IOWA CITY, Ia. — It's finally time for the Iowa football staff to turn its sole attention toward beating Northern Illinois.
The Sept. 1 opener is coming fast. But the gameplanning for the pesky Mid-American Conference Huskies had to wait during fall training camp. Starting with their first practice Aug. 3, the Hawkeyes have been relentlessly focused on fundamentals, learning which puzzle pieces fit where and building chemistry for the fall grind ahead.
It's been a newsy stretch. A lot of questions have been answered; others (like who is starting at offensive tackle Week 1) haven't been.
Here are some of my biggest finishing thoughts from the Hawkeyes' fall camp that was.
1. The suspensions talk indeed seems like it’ll be a “blip,” as head coach Kirk Ferentz hoped.
Although the early stages of fall camp were clouded by news of Brandon Snyder’s abrupt program departure and four Week 1 suspensions to important linemen, those clouds have since lifted.
The best thing Iowa’s coaches did was let their four suspended guys — starting offensive tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs and top-three defensive tackles Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff — face reporters on the team’s Aug. 10 media day.
“I couldn't be more proud and happy with the way the guys have handled this whole thing,” Ferentz said then.
Strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle said correctly that all young people make mistakes (some bigger than others), adding that the “ones that learn from it move forward and become successful people.”
Wirfs, in particular, was extremely remorseful in interviews, feeling like he let the team down. Iowa needs the young, promising behemoth to come back strong — and I expect he will. Wirfs can be a top-end NFL Draft pick in a few years.
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2. I’m especially encouraged by the response from Brady Reiff.
The oldest of the four suspended parties — the one who got into a cop car while intoxicated thinking it was an Uber — talked about the embarrassment of his mistake and lamented how he’d probably watch the first Hawkeye game on television.
“There’s not a lot of room for error now, for me,” Reiff said then. “I’ve just got to keep grinding.”
By all accounts, he’s been true to his word. Unprompted this week, defensive coordinator Phil Parker lauded what Reiff has done in fall camp. Don’t underestimate how important it is for Iowa’s defensive line to have that undersized glue guy with a motor that doesn’t quit. It had one the last few years in Nathan Bazata, and Reiff (at 6-foot-3 and 272 pounds) could be that guy in 2018.
If he can bounce back, that’s good for him, good for the Hawkeyes.
3. On to the games: Look for more home-run swings from the offense.
Yes, you read that correctly.
The buzz in fall camp has been surrounding the explosion of available playmakers for offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz.
He simply didn’t have them on the outside last year, nor did he have much backfield depth behind Akrum Wadley. Now he’s got both, with sophomore receivers Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette, in particular, having big camps.
“Now what we can do is what we really want to do — not necessarily anything differently,” Brian Ferentz said this week. “If you look at how we’ve played in the past, there’s certain games where if you cannot throw the ball down the field (probably a 2017 reference) or you’re unwilling to throw the ball down the field (probably 2016, in Greg Davis’ last year), it gets really hard offensively to move the football.”
Oh, and he’s got the quarterback to pull the trigger on the deep ball in big-armed Nate Stanley.
Iowa ranked 121st in total offense in 2016, 117th in 2017. Expect a sizable improvement in 2018.
4. Speaking of big-play threats … get to know Ivory Kelly-Martin.
I’m sold on IKM, good health permitting, having a breakout year.
First, Brian Ferentz on media day spoke highly of the sophomore running back being surprisingly “big” between the tackles … “and is probably our fastest back in the open field.”
Then, Kelly-Martin flashed during the Kids Day open practice.
And finally this week, Iowa’s offensive coordinator made a surprise revelation that Kelly-Martin — not listed No. 1 Toren Young — is the favorite to start against Northern Illinois.
At 5-11 and 200 pounds, Kelly-Martin is a slightly bigger version of Wadley. Kelly-Martin showed pop in 2017, averaging 9.2 yards on his 20 carries.
His rise, Young’s ground-and-pound frame (5-11, 221) and the arrival of impressive juco transfer Mekhi Sargent (5-10, 200) equals a more complete and potent collection of Hawkeye running backs than I anticipated.
5. And now for the obligatory lavishing of praise on Iowa’s tight ends.
Noah Fant is being mentioned as a possible first-round NFL Draft pick. This week, he was named a preseason Associated Press all-American.
The true junior is getting so much hype now, it’ll be almost impossible to live up to all of it. He’s an athletic freak, yeah, but he’s still just 20 years old.
