Leistikow: Play-makers emerging, lots to like in Iowa's 2018 offense

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Everybody knows Iowa has two excellent tight ends going into the 2018 season. And it’s a lovely concept in theory to throw as many footballs as possible toward preseason all-American Noah Fant and sophomore T.J. Hockenson.

But, as offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said this week, it’s easy for a defensive coordinator to game-plan for two skill-position players.

Therein lies the key to whether the Hawkeyes experience a big boost in offensive production: Finding three more.

Iowa tight end Noah Fant (87) catches a pass during a Kids Day practice on Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

“We can’t just have everybody’s attention around those two guys. That won’t work very well,” Ferentz said. “I know defenses can defend two guys. We need to make sure we find five.”

In Saturday’s Kids Day open practice, there were positive indicators that this offense is finding them.

Nate Stanley certainly was.

Iowa’s unquestioned starting quarterback looked very sharp, his throws crisply on target much of the hot afternoon at Kinnick Stadium.

On the first drive of 11-on-11 with the first units on the field, Stanley took the Hawkeyes down the field with hardly a hiccup.

He hit fullback Brady Ross for 13 yards on a flare pass on the first snap.

He dropped off a safe screen to running back Ivory Kelly-Martin for five more on the next.

He later sizzled an 11-yarder to wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette for a first down against top corner Matt Hankins.

And he finished the practice sequence by scrambling to connect with Fant for an 11-yard gain on third-and-3.

On the 11-play drive, Stanley was 4-for-4 to four different targets who play four different positions for 40 yards.

“We looked kind of cohesive there as a whole group. And that was kind of encouraging, because that doesn’t happen very often,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Especially in August.”

Three years ago, the Kids Day open practice was a clinic of dominant defensive ends versus a helpless Iowa offensive line.

Last year, there was little continuity as Stanley and Tyler Wiegers waged a battle to become the starting quarterback.

This year, signs of offensive life. And signs of play-makers.

Especially at running back.

Iowa looks like it’s got three good ones, all of them sophomores with bright futures.

We already knew about Toren Young, the presumed workhorse at 5-foot-11, 221 pounds.

“He may not be spectacular in any regard, but he’s very solid,” Brian Ferentz said Friday at Iowa’s annual media day. “And he’s probably the most trustworthy guy on the team.”

Young’s pitch count was limited Saturday, giving Kelly-Martin (5-10, 200) the majority of first-team reps. He looks to be the kind of all-purpose back Iowa is trying to replace in Akrum Wadley.

“He’s bigger than you think. He runs bigger than you think,” Brian Ferentz said. “Does a nice job between the tackles, does a nice job in space and is probably our fastest back in the open field.”

And then there’s Sargent.

The smallest of the three backs (listed 5-10, 200, but shorter than that) has been a revelation through eight practices.

“He’s not a tall guy, but he’s a big guy,” Brian Ferentz said. “And he runs with very good balance. And he runs with power in everything he does.”

Sargent uncorked a few long runs in Saturday’s scrimmage time, which lasted more than 90 minutes. He also made a nice grab up the left sideline for about a 25-yard gain.

But maybe what’s impressed Kirk Ferentz most about Sargent is what he’s done off the field since arriving from Iowa Western Community College in June. He reported that Sargent “knows what he doesn’t know” and has been hunkered down with running backs coach Derrick Foster, trying to fast-track his understanding of things.

“The last three or four days, we’ve really started to see him build momentum,” the head coach said. “He was OK early. But when you’re not sure what you’re doing, you’re not as decisive as a player. The last two days, we’ve seen him hit it pretty good.”

One of Stanley’s most impressive finds of the day was to ... a running back.

He connected with Young, who had squirted out of the backfield out of a shotgun formation, for a 25-yard gain in wide-open space over the middle.

Yes, Stanley also found his tight ends Saturday; four of them had catches.

The wide receivers still have to join the party (all are invited to, Kirk Ferentz said), but they’re much further along than they were at this time in 2017.

Nick Easley (reliable hands) and Smith-Marsette (fastest guy on the team) have shown the most to like in that group. 

There’s still no need to start Big Ten Conference championship parade plans. We’re talking about an offense that ranked 117th out of 130 FBS teams a year ago.

But three weeks out from the season opener against Northern Illinois, I think there's a lot to like in this Hawkeye offense.

“I am cautiously optimistic that we have some pieces in place," Brian Ferentz said. "But until we see it happen on Saturdays this fall, I remain cautiously optimistic.”

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.