Iowa football: Big Ten Network's stop reveals optimism, new wrinkles and a concern
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The Big Ten Network’s annual bus stop in Iowa City brought with it the usual optimism ... and heavy rain.
And despite having a state-of-the-art indoor facility available, Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz was more than happy to send his players — and the BTN’s camera crew and analysts — outdoors.
“Last year, we never got an opportunity to work in the rain. It would always blow out (of the area), or something would happen,” Ferentz explained during the one-hour special that aired Monday night. “… To me, it was a good change-up for us. At some point, playing in the Midwest, we’re going to face that sometime during the fall.”
The BTN special noted ball-security issues that got cleaned up as Monday’s soggy practice went along. Although everything said on the show should be placed in the context of this being a small glimpse of fall training camp, there were some notable things worth mentioning.
Here we go …
What analysts said about Iowa and the (wild?) Big Ten West
Perhaps the most notable observation from one of the BTN talking heads was longtime analyst Gerry DiNardo saying he didn’t see a wide gap between West Division favorite Wisconsin and some of the other contenders.
“I can't say I'm buying into the thinking that Wisconsin has separated itself from the other two all that much,” DiNardo said on Twitter, referring to Iowa and Nebraska. “West will be wild this year, and we haven't been to Northwestern and Purdue yet.”
BTN studio host Dave Revsine touted good things about sophomore wide receiver Brandon Smith and junior middle linebacker Amani Jones. We’ve heard similar praise about both young players who are being counted on to elevate their under-the-microscope position groups.
Jones' hype seems to be legit
Before the BTN show aired Monday, Iowa’s video staff released a two-part “Break the Rock” fall camp video special. The program was willing to put the spotlight (and microphone) on four players — quarterback Nate Stanley (obviously), tight end Noah Fant (ditto), safety Amani Hooker (who had a breakout 2017 campaign) … and Jones, who has zero career starts.
The fact that Jones was in the spotlight says a lot about how highly the Hawkeye staff thinks of the heir apparent to all-American Josey Jewell.
“To have an inside presence like him from a physicality standpoint is a big part of what we need defensively,” position coach Seth Wallace said in that two-part series.
During the BTN show, defensive coordinator Phil Parker echoed his excitement about what Jones has brought to the middle of Iowa's 4-3 alignment but didn't name a starter at weak-side linebacker in the derby between junior Kristian Welch and redshirt freshman Djimon Colbert.
Parker added that presumed outside linebacker starter Nick Niemann could also slide to the weak side, as sophomore Barrington Wade continues to have a strong fall camp as the backup outside linebacker.
"We're very pleased with what they're doing right now," Parker said of his linebackers, "and where their improvement is going in the past 10 or 15 days."
New-look offense in Iowa City?
OK, let's not go that far.
But DiNardo recapped his visit by saying he was more impressed by the offensive line than he expected and that Iowa had three capable sophomore running backs (referring to Toren Young, Ivory Kelly-Martin and Mekhi Sargent) plus Fant at tight end that could create mismatches.
"I think we're going to see a lot more formations, especially on first-and-10," DiNardo said, "than we've seen in the past."
Fans will like the sound of that.
During his time on the BTN set, Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz referred to a play during Monday's practice in which Stanley "got a protection change, made an adjustment on the fly, and we were able to hit a big play. Just little things like that, I think we’re light years ahead of where we were (in 2017)."
New formations? We'll see. A better offense than 2017? Signs remain positive.
Thinking hard about the redshirt rule
Kirk Ferentz said his staff held a personnel meeting Sunday to discuss which true freshmen might be able to take advantage of NCAA legislation that allows a player to redshirt one time if he plays four or fewer games in a season.
"Some of the guys we may want to look at early," Ferentz said Monday. "And then there are other guys we could see later in the season getting involved.”
'A depth problem' in the back end
Both Revsine and the BTN's Howard Griffith expressed excitement about sophomore defensive end A.J. Epenesa. Revsine said he's "going to be a great one," and Griffith predicted: "This is going be his breakout season.”
Although these BTN shows are eternally positive (as you would expect from a conference-run network), the feedback that was communicated on last year’s Iowa show — that juniors Josh Jackson and James Daniels were flashing, that Stanley would win the QB job over Tyler Wiegers and that the receiver group looked iffy — turned out to be pretty darn accurate.
So the one criticism offered Monday was especially notable.
DiNardo said cornerback (where Jackson and Manny Rugamba departed) looked like "a depth problem" based on Monday's practice.
Stay tuned again.
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.