With James Daniels and Josh Jackson off to the pros early, Kirk Ferentz is looking for juniors to step up as leaders.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — When a developmental football program like Iowa’s loses two of its star players early to the pros, it’s bound to a leave a mark.
That mark jumped off the page in typed ink Tuesday, in the form of the Hawkeyes’ newly released depth chart on the eve of their first of 15 permitted spring practices.
With all-American cornerback Josh Jackson and athletic center James Daniels gone early to the NFL — and expected to be possible first-round draft picks — plus injuries to other key veterans this spring, the lack of star seniors sticks out.
In 2016, Iowa boasted C.J. Beathard and Desmond King.
In 2017, it had Akrum Wadley and Josey Jewell.
The two seniors on the front of the spring media guide are a receiver who was a walk-on last season (Nick Easley) and an undersized defensive end (Parker Hesse).
“Certainly, if you lose two guys to the draft, that’s really uncommon for us,” said 20th-year head coach Kirk Ferentz, who hadn’t had an early NFL departure since Riley Reiff following the 2011 season. “… To have two guys leave, that’s a significant blow to your numbers.”
Iowa’s spring depth chart lists seven starting seniors, none of whom you’re likely to see on preseason all-Big Ten Conference teams or starring at next year’s NFL Scouting Combine: Easley, Hesse, left guard Ross Reynolds, center Keegan Render, linebacker Aaron Mends, safety Jake Gervase and kicker Miguel Recinos.
Two other seniors who might start (defensive tackle Matt Nelson, safety Brandon Snyder) are out for the spring with injuries.
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It’s a valid concern. Expectations for the Hawkeyes’ 2018 season justifiably took a hit with the decisions of Daniels and Jackson, not to mention the losses of program stalwarts such as Jewell, Wadley and four-year starting offensive lineman Sean Welsh.
But hang in there, Hawkeyes fans.
I list those concerns because they’re, well, concerning. They're things Iowa's coaching staff must figure out how to overcome.
But ... I do think Iowa might have a significant equalizer for its lack of senior firepower.
In junior Nate Stanley, the Hawkeyes just might have the best quarterback in the Big Ten West.
In football, a terrific quarterback can patch a lot of holes.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz looks at his 2018 team before spring ball begins.
“The good news is you have guys like Stanley, who played pretty well last year,” Ferentz said, “and we think has a chance to become a real good player.”
He’ll have to be for the 2018 Hawkeyes to be successful.
After the offseason transfers of the Nos. 2 and 3 quarterbacks in Tyler Wiegers and Ryan Boyle, Stanley’s backups are a redshirt freshman (Peyton Mansell) and a true freshman (Spencer Petras).
“When Nate’s out there practicing,” Ferentz said, “it’s going to look a lot different than the two other guys.”
On the field, Ferentz thinks Stanley has the ingredients to take the next step: improved ball security, quicker decisions in the pocket.
Off it, Stanley sounds like he’s becoming a bona fide leader in the program.
That’s quite a leap from seven months ago, when Stanley and Wiegers were in a tight battle for the starting job.
Back in August?
“Nate was trying to just figure out what the snap count was,” Ferentz said.
He’s been voted a team captain and become a more vocal leader. Throwing for 26 touchdown passes — one shy of Chuck Long’s single-season record — with only six interceptions in your first season as a starter will command locker-room respect.
Another thing that happened in the past seven months?
Iowa uncovered some young, talented pieces to build around its strong-armed, 6-foot-4, 242-pound quarterback.
He’s got two pillars of protection back in sophomore tackles Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson, who last fall were pressed into starting duty ahead of schedule. Ferentz indicated both 320-pound giants had terrific winter programs.
Underneath some dormant Iowa offensive numbers at times in 2017, it found young playmakers. Gone are running backs Wadley and James Butler, but sophomores Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin showed enough octane last fall to convince Ferentz they could form a nice 1-2 backfield punch.
And then there’s two 6-foot-5 tight ends that Stanley has shown he can find.
Junior Noah Fant (who, along with Stanley, also made the cover of the spring media guide) and sophomore T.J. Hockenson combined for 14 touchdowns on 54 catches last season, with Iowa regularly deploying two-tight-end sets. They'll be focal points.
“We think both of our running backs have a chance in their own way to be pretty impactful. But they’ve still got to take that step,” Ferentz said. “The tight-end group has big-play capability, I think they’ve showed that. We’ve got to lean that way a little bit.”
Spring is a period when guys we've barely heard of can emerge.
A year ago at this time, we didn't know a lick about Easley. He ended up leading the Pinstripe Bowl-winning Hawkeyes with 51 receptions.
As Tuesday's depth chart showed, though, there are a lot of unknowns.
The one thing we can say for sure: Stanley has to stay healthy and be very good for the 2018 Hawkeyes to have a chance at contending for a Big Ten championship, which Ferentz says is still the goal,
They're glad to have him.
Now, they need more spring stories — like Jackson did last year — to blossom.
“One of the favorite times of year for us as coaches," Ferentz said. "It’s a real opportunity for us right now to learn more about who we are as a team and, maybe more importantly, what we can become.”
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.