Chad Leistikow's 10 final thoughts from Iowa football fall camp
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa's fall football camp officially concluded Wednesday, and now it's time to hunker down on preparations for the Aug. 31 season opener against Miami of Ohio.
The Week 1 depth chart was released Friday, and Hawkeye players will go through their normal game-week routine. Film study on Sunday, morning practices Monday through Wednesday, a required off day Thursday, then touch-up work Friday.
But let's look back on what was a buzz-filled month in Hawkeye football, which included the team being ranked No. 19 by the coaches and No. 20 by The Associated Press in preseason polls. Here are some of the most noteworthy stories we'll keep following all season.
1. Let’s all take a deep breath when it comes to Nate Stanley.
As we know by now, the Big Ten Network Bus Tour this week didn’t provide warm fuzzies about Iowa’s third-year starting quarterback. So, he had a shaky practice … and, can confirm, he wasn’t great on Kids Day, either.
But there's no valid reason to panic.
The BTN guys saw Stanley operating with half a receiving corps on a vanilla day of practice. True, head coach Kirk Ferentz said that Stanley needs to loosen up and have more fun. True, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said he’s waiting until September to assess Stanley’s improvement.
“He’s a guy that’s progressed the way we want him to progress,” Brian Ferentz said. “But the whole key is going to be when we start playing games, seeing where everything’s at.”
Most of you know I’ve been a Stanley defender, a Stanley proponent … you might even say a Stanley believer. I rewatch most Iowa games 2-3 times, win or lose, just to absorb as much as good and bad as I can about this team. And I am continuously impressed at the little things Stanley does to push things in the right direction.
Yeah, he threw five touchdown passes against Iowa State and Ohio State as a sophomore. Six against Indiana as a junior. But dare I say he’s coming off maybe the most impressive game of his career against Mississippi State? His throws and decisions in that 214-yard passing game against the best defense in the country were precision-perfect. That’s what Iowa needs out of its quarterback.
Stanley is high on NFL Draft boards; that doesn’t just happen because he’s 6-foot-4 with a strong arm. He’s got a good head on his shoulders, too, and he’s a respected leader on this team. He's QB1 by a mile, and a good one at that. End of story.
2. There's evidence for optimism about Iowa's 1-2 running-back punch.
When Iowa coaches went to the tape and reevaluated the 2018 running backs, they realized that Toren Young was underutilized in a three-man committee. Another thing they noticed was that in Iowa’s two most effective rushing games of the season, Mekhi Sargent and Young comprised a potent 1-2 duo.
So, as fall camp progressed, their opinions were cemented: Two is better than three. For now, Ