Final thoughts from Iowa football interviews: Hawkeyes to rotate three tackles in opener

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — We made it. After all the offseason chatter about Iowa football, we can talk about an actual game taking place this week — Saturday’s 2:40 p.m. kickoff against Northern Illinois.

If you’re coming to the game, you’ll get to experience (or look at) the reconstructed Kinnick Stadium North end zone. About 2,500 tickets remain for this one, with just a few singles remaining for the rest of the September schedule against Iowa State, Northern Iowa and Wisconsin.

If you’re watching on TV Saturday, tune into the Big Ten Network.

Quarterback Nate Stanley's command of the Iowa offense in his second year is one of the key stories to watch Saturday against Northern Illinois.

But with a game week comes game-week interviews. And here’s some of the main stuff that came about Tuesday from Hawkeye head coach Kirk Ferentz and his players:

Two new starters at tackle, but three will play.

Even though freshman Mark Kallenberger (left tackle) and senior Dalton Ferguson (right) were listed as starters on Monday’s depth-chart release, Ferentz said on the Big Ten teleconference Tuesday that those two plus junior Levi Paulsen will be part of a rotation.

“I guess we probably listed two guys, but we’ll probably rotate all three guys in there,” Ferentz said. “… I kind of see them all on an equal plane right now, and hopefully they’ll be ready to go Saturday.”

If there’s no separation between the three, is that cause for concern? Hard to say until we see them in action. And maybe the coaching staff just wants to see which two of the three performs better in front of 60,000-plus.

But it’s probably safe to say that suspended tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs will be welcomed back with open in arms in Week 2 against Iowa State.

RELATED:True freshmen to make impact on defense. What else we learned at Iowa's media session

Dalton Ferguson's rise is a cool story.

The fifth-year senior from Solon figures to make his first career start Saturday, his first meaningful action. While Ferguson wasn’t here for interviews Tuesday, his teammates spoke for him.

Fellow fifth-year lineman Keegan Render, the starting center, beamed when talking about Ferguson, saying how he takes detailed notes in the meeting room.

“Paying attention to detail and trying to take that out on the field is what’s catapulted ‘Ferg’ up,”  Render said. "I couldn’t be more proud of him.”

Ferguson has recovered from major knee surgery to get his chance to shine. And recently, Ferentz moved him and three other walk-ons — No. 2 wide receiver Kyle Groeneweg, backup fullback Austin Kelly, No. 3 tight end Nate Wieting — to scholarship status.

“That’s what’s so cool about Iowa. We’re about developing guys,” Paulsen said. “You never know when your time’s going to be. It could be your first year, it could be your fifth year.”

Well said.

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We were reminded Tuesday: The depth chart isn't always right. In one of the day's comical moments, Ferentz was caught off guard when asked about how Ryan Gersonde won the starting job at punter. 

"Boy, I gotta check that depth chart. You got a copy of one of those?" Ferentz mused, before informing assembled media that Colten Rastetter had actually earned the No. 1 spot — even though he was listed No. 2.

"That shows you how into depth charts I am," Ferentz added.

He did say the punting battle, like others, remains tight ... but that both left-footers were well ahead of where they were a year ago, when Iowa ranked 13th in the Big Ten Conference in punting. 

Nate Stanley is ready to lead.

I feel like I’ve written plenty of stories about Iowa’s junior quarterback this offseason.

But as he did interviews Tuesday, I couldn’t help but remember a year ago that Stanley appeared uncomfortable when talking to reporters, perhaps lacking confidence that he was saying the right things.

Now, he’s got total command of interviews — and, Iowa coaches think, the Hawkeye offense. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz is trusting the entire offense to Stanley this fall. Unlike a lot of other schools that make play-call changes from the sidelines, Iowa relies on the quarterback to read things at the line of scrimmage.

“It’s good pressure. Obviously, being a Division I athlete, you want that pressure,” Stanley said. “If you don’t, then nothing special is really going to happen.”

Top receiver Nick Easley sees a markedly better quarterback than in 2017, when Stanley was quite good — 26 touchdown passes versus six interceptions.

It’ll be fun to see how New Nate comes off Saturday.

“He feels like it’s his offense,” Easley said. “I think he’ll do great.”

A linebacker rotation? Not out of the question, except for Amani Jones. The junior seems solidly entrenched at middle linebacker, with daunting shoes to fill in consensus all-American Josey Jewell.

Flanking him to start Saturday’s game will be sophomore Nick Niemann (outside) and junior Kristian Welch (weak-side). But that could change as the game goes on.

“It’s like anything, you never know until you get on the game field how the guys are going to play,” Ferentz said, adding that he still sees a four- to six-player scrum to be among the top three at linebacker.

Sophomore Barrington Wade, senior Jack Hockaday and redshirt freshman Djimon Colbert are the listed backups for now, and Ferentz also said true freshman Dillon Doyle is challenging for time.

Ferentz noted that in 2008, Pat Angerer was in a backup role until emerging near the middle of the season. He eventually became a program star at middle linebacker.

For now, though, three guys have earned the first crack.

“If a guy’s out there Saturday and playing well,” Ferentz noted, “he’s not coming out.”

Iowa's new return man is bigger and still confident. Sophomore Ihmir Smith-Marsette arrived at Iowa weighing 159 pounds. Basically a year later, the wide receiver is being entrusted with an extremely important job — punt- and kick-return man.

That Smith-Marsette has earned this job (Groeneweg might be back there, too) speaks to the progress he’s demonstrated on and off the field. He’s bulked up to about 176 pounds, he said, and (according to him) has only gotten faster.

The return-man role is something Iowa desperately needs someone to be good at; Josh Jackson and Matt VandeBerg struggled in the punt-return game, in particular, last season. Smith-Marsette wanted the role as a true freshman, but had to wait his turn.

Now his plan is to be decisive and wreak havoc.

“To go out there and put the team in a good position," Smith-Marsette said, "and let the offense go to work from there.”

By the way, you usually like to know which true freshmen are playing in the opener. So here they are, according to Ferentz: Doyle, wide receiver Nico Ragaini, defensive tackle Tyler Linderbaum and defensive backs Julius Brents and Riley Moss.

There you go. Now let's get to the game.

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.