Leistikow: Evaluating Iowa's progress as spring football enters final week
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Pretty soon, college football will again go back behind the curtain. Spring practices are either finished at most campuses or wrapping up — including at Iowa, which is entering its final week before the pads and helmets are packed away for three months.
It’s been an informative four weeks in Iowa City. Head coach Kirk Ferentz and eight assistants have been made available for about 30 minutes each to media members — coordinators Brian Ferentz and Phil Parker will complete the circuit Tuesday. And dozens of players have been interviewed as we aim to frame the feel and potential of the 2019 Hawkeyes.
While we won’t be able to report back with any (actual) hard-hitting evidence until Friday night (April 26) — when Iowa will open its final practice to media and players’ family members — we have learned quite a bit so far.
To organize some of the spring returns, let's break it down into eight position groups.
Nate Stanley is the unquestioned starter. It’s a good thing for Iowa that he chose to return for his senior year, instead of following Noah Fant, T.J. Hockenson, Amani Hooker and Anthony Nelson as NFL draft early entries. Peyton Mansell and Spencer Petras will continue to fight for the backup job through August.
What’s been encouraging: The staff is so comfortable with Stanley’s progress that it’s recently given the backups more reps with the No. 1 offense. Stanley has the potential to be elite as a senior.
Worth a pause: We’ve seen Stanley perform very well in his 26 career starts, but he’s had a few stinkers in big moments at big road venues (combined 26-of-73 at Wisconsin 2017 and Penn State 2018 with no offensive TDs). For Iowa to be great in 2019, Stanley needs to be consistently great.
While still relatively young here (Levi and Landan Paulsen are the only seniors), Iowa is assembling some big, talented bodies as it stacks together several strong recruiting classes. The present is bright; the future is even brighter.
What’s been encouraging: It’s rare that a program can enjoy two third-year starting tackles with NFL futures as Iowa does with 320-pounders Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs. Tyler Linderbaum has been one of the top spring stories; the redshirt freshman’s transition from defensive line to center is going well. Between that trio and Cole Banwart at right guard, Iowa should have four rock-solid starters in 2019.
Worth a pause: Fast development is needed at tackle, because it’s hard to imagine Jackson and Wirfs being here in 2020. Offensive line coach Tim Polasek was vocal in wanting to see more from Mark Kallenberger. Iowa likely will feel a drop-off at left guard with underappreciated Ross Reynolds gone.
This is one position that lacks a satisfying trajectory as spring practice nears a close. After a time share as sophomores, Mekhi Sargent, Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin (392 carries, 1,723 yards in 2018 — 4.4 per attempt) are again leading the group. Incoming freshman Tyler Goodson deserves a look in August to show what he can do; if he can change the game, give him the football.
What’s been encouraging: Position coach Derrick Foster has meticulously worked with each back on their vision; he doesn’t want them to miss big-play opportunities that were there in 2018. We haven’t seen the best yet from Kelly-Martin (injuries) and Sargent (going through his first spring).
Worth a pause: Progress seems probable, but we need to see a lot of it after the run game averaged just 3.95 yards a carry last fall.
A maligned position group for years might be poised for big things under third-year wide receivers coach Kelton Copleand. A breakthrough at receiver would help offset the losses of Hockenson and Fant at tight end.
What’s been encouraging: Slot receivers Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy Jr. — both redshirt freshmen who got a morsel of game experience last fall — have had the most skill-position buzz in spring practice. Copleand called Tracy's skill set “phenomenal” and Ragaini's "complete.” If they can live up to the hype and Brandon Smith takes the next step (as coaches expect) at the outside ("X") receiver, this offense could explode.
Worth a pause: Speedy Ihmir Smith-Marsette was singled out as lacking progress Iowa needs; he no doubt got the message. I also think tight end will be fine with Shaun Beyer and Nate Wieting, but they need to stay healthy.
While elite edge rusher A.J. Epenesa headlines this group, I ranked this position No. 1 among pre-spring concerns because of the lack of proven muscle at defensive tackle and the loss of position coach Reese Morgan. So, it was promising to hear Kirk Ferentz this week single out growth in the defensive line as perhaps the most pleasant surprise of spring practice.
What’s been encouraging: Just about everything that needed to go right this spring has gone right. Daviyon Nixon stuck with the team despite entering the NCAA transfer portal; he’s "rusty" (per Ferentz) but has the potential to be a needed anchor at tackle. Redshirt freshmen Noah Shannon and John Waggoner are rising fast. And veteran Austin Schulte has suddenly become a viable depth piece at tackle. Coaches are also bullish on incoming graduate transfer Zach VanValkenburg.
Worth a pause: Iowa’s tinkering with 3-4 looks took a hit with Amani Jones’ spring-ending ankle injury. We don’t yet know if Epenesa and Chauncey Golston can lock up the run game at defensive end like Nelson and Parker Hesse did.
The talk this spring has been how there are two primary starting jobs remaining after Iowa re-upped its commitment to a 4-2-5 base defense. Iowa lacks a star at this position, but the program can’t expect to have a Josey Jewell every year.
What’s been encouraging: Iron sharpens iron, and Ferentz singled out five front-runners for those two inside-linebacker starting spots: senior Kristian Welch, junior Nick Niemann, sophomore Djimon Colbert and freshmen Dillon Doyle and Seth Benson. Good recruiting symmetry there, too, that provides a base for a strong future.
Worth a pause: Someone needs to take charge at middle linebacker.
Phil Parker’s defensive-backs factory is humming along. A notable spring revelation is that fifth-year senior Michael Ojemudia and redshirt freshman D.J. Johnson are vying to succeed Amani Hooker as Iowa’s all-important “cash” linebacker. Also, Geno Stone said he prefers strong safety while being quarterback of the secondary — normally a role reserved for the free safety.
What’s been encouraging: Iowa developed so much young experience last season with Ojemudia, Matt Hankins, Riley Moss and Julius Brents that options are plentiful at cornerback. I thought Brents (up to 6-2, 200) was terrific when healthy last fall.
Worth a pause: Safety depth is a concern; which is why Ojemudia has been dabbling there, too. Sophomore Kaevon Merriweather is No. 1 at free safety but is an unknown.
Iowa’s punt game should get a major upgrade when graduate transfer Michael Sleep-Dalton arrives in June from Arizona State. Someone needs to replace Kyle Groeneweg’s effective punt returns.
What’s been encouraging: Miguel Recinos’ consistency on field goals and kickoffs probably went underappreciated. But special-teams coach LeVar Woods doesn’t seem to think there will be a big drop-off. Caleb Shudak and Keith Duncan are putting up good numbers. (Iowa’s fake game is also moving full speed ahead, Woods humorously confirmed.)
Worth a pause: Can Sleep-Dalton replicate his 43.4-yard punting average in the colder Midwest air?
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.