) really impressive guy to see in our facility and on our practice fields.”
That sounds like a guy Iowa will go to battle with every week.
Quarterback, of course, is only part of Monday’s depth-chart release that stirred some buzz. Some other notable developments:
All the freshmen
Seven true freshmen cracked the two-deep... and only one of them is a wide receiver.
Receiver figured to be a place where rookies could climb into the fold right away, but so far only Brandon Smith — a 6-3, 205, big-handed wideout from Mississippi — has made the jump. He's listed as the No. 2 split end, behind Matt VandeBerg.
The six other true freshmen were also second-teamers: Tristan Wirfs (right tackle), A.J. Epenesa (defensive end), Matt Hankins (cornerback), Geno Stone (free safety), Ryan Gersonde (punter) and Ivory Kelly-Martin (kick returns).
Of those, the most notable might be Wirfs. It is a sign that the coaches are ready to fast-track the massive Mount Vernon product (6-5, 315). Ferentz can probably speak to Wirfs' redshirt-or-not plans on Tuesday.
After playing 10 true freshmen a year ago, Ferentz (in his 19th year) isn't shying away from counting on newcomers again in 2017.
The rise of Epenesa
It's not a surprise that Epenesa, the heralded rookie from Edwardsville, Ill., cracked the Week 1 depth chart. But his ascent to third-year starter Parker Hesse's backup has created a ripple effect that has officially sent Matt Nelson to defensive tackle.
Nelson (6-8, 282) is now Nathan Bazata's backup inside after starting outside, at defensive end, in each of Iowa's 13 games a year ago.
The move should fortify Iowa's depth along the defensive line and will provide confidence in a rotation that should keep those big bodies from wearing down come November.
Wadley as the new Desmond?
Well, halfway. Akrum Wadley is the No. 1 kick returner, a formula that provided Iowa with ample payoff the past two years with Desmond King as the team's top return man.
King, the 2015 Jim Thorpe Award winner at cornerback, served as Iowa's primary guy on kickoffs and punts. For now, Wadley is just getting the kickoff role, while sure-handed VandeBerg is No. 1 for punt returns.
This means that if Iowa gets the ball first against Wyoming, Wadley might be the first Hawkeye to have the ball in his hands to start the 2017 season.
There is skepticism in the Iowa fan base about putting the team's top playmaker in a role susceptible to injury, with kick-coverage personnel getting a 50-yard running start to make a tackle.
I love the move, though. Get him the ball in any way possible — especially in open space. Plus, I've seen enough of his elusiveness to conclude that Wadley won't take many direct hits.
Speaking of specialists
There's been a flip at place-kicker. Miguel Recinos, in his fourth year in the program, appears to have won a tight competition with the primary incumbent.
Keith Duncan made nine of 11 field-goal attempts a year ago, including the unforgettable game-winner against Michigan, but Recinos (who was 1 of 3 in a "long" field-goal role in 2016) had a fantastic fall camp, dropping Duncan to the No. 2 line.
Look for Recinos to also handle kickoff duties and try to emulate the role that Marshall Koehn played for the 2015 Hawkeyes.
At punter, the walk-on (sophomore Colten Rastetter, with one career punt) beat out the scholarship guy (Gersonde).
More on the offense
After all the fall-camp tinkering along Iowa's front five, the offensive line is exactly the same now as it was on the preseason depth chart (from left to right): Boone Myers, Keegan Render, James Daniels, Sean Welsh and Ike Boettger.
Look for Ross Reynolds and Alaric Jackson (at minimum) to crack the rotation as well.
Elsewhere, graduate transfers are catching on quickly.
Senior James Butler (a 3,300-yard rusher at Nevada) has moved into the No. 2 running-back spot, ahead of freshman Toren Young.
And junior Matt Quarells, despite a mid-August arrival after a paperwork delay, is already sharing the No. 2 wide-receiver role (behind junior Nick Easley) with sophomore Devonte Young. That's a good sign that Quarells, who spent three years at New Mexico, will have an impact sooner rather than later.
