Leistikow: Iowa coaches, media have an eye on these 5 spring-football position battles

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — College football media coverage is naturally plentiful from preseason camps in August through the bowl bonanza of December and early January.

But there’s an additional month on the calendar that has become increasingly valuable for fans and media to gather information about their favorite college football team: April.

April brings the culmination of spring football, a season in which nobody loses an official game. Optimism is high across the country. And even where there are roster questions, there is some excitement in finding the answers.

In Iowa City, the Hawkeyes are just getting under way. Their first of 15 NCAA-permitted spring practices was Wednesday. What happens this month will go a long way in shaping how the 2019 team looks.

Also this month, nine Iowa football assistant coaches plus strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle will meet with the media. That blitz begins Tuesday, with linebackers coach Seth Wallace and defensive line coach Kelvin Bell.

With that in mind, here are five position areas that we on the outside (and coaches on the inside) will be eyeing this month.

A.J. Epenesa (94) and Cedrick Lattimore (95) figure to be starters on Iowa's 2019 defensive line. But they're going to need some backups, too, and the Hawkeyes are feverishly trying to find some.

No. 1: Who will be the next middle linebacker?

Wallace and defensive coordinator Phil Parker have a big project on their plates this spring, but the good news is there are proven options.

Iowa was spoiled with Josey Jewell manning middle linebacker for three dominant years. In 2018, senior Jack Hockaday emerged as a one-year stopgap.

Now … an open canvas.

The signal-caller of Iowa's defense is imperative, especially with so many gaps to fill elsewhere. (More on those soon.)

Will senior Kristian Welch (6-foot-3, 239 pounds), the current listed starter, be another one-year solution? With his outside linebacker spot being mostly phased out, could junior Nick Niemann (6-4, 235) slide into that role for two years? Or is there a path for a possible four-year starting middle linebacker with talented red-shirt freshman Dillon Doyle (6-3, 233)?

What happens at this position will have a domino effect on the rest of the defense.

No. 2: Who is the No. 3 defensive end? No. 3 defensive tackle?

As much as you would enjoy seeing A.J. Epenesa play every snap in 2019, that’s just not possible. Same goes for Chauncey Golston. That duo gives Iowa a great starting point at defensive end, but the first big task for Bell — now firmly in charge of the defensive line after Reese Morgan’s retirement — is to find one or two more.

Among those practicing now, red-shirt freshman John Waggoner (6-5, 267) would seem to have a biggest opportunity. The Dowling Catholic alum experienced one of Iowa's biggest offseason weight gains — up 22 pounds (from 245), a sign that he’s been doing good things behind the scenes.

Graduate transfer Zach VanValkenburg (6-4, 265), who has two years of eligibility, will arrive this summer. Head coach Kirk Ferentz brought him up in last week's news conference, so hopes are high there, too, for an instant-impact option.

At defensive tackle, all eyes are on sophomore Daviyon Nixon (6-3, 306) to become more than a depth piece to complement listed senior starters Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff. Nixon is such a wild card, though, that prepping guys like freshman Noah Shannon (6-0, 294) and junior Austin Schulte (6-4, 287) are important spring tasks as well.

No. 3: Who is the answer at center?

Offensive line coach Tim Polasek meets the media April 9, and he’ll be able to update us on the progress of freshman Tyler Linderbaum — currently listed as the backup to Cole Banwart after switching from defensive tackle in December.

Coaches see great potential in Linderbaum (6-3, 285), but the Solon product is obviously raw. In a perfect world, Linderbaum would seize the starting center job and allow Banwart (6-4, 300) to slide back to guard. Currently, Iowa lists seniors Landan and Levi Paulsen (both 6-5, 305) as the starting guards.

There’s time here, but this spring session will give coaches a much better idea if they should plan for Banwart or Linderbaum to snap balls to quarterback Nate Stanley on Aug. 31 against Miami of Ohio.

At Iowa, center is to the offensive line what middle linebacker is to the defense. What transpires at this position will dictate just how good Iowa’s blocking can be in 2019.

No. 4: Who becomes the quarterback of the future?

Quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe is on the docket for April 16, and by then he’ll have seen nine spring practices from red-shirt sophomore Peyton Mansell, red-shirt freshman Spencer Petras and true freshman Alex Padilla.

Stanley, a third-year starter, holds the keys to Iowa’s offense for 2019. But it’s wide open for 2020, and these three guys will benefit from high-volume, low-pressure spring reps to demonstrate their skills.

Of the three, Petras is the most intriguing. He has the size (6-5, 230) and arm strength to be a prototypical trigger man for Iowa's pro-style offense.

O’Keefe typically won’t heap glowing praise on young players, so we might have to wait until Iowa’s open practice in August for clarity at backup quarterback. Shortly after that, Iowa will make a decision about who is No. 2 behind Stanley.

No. 5: Who can be Iowa’s ‘cash’ defender?

On April 23, Parker will take to the lectern. Last week, Ferentz said the 4-2-5 defense is now Iowa’s “DNA” — and that makes the “cash” linebacker one of the most important positions on the team.

Amani Hooker perfected it last season, but he’ll be on an NFL roster by the end of the month. When I interviewed Parker in February, he mentioned senior Michael Ojemudia (6-1, 200), junior Matt Hankins (6-0, 185) and freshman D.J. Johnson (5-10, 183) as the front-runners to be Iowa’s “cash” player in 2019.

This player needs to have the savvy to blitz, the physical tools to set the edge against the run and the quickness to cover wide receivers. That player is tough to find, and this spring offers Parker a better chance to get comfortable with that person entering August camp. Once again, whoever settles here will help determine who Iowa’s starting cornerbacks and safeties might be.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.