Leistikow: Nate Stanley's meticulous leadership a good sign for 2018 Hawkeyes

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — That’s a wrap. With a choppy yet spirited session Friday night before 9,000-plus at Kinnick Stadium, Iowa’s spring football practices for 2018 have been completed.

A chance to wind down?

Not exactly.

Nate Stanley makes a pass during open practice at Kinnick Stadium Friday, April 20, 2018.

“You can’t really waste any time,” junior defensive end Anthony Nelson noted. “It’s a couple months, and we’re going to be playing.”

That’s the same inner urgency that Nate Stanley is feeling.

And the junior quarterback’s schedule is about to get busier — by choice.

He has an ambitious offseason agenda to help smooth out the Hawkeyes' passing game in time for the Sept. 1 season opener against Northern Illinois.

Stanley plans to work around every receiver’s academic and life responsibilities to head over to the Hawkeye football complex, as often as necessary, to get passing-game reps — players only, of course.

They’ll work on better timing, crisper routes, refined accuracy and mastering the playbook.

“If that means you’ve got to come in three or four times a day to throw routes, to make it work with class schedules, that’s something you’ve got to do,” Stanley said. “Just being able to hold everyone accountable the rest of the spring and into the summer is one thing that we can do as a team.”

Spoken like a true leader that Stanley is rapidly becoming.

A shy and naturally quiet person, Stanley is undoubtedly the focal point to the Hawkeyes’ 2018 offense. He’s grown more comfortable in using his voice. Center Keegan Render says the quarterback has taken a more stern and authoritative tone in the huddle.

Stanley sees an opportunity to help a growing — in both size and maturity — Iowa's receiver group take a big next step.

The receivers share Stanley's optimism.

“We all kind of inspire each other in the receiver room. We all work together,” said Kyle Groeneweg, an intriguing fifth-year walk-on transfer who has turned heads this spring. “Moving forward as a unit, not just looking at one guy to take us to the promised land, so to speak.”

So, how’s that going?

Well, Groeneweg and Nick Easley — two of the listed top four on Iowa’s spring depth chart — did not play Friday night because of soft-tissue injuries. Junior Devonte Young sat out, too.

Ihmir Smith-Marsette continues to show flare but inconsistency. He dropped one early on-target pass from Stanley but did gain 28 yards on two quick-strike plays against the No. 1 defense. Head coach Kirk Ferentz is clearly a Smith-Marsette fan, even though he publicly needled him earlier this spring for spending too much time on his cell phone.

“That's just having fun with him. Everybody likes him here. You've got to,” Ferentz was saying Friday night. “But we've got to keep him in line, too. We've got to keep him in check.

“He really adds a good vibe to the team. He's a positive energy guy, and you can just tell when he's out there, he likes being on the football field.”

There was one point during the scrimmage action in which Smith-Marsette was back for a punt return. It wasn’t a “live” return — supposed to be a fair catch — but after hauling in the punt, Smith-Marsette back-pedaled and kept daring the slowing defenders to chase him.

It was a light-hearted moment that showed the sophomore’s zest for the game.

Sophomore Brandon Smith’s impact was minimal (two catches, six yards) Friday; but clearly sophomore Max Cooper (eight catches, 82 yards) was the star of the night, thriving with similarly sized Easley and Groeneweg on the sidelines.

Junior walk-on Dominique Dafney was one of the more impressive receivers Friday. He scored the night’s lone touchdown; perhaps he could be more than the special-teams contributor he was a year ago.

“Youth was kind of the thing last year. I think we’re really starting to get comfortable as a unit,” Groeneweg said. “… There’s been constant improvement all spring; just guys getting comfortable.”

I remain curious to see if either incoming freshman wide receiver — Tyrone Tracy Jr. of Indianapolis, Calvin Lockett of Largo, Florida — can make an instant impact.

They’ll be here in June. No doubt Stanley will be looking them up, too.

Iowa's pass-game approach is a good example of what spring ball was all about for the Hawkeyes — and where the team might be headed.

From the sounds and looks of it, this was a productive month for the program.

The quarterbacks look a lot further along, with growing comfort that Peyton Mansell could be a decent No. 2; the offensive line was more impressive than I expected despite being down two starters; a middle linebacker has been discovered in Amani Jones; and the secondary, as usual, is on track to become a team strength.

Ferentz made a point to itemize the off-the-field work ethic and leadership that’s building, and that he saw similar growth, physically.

“Those are all really positives,” Ferentz said. “We were in game uniforms tonight but were hardly game ready. That was obvious, as well. But overall, I am happy about the work that we've gotten done over 15 workouts. We've made good progress.”

Now, the race continues until June. Then until September. Then until, the Hawkeyes hope, deep into November and beyond.

One of the big concerns about this Iowa team is inexperience. Five or more players off last year's 8-5 team will be chosen in the NFL Draft this week.

There are only 11 scholarship seniors on this roster; and just three on offense. 

Something we may have learned this spring, though, is that this is a group has identified leadership in juniors like Stanley.

But as Nelson pointed out, “even if fall camp, you don’t really know (how it translates) until you start playing games. But you can tell if there’s a team that’s willing to work and willing to improve. And we’ve got a group of guys willing to do that.”

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.

Kirk Ferentz in town Tuesday

What: Polk County I-Club spring banquet

When, where: Tuesday, at the Sheraton Hotel in West Des Moines (1800 50th Street); social hour from 5-6 p.m., dinner at 6, program at 7.

Tickets: $38 per person (includes dinner, program); $28 for kids eighth grade or younger; purchase online at or call Joe Chmelka, (515) 770-7535.

Other details: Some outgoing Iowa football players will be in attendance and available to sign autographs for kids. Hawkeye coach Kirk Ferentz will be the keynote speaker; radio voice Gary Dolphin is the emcee.