Also notable at wide receiver: Junior Adrian Falconer, who was having a strong camp, is no longer on the depth chart. Freshmen Ihmir Smith-Marsette (billed as the team's top deep threat) and Max Cooper also went unlisted.
More on the defense
Hey, Aaron Mends is back. He's the No. 2 weak-side linebacker, behind Bo Bower. The muscle-bound junior had been behind sophomore Amani Jones.
Stone's fast August rise has landed him the backup free safety role behind Jake Gervase. Perhaps that will give Iowa the opportunity to redshirt Noah Clayberg, who joined the program in January as a grayshirt.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.
Iowa's Week 1 depth chart:
SE: Matt VandeBerg (6-1, 195, Sr.), Brandon Smith (6-3, 205, Fr.)
TE: Noah Fant (6-5, 232, Soph.), Nate Wieting (6-4, 250, Soph.)
LT: Boone Myers (6-5, 310, Sr.), Alaric Jackson (6-7, 320, Fr.)
LG: Keegan Render (6-4, 310, Jr.), Ross Reynolds (6-4, 300, Jr.)
C: James Daniels (6-4, 295, Jr.), Cole Banwart (6-4, 295, Fr.)
RG: Sean Welsh (6-3, 295, Sr.), Levi Paulsen (6-5, 305, Soph.)
RT: Ike Boettger (6-6, 307, Sr.), Tristan Wirfs (6-5, 315, Fr.)
TE: T.J. Hockenson (6-5, 243, Fr.), Peter Pekar (6-4, 252, Sr.)
WR: Nick Easley (5-11, 203, Jr.), Devonte Young (6-0, 200, Soph.) *or* Matt Quarells (6-1, 195, Jr.)
QB: Nathan Stanley (6-5, 235, Soph.), Tyler Wiegers (6-4, 225, Jr.)
RB: Akrum Wadley (5-11, 195, Sr.), James Butler (5-9, 210, Sr.)
FB: Brady Ross (6-1, 245, Soph.), Drake Kulick (6-1, 240, Sr.)
PK: Miguel Recinos (6-1, 192, Jr.), Keith Duncan (5-11, 173, Soph.)
LE: Anthony Nelson (6-7, 260, Soph.), Sam Brincks (6-5, 275, Jr.)
LT: Cedrick Lattimore (6-5, 295, Soph.), Brady Reiff (6-3, 260, Soph.)
RT: Nathan Bazata (6-2, 287, Sr.), Matt Nelson (6-8, 285, Jr.)
RE: Parker Hesse (6-3, 257, Jr.), A.J. Epenesa (6-5, 270, Fr.)
OLB: Ben Niemann (6-3, 233, Sr.), Kevin Ward (6-1, 217, Sr.)
MLB: Josey Jewelll (6-2, 236, Sr.), Kristian Welch (6-3, 232, Soph.)
WLB: Bo Bower (6-1, 235, Sr.), Aaron Mends (6-0, 227, Jr.)
LC: Joshua Jackson (6-1, 192, Jr.), Matt Hankins (6-1, 175, Fr.)
SS: Miles Taylor (5-10, 203, Sr.), Amani Hooker (6-0, 210, So.)
FS: Jake Gervase (6-1, 210, Jr.), Geno Stone (6-0, 195, Fr.)
RC: Michael Ojemudia (6-2, 200, Soph.)*, Cedric Boswell (5-11, 187, Fr.)
P: Colten Rastetter (6-2, 210, Sr.), Ryan Gersonde (6-4, 185, Fr.)
Punt returns: VandeBerg, J. Jackson
Kick returns: Wadley, Ivory Kelly-Martin (5-11, 195, Fr.)
Long snapper: Tyler Kluver (6-0, 220, Sr.), Jackson Subbert (6-3, 237, Soph.)
Holder: Rastetter, Gersonde
*Note: Manny Rugamba (6-0, 185, Soph.) is suspended and expected to return to his starting role in Week 2 at Iowa State