Leistikow's thoughts: Ferentz eyes senior breakouts; in-state recruiting plan revealed

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

As Saturday’s youth football camp with the Iowa Hawkeyes wrapped up at Johnston Middle School, a boy innocently asked a question to the 14 or so senior players in attendance.

“Have any of you ever scored a touchdown?”

The Hawkeyes looked around at each other, dumbfounded. Nobody raised his hand. 

Fourth-year quarterback Nate Stanley was the only one that should have. He has one rushing TD in his career, a QB sneak at Purdue. (I didn’t remember, either, until I looked it up.)

The point was, though, that the Hawkeyes’ senior class is largely without star power. It’s fair to call them unproven.

After Stanley, cornerback Michael Ojemudia has the most career starts among Iowa seniors with 10. After that, it’s tight end Nate Wieting (seven starts), defensive tackle Cedrick Lattimore (six), linebacker Kristian Welsh (six) and offensive lineman Levi Paulsen (three).

Fresh off losing four early entries to the NFL Draft, Iowa’s best players for the 2019 season are largely expected to be third-year players like Tristan Wirfs, A.J. Epenesa and Geno Stone.

Head coach Kirk Ferentz always seems to find a few senior “stories” — guys who didn’t do much for three or four years, then broke out in their last chance. Ross Reynolds, Sam Brincks and Jack Hockaday were three prime examples in 2018.

“You hope there are a couple of those stories out there,” Ferentz said.

He was asked if he saw some emerging. And he pointed to twin offensive linemen Levi and Landan Paulsen as having strong springs. Landan, who has never started a game, was the first-team left guard in the team’s final spring practice a week earlier. Levi was starting right tackle with regular Tristan Wirfs sidelined.

“Those guys have worked extremely hard. Levi’s played more than Landan and when he’s been in there, he’s played well,” Ferentz said. “And then Landan, I think, has really improved these past 12 months. He’s kind of on the rise right now. It wouldn’t shock me if both those guys won jobs.”

Wieting also seems to be getting some breakout love.

The fifth-year senior tight end has three career catches but reminds his coach of Henry Krieger Coble — who caught 35 passes for 405 yards in 2015 as the No. 1 tight end. The No. 2 that year was a guy named George Kittle.

Wieiting certainly has his opportunity now, after playing last fall behind first-round NFL Draft picks T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant.

“I always felt like Henry was just a really good player. Maybe didn’t have blazing speed,” Ferentz said. “… But I think (Nate’s) got the skill set to be a really good, versatile, all-around tight end for us.

“He’s had a knack in practice of making clutch, tough catches. That’s how I remember Henry being as well.”

While maybe not a “breakout” candidate, kudos to Devonte Young for sticking with it.

As a true freshman, Young cracked Iowa’s wide-receiver rotation. But he never caught a pass.

Now going into his senior year, Young is a defensive player. He switched positions (to safety) and jersey numbers (from No. 80 to No. 17) in the middle of last season. While he is probably contending for a backup safety role, he’s embracing the idea that he could be a centerpiece for special-teams coordinator LeVar Woods.

“Coach Woods sees something in me,” Young said.

Being a core special-teamer requires dedication, Young noted.

“It’s just like offense and defense. You’ve got to watch film,” he said. “One false step at any position can make a difference on special teams. That can be like a turnover.”

Good for Young for embracing whatever’s best for the team. He didn’t make it as a receiver. But he still has one more chance to make an impact.

As Ferentz put it for all his seniors: “The more contributions we can get from guys in this class, the better off we’ll be.”

Ferentz seems very pleased with the hiring of Jay Niemann as an assistant coach.

The addition was announced Wednesday night. Niemann, 58, will assist Kelvin Bell on the defensive line. He was one of two finalists for the job and impressed Ferentz across the board.

“The only negative I could find was the Iowa State thing. But Dan Gable overcame it, so I figure Jay’s in good shape that way,” Ferentz quipped, a reference to Iowa’s iconic former wrestling coach who competed collegiately at Iowa State — as Niemann did from 1979 to 1982. “We’re just really thrilled.”

Ferentz sees Niemann as an excellent defensive coach. His stops have included Drake, Northern Iowa, Simpson College (as head coach), Northern Illinois and Rutgers. He played high school ball in Avoca. His sons, Ben and Nick, played linebacker under Ferentz.

“He’s a really good person. We got to see the personal side of that through recruiting,” Ferentz said. “And on top of that, a nice Iowa connection.”

Niemann will earn $280,000 in base salary, according to an offer sheet acquired through the freedom-of-information act. He was making $478,000 as Rutgers’ defensive coordinator last season before being let go.

Senior linebacker Kristian Welch works with one of the 400 kids that participated in Saturday's youth football camp at Johnston Middle School.

So, about the plan to replace Reese Morgan’s legendary in-state recruiting?

“I always joked with Reese it was going to take three guys to replace him,” Ferentz said of Morgan, who retired in March after 19 years on staff. “And in some ways, that’s going to be true.”

Ferentz pointed Outback Bowl heroes Nick Easley and Jake Gervase as an illustration of the key for Iowa's staff to understand how to recruit the state. Both were walk-ons recruited by Morgan.

The plan without Morgan: Four coaches will actively recruit the state.

“But Jay will have the biggest part of it, and I think he’s really very comfortable with that,” Ferentz said. “Having grown up here, playing high school football here. And he’s coached in the state so much; there’s a comfort level there.”

Woods will patrol western Iowa; outgoing recruiting coordinator Bell will handle a section of northeast Iowa; offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz is responsible for eastern Iowa. And Niemann has the rest, including talent-rich central Iowa.

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.