IOWA CITY, Ia. — Kirk Ferentz isn’t big into predictions. But a month ago, as spring practice was about to begin, the 20th-year Iowa football coach made one anyway.
“We will not look like world beaters in April,” he said dryly. “I will make that prediction. I think we're 19-for-19 on that one.”
Ferentz was primarily referencing what fans and media would see at the end of spring drills, when the team would go on public display. That time is finally here, with Friday’s 7 p.m. open practice at Kinnick Stadium.
(Don’t call it a spring game, though.)
There will be some live periods of 11-on-11, we’re told, but there won’t be points awarded for explosive plays or three-and-outs as in past Hawkeye spring scrimmages. With the North end zone under construction, play will head only toward the South goalposts.
In other words, temper your expectations in multiple areas.
But that doesn’t mean we can learn some things on Friday night.
Questions I’d like to start answering …
If something happens to Nate Stanley, should Iowa cancel the season?
Kidding, of course. Just quoting my comical colleague Mark Emmert from last week’s Hawk Central radio show.
Still, the attempt at humor is rooted in truth. Because the success of the 2018 Hawkeyes will hinge on the health and ability within Stanley’s 6-foot-4, 242-pound frame. If an injury sidelines the junior quarterback at any point, there’s going to be a drop-off.
But how steep would the decline be?
Friday offers our first tangible glimpse at the developing skill sets of Stanley’s only two scholarship backups: Redshirt freshman Peyton Mansell and true freshman Spencer Petras, who enrolled in classes here in January.
I asked quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe recently what he needed to see from Mansell or Petras to help him feel comfortable with his backup — given that the expected Nos. 2 and 3 (Tyler Wiegers and Ryan Boyle) are transferring.
“They’ve got to know what they’re doing,” O’Keefe said, in his own attempt at humor. “That’s the No. 1 way to work yourself into that spot.”
Of course, we shouldn’t overreact about how either backup QB looks Friday. But I do want to see Mansell appear comfortable and confident. As O’Keefe continued his answer to the backup question, he sounded optimistic about the fast progress made by Mansell, the 6-2, 210-pound Texan.
If Mansell can show he’s a serviceable No. 2, then Petras — a promising 6-5, 227-pound Californian — can be on track to get the redshirt year he likely needs.
Is Drew Cook ready to join the loaded tight-end rotation?
He’s not on the depth chart. But the redshirt junior recently has appeared in university practice photos going against first-team defenders.
Cook, a converted quarterback, has been praised by teammates as having a strong spring. But we haven’t seen much of him at tight end, a position at which his father (Marv) thrived in Iowa City and in the NFL.
It was 12 months ago that Cook made the switch. He even got a few snaps in the spring game. He’s since added 15 pounds, and gotten ample tight-end seasoning. The smart, athletic product of Iowa City Regina seems to be attacking his new role.
“Coming from a quarterback and not getting hit much and going to tight end and having a lot of physicality every day, he really stepped up,” said T.J. Hockenson, Iowa’s most heavily used tight end last fall as a redshirt freshman. “You can tell he loves the tight end position.”
The group is deep: Hockenson, Noah Fant, Shaun Beyer and Nate Wieting comprise the top four. What a luxury offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz might have at that position if Cook (6-5, 250) proves he’s ready to join the mix, too.
Can Sam Brincks and/or Chauncey Golston be the solution Iowa needs at defensive tackle?
As Phil Parker broke down what he saw as strengths of his defense the other day, he began with the line.
“I think we have a lot of guys that can play defensive end,” the seventh-year defensive coordinator said, “which allows us to be more flexible and maybe slide a couple guys inside.”
That’s where Brincks and Golston come in. Both have prototypical defensive-end size, but have spent portions of this spring getting acclimated at tackle. I like the idea.
Redshirt senior Brincks (6-5, 275) and redshirt sophomore Golston (6-5, 265) can get more playing time and offer help at a position that needs impact players; as opposed to working behind top-three ends Anthony Nelson, Parker Hesse and A.J. Epenesa.
On Friday, I’m curious to see what Brincks and Golston can do against the rebuilding interior of the Hawkeye offensive line — especially against the run. They’ll likely be going against the likes of Cole Banwart, Keegan Render and Ross Reynolds. If they can win a good portion of those battles, that would be encouraging.
What does the receiving game’s mystery man have to offer?
Kyle Groeneweg, a fifth-year senior walk-on, has been a much-discussed — but unknown to us — commodity in Iowa’s passing game this spring.
What we know about the 5-10, 186-pound transfer from Division II Sioux Falls for now are these things: Kirk Ferentz called his skill set “nifty;” Groeneweg is somebody special-teams coach LeVar Woods is using in the return game; and receivers coach Kelton Copeland mentioned he is “a guy that could really, really help us.”
And, maybe most unusual, he is listed as No. 92 in the program (I’m told that’s not a typo).
Groeneweg did not participate in the 30 minutes of open practice media watched late last month. So, Friday marks the first chance for Iowa's listed No. 2 split end (behind Brandon Smith) to reveal to Hawkeye fans what he can do.
And lastly … can the Hawkeyes avoid a major spring injury?
In two of the last three springs, a significant injury snatched away a returning Hawkeye starter.
On the next-to-last spring practice of 2015, tight end Jake Duzey tore the patellar tendon in his left knee while making a diving touchdown catch. And last year, midway through spring practice, free safety Brandon Snyder tore the ACL in his left knee.
As of Thursday afternoon, the Hawkeyes have only reported minor injuries. Projected starting defensive lineman Matt Nelson (shoulder) has been out all spring, and listed starters Hesse (defensive end) and Levi Paulsen (offensive guard) will sit out Friday’s activities with minor issues.
So, keeping proven performers like Fant or Anthony Nelson in bubble wrap isn't a terrible idea. Having a key someone on (or sent to) crutches in practice 15 out of 15 certainly would be something fans don’t want to see Friday night.
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 open practice at Kinnick
What: The Hawkeye football team will hold its 15th and final spring practice; it is open to the public.
When, where: 7 p.m. Friday, Kinnick Stadium
Entry: Free. Parking lots open at 5 p.m.; gates open at 6. Sections 122 through 128 will be open for seating, along with the entire south grandstands. With the North end zone under construction, only Gates B and E will be open for entry. Normal game-day security procedures will be in place.
Notable: There is no planned autograph session. Starting at 6 p.m., fans can sign one of the large construction beams that will be used in the end-zone construction.
On the air: Video of the final practice will be streamed online via BTN2GO. A radio broadcast will run from 7-8 p.m. on the Hawkeye Sports Network, with Gary Dolphin, Ed Podolak and Rob Brooks on the call.