Leistikow: Down 4 linemen? Plenty of time for Iowa coaches to teach, adjust

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

The four one-game suspensions of key linemen may be a recent development for those of us on the outside of the Iowa football program. But for head coach Kirk Ferentz and his staff, those absences were old news by the time fall camp opened last Friday.

One of Ferentz’s favorite things about his high-profile job is the low-profile stuff —teaching the game during those few hours a day on the practice field with players. Where they can’t get you, he’s joked.

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz is in one of his happy places when he's working with players on the Hawkeye practice field.

“The camaraderie and interaction of all the people involved, that’s the best part about coaching,” Ferentz said a few weeks ago at the Big Ten Conference’s media days in Chicago. “Especially in our sport. We don’t play 162 games a year. Our opportunities to compete are so small and limited. If you don’t like all the rest of that stuff — the stuff that dominates the other 350-plus days — you’re probably in the wrong business.”

So, while there’s certainly concern among coaches that starting offensive tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs plus two defensive tackles are suspended for the Sept. 1 opener vs. Northern Illinois, there never was going to be panic.

This is where the Hawkeye coaches earn their money, a time when they should do their best work.

This is the part of the job these guys live for.

This isn’t like Northwestern week in 2015, when the staff fretted the availability of quarterback C.J. Beathard and was suddenly without several key starters with less than a week turnaround. (As you probably remember, they passed that test with flying colors in a 40-10 rout at Ryan Field.)

This Week 1 situation — minus Jackson, Wirfs and defensive tackles Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff — has more than four weeks of advance notice. The Jackson and Lattimore incidents happened in the spring, Ferentz said in a release Wednesday, and the alcohol-related arrests of Wirfs and Reiff occurred in late July.

There is plenty of time to identify and prepare capable replacements — come on down, freshman Mark Kallenberger — and craft an alternative plan to beat Northern Illinois, a very solid team that's favored to win the Mid-American Conference.

We’ll get a better inkling of the Week 1 plan soon. Media day is Friday in Iowa City; the “Kids Day at Kinnick” open practice is Saturday.

There will be much to learn about the Hawkeyes this weekend before they largely go back into a media-free bunker until game week.

Stuff that’s also on my list:

Is the passing game for real?

One thing Ferentz said in Chicago that piqued my interest was regarding the progress of Iowa’s offense in Year Two under his son, Brian, as offensive coordinator.

“It should be a world of difference,” Kirk Ferentz said. “Hopefully it’ll show up in production. There’s no guarantees, but just everything about our offensive flow is entirely different from a year ago.”

What exactly would a “world of difference” look like? Iowa ranked 117th out of 130 FBS teams in total offense in 2017 (329.5 yards per game), so there’s ample room for improvement. The Kids Day scrimmage hopefully provides encouragement for a big jump. Top 65 nationally would be a good goal.

Defensive back Matt Hankins is a possible breakout contender this fall for the Hawkeyes.

Who is the next Josh Jackson?

OK, that’s too high a bar. A surprise consensus all-American cornerback is too much to expect for a second straight year.

But I want to hear clues from defensive coordinator Phil Parker on Friday — and perhaps see eye-opening moments on the field Saturday — that Iowa can find three corners it can consistently trust (two starters plus a nickel guy). Sophomore Matt Hankins and redshirt junior Michael Ojemudia are the listed first-teamers, but this should be a wide-open August competition with only five starts between them.

Almost quietly, Iowa led the country a year ago with 21 interceptions. This is an ultra-important position group that can cover up a lot of short-falls elsewhere and is a huge August priority.

Which new guys are ready to make a splash?

This is an annual exercise for the Iowa media, trying to figure out which freshmen or newcomers stand out. A year ago, it was pretty obvious that A.J. Epenesa would be a force in his rookie year (and he was).

Coaches seem to be hinting at coming impacts from two transfers — sophomore running back Mekhi Sargent and senior wide receiver Kyle Groeneweg. Saturday will (maybe) be the first time we’ve seen either of them take a snap in a Hawkeye uniform.

Of all the incoming true freshmen, I’m most interested to see Indianapolis wide receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr. On our radio show in June, receivers coach Kelton Copeland called Tracy (who wears No. 3) “one of the more complete” high school players he’s ever seen. “He’s just electric with the ball in his hands,” he added.

Any surprise news?

One of my favorite media-day memories was Desmond King revealing in August 2015 that he would be the team’s new kick and punt returner. That was a surprising revelation at the time, that Iowa was willing to deploy the eventual Jim Thorpe Award winner in that role. (Turns out, it worked beautifully.)

We know Iowa needs to find a new punt returner, with the departures of Jackson and Matt VandeBerg. My ears and eyes will be open Friday and Saturday to see if there are any surprise personnel developments.

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.