IOWA CITY, Ia. — Many sentences in the column you’re about to read should be accompanied by an asterisk. As in, please remember this was just one Iowa football practice out of 20-some this month.
Still, the Kids Day scrimmage at Kinnick Stadium was the only public chance to see the Iowa football team perform during the fall-camp lead-up to the regular season. It offers fans and media alike a chance to see which players are stepping up and what bears watching.
With that disclaimer, here are a bunch of observations (folded in with quotes gathered from coaches over the past few days) from Saturday's action:
1. Toren Young, in my opinion, was the No. 1 offensive star.
I could’ve picked Nico Ragaini, too. The freshman slot receiver continued to back up the hype he’s received since the spring with an unofficial seven catches for 82 yards. Ragaini offers quick feet and sharp route-running, much like Nick Easley did a year ago.
But back to Young.
The running back position is under the spotlight after a 2018 season that was largely void of big plays. There were a lot of go-nowhere runs a year ago in Iowa’s three-man committee. But when Young is given the ball, the runs always seem to go somewhere.
You hear the phrase “downhill runner” a lot in football, and Young seems to fit that description. He's consistently making headway. With yards hard to come by on the ground, Young was Mr. Reliable.
I had him carrying 11 times for 64 yards and two touchdowns, by far the best stats of any running back. The 5-foot-11, 223-pound junior brings a physical edge that fires up his teammates.
“He runs strong. He doesn’t mess around,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said afterward, echoing a realization that Young (who averaged 10.5 carries a game in 2018) needs more usage. “It’s pretty much north-south. That helps move the ball forward. As elementary as that sounds, it’s important.”
Mekhi Sargent is the listed No. 1 and got the first carries Saturday in a 1-hour, 53-minute scrimmage. But Young sure looked like a lead horse to me.
2. The day's defensive standout was no surprise: A.J. Epenesa.
I tweeted at one point that the hulking defensive end was on pace for a Drew Ott 2015 Kids Day performance. While Ott’s dominance that day will remain the gold standard, Epenesa was everywhere — especially the defensive backfield.
I credited him with three “sacks” (in which play stops after the quarterback is tagged), working against left tackles Alaric Jackson and Mark Kallenberger. He also made an amazingly athletic attempt at a diving interception off a tipped pass. (He believed he caught it; officials ruled the ball hit the ground.)
You don’t need me to tell you how good Epenesa is. But it should be reassuring that he’s looking like a monster entering his junior season.
By the way, his end-mate Chauncey Golston was a pest, too. He tipped at least two passes and had a sack. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker called the defensive line the strength on that side of the ball, and it’s easy to see why.
3. Some really good news Saturday: The place-kickers were a perfect 13-for-13 on field goals.
(Now paging the Chicago Bears.)
Caleb Shudak and Keith Duncan passed every test thrown their way Saturday. They were each given six similar kicks — ranging from 30 to 50 yards on right and left hash marks. One would go, then the other, in between scrimmage action. They never missed. Their leg strength is obvious, too; they can comfortably hit from 50-plus.
As the day wrapped up, a Spencer Petras-led 2-minute drill set up a straight-on 45-yarder — with the pressure that the kick would decide a fictional game. Shudak got the call — and drilled it, completing a perfect day for the kickers as they battle to replace departed Miguel Recinos.
“That’s probably indicative of the way they’ve been practicing,” Ferentz said. “They had their ups and downs in the spring, but they’re focused and concentrating. It’ll be interesting to see how it goes. Maybe both of them will help us.”
4. How about a second kicking hot take?
It may seem like a minor thing, but consider me impressed with punter Michael Sleep-Dalton’s pooch kicks.
He launched one beauty of 51 yards that stopped dead at the 1-yard line. I think he’ll eventually be the starting punter, but Ferentz said that competition is ongoing with incumbent Colten Rastetter.
5. Saturday served as a reminder that last year’s tight ends are in the NFL.
During one early play Saturday, tight ends Nate Wieting and Shaun Beyer collided on a pass pattern and were slow to get up. Before the next snap, Beyer was flagged for a false start.
Wieting, though, was the day's most impressive tight end — unofficially catching six passes for 51 yards and the day’s only touchdown. It's obvious that he has a connection with Nate Stanley.
Drew Cook caught four passes for 44 yards as the third tight end, mostly against reserves. Beyer didn’t have a catch.
6. This may be the only time we see Oliver Martin play in 2019. But...
... He sure put on a show, with what I would call the catch of the day, a 22-yarder up the right sideline in which he leaped between defensive backs Terry Roberts and Dallas Craddieth and pulled down the ball while staying in bounds. It was a high-level play and a reminder that this Michigan transfer is really talented. I was impressed all day with his crisp routes and reliable hands.
Martin ran with the No. 2 offense (usually in three-wide sets with Tyrone Tracy Jr. and Calvin Lockett) and finished with four catches for 35 yards. He's learning fast as he awaits his NCAA eligibility fate.
7. Redshirt freshman D.J. Johnson looks like a good fit at the cash position.
One of the things Parker wants from that hybrid guy in the 4-2-5 base defense is a knack for blitzing; and Johnson showed that with a fast burst to “sack” Peyton Mansell.
8. True freshman Dane Belton is getting a hard look at safety.
My ears perked up when Parker said Friday he saw a resemblance between Belton and former Hawkeye Amani Hooker, last year’s Big Ten defensive back of the year. Hooker was a backup safety and played special teams as a true freshman; it seems like that’s the trajectory of Belton’s early path.
Belton will get a longer look this week, with backup free safety Jack Koerner out with a muscle injury.
“He’s a good athlete. He wants to study football,” Parker said. “… I’m not saying he’s going to be Hooker, but he’s capable of playing at that level.”
9. Backup linebackers Seth Benson and Jayden McDonald made splash plays.
That kind of presence further down the depth chart was indicative of the quality linebackers coach Seth Wallace sees in his room.
“This is probably as deep as we’ve been at the linebacker position,” Wallace said. “I would say that if we are still basing out of a 4-3 defense.”
Kristian Welch, Djimon Colbert, Nick Niemann and Dillon Doyle are the top four linebackers for now, but a host of others are pushing hard — including true freshmen Jestin Jacobs, Jack Campbell and Yahweh Jeudy.
10. Before the scrimmage, 14th-year athletics director Gary Barta talked to the media.
This was his first interview since it was announced this week he received a contract extension through 2024 and a large pay raise.
“This job was a dream come true when I got it,” Barta said. “Now, if my dream (continues), I’ll retire here. So I really appreciate it.”
The most newsy thing to come from our eight minutes with Barta was a positive sense that the Oct. 12 Penn State game will be played at night. It’s up to the TV networks, but a big-brand team coming to Kinnick Stadium should be an attractive draw.
“Whoever gets the selection for that game will probably give it a high possibility of being a night game,” Barta said. “The network executives see the TV ratings on a night game in Kinnick Stadium, especially against Penn State or Michigan in recent years.”
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.