Although he tied for the Big Ten lead a year ago with 11 touchdown receptions, he’s going to have a hard time repeating that feat — because, as mentioned, Iowa has many more proficient pieces around him.
That list includes his fellow tight ends. Iowa is legitimately five deep at this position. This group is so flexible and versatile that Brian Ferentz can comfortably deploy three tight-end sets — and have confidence in throwing out of them.
What a benefit that might be ...
6. If the pass rush doesn’t come through, it’s going to be a long year.
Last year, Iowa’s defense had the luxury of an all-American middle linebacker in Josey Jewell and an FBS-high 21 interceptions (most coming from the Josh Jackson-led secondary). And that defense still wasn’t great.
This year, with a totally revamped and inexperienced back seven, it’s all about the D-line.
Parker thinks the group of ends (led by Anthony Nelson, Parker Hesse and A.J. Epenesa — some of the program’s top players) will be able to create enough havoc with batted balls and pressures (possibly creating lost fumbles?) to offset an expected drop in interceptions.
A team with a dominant defensive line can allow the back seven to play free. If Iowa’s D-line is average, Hawkeye fans better hope their offense is really good.
7. Iowa’s punting game will be better.
Although that’s not saying much.
Of 107 qualifying punters in the FBS last year, Colten Rastetter’s 37.8 yards a punt ranked No. 106. And Ryan Gersonde was inconsistent and injured in relief. The two left-footers continued their battle for the No. 1 job this week.
“They’ve drastically improved from last year to this year,” special-teams coach LeVar Woods said.
“Drastically” better … now that would be saying something.
8. There’s good depth … except where there’s not.
Position groups that are in good shape if there’s an injury — running back, tight end, maybe wide receiver, defensive line, safety and kicker.
Position groups that might be OK — offensive line, linebacker and cornerback.
Position groups that would be in big trouble — quarterback. That's it. (But, gulp.)
No slight to Peyton Mansell or Spencer Petras, but the two freshmen can’t possibly have near the mastery of the offense that Stanley does. Iowa’s junior quarterback has had a strong camp and will be the team’s most important player in 2018. By a wide margin.
9. At least five true freshmen will play key roles.
Julius Brents’ rise seemingly came as a surprise, but maybe it shouldn’t have.
The true freshman from Indianapolis was named the No. 3 cornerback this week by Parker, and it wouldn’t be a shocker if he is starting at some point this season. Brents is Iowa’s first Rivals four-star defensive-back recruit in 11 years (a span that has produced the likes of Micah Hyde, Desmond King and Josh Jackson), and his speed and length (6-2, 180) offer a tantalizing combination.
These freshmen also emerged as probable instant contributors: defensive tackle Tyler Linderbaum (especially in Week 1), outside linebacker Seth Benson (special teams), defensive back Riley Moss (special teams) and wide receiver Nico Ragaini (special teams).
It's clear Iowa wants to get Petras some QB snaps, too, while trying to preserve his four years of eligibility under the NCAA's new redshirt rule.
There likely will be more, but those are the new names to know for now.
10. You’re going to love the north end zone.
Although capacity dropped about 1,300 as a result of the renovation (to 69,250), Kinnick Stadium is going to feel bigger and maybe louder than ever. The steep, three-tiered tower of concrete and steel has a menacing look — and that’s before fans climb into the new seats with improved leg room.
The whole shebang won’t be complete until next season, when the suites, restrooms and concession areas are finished. But it’s ready for occupancy Week 1.
Even Kirk Ferentz was impressed after recently practicing a few times in Kinnick, telling the Murph & Andy Show this week that “it really looms large.”
11. And that home-field advantage could help Iowa win the West.
It'll be especially important Sept. 22, when Wisconsin comes to town.
(I could give you 24 to 55 reasons how well that worked last time for a visiting top-five opponent.)
The Badgers are loaded, yes, but while Ohio State and Maryland are fighting larger program issues in the Big Ten East, West favorite Wisconsin is facing its own off-field troubles. Top receiver Quintez Cephus has been indefinitely suspended after criminal sexual-assault charges were filed against him over an incident that also involved Badgers receiver Danny Davis, who has been suspended for two games.
Plus, for what it’s worth, the Big Ten Network’s Gerry DiNardo came away from bus-tour visits thinking there wasn’t much of a gap between Wisconsin and its top challengers, such as Iowa and Nebraska, in the West.
If the Hawkeye culture is truly fine after their own off-field woes ...
And if Stanley is the best quarterback in the division as I expect he will be ...
... I like Iowa’s chances to win the Big Ten West more than I did when fall camp began.
Now, isn't it about time for some football?
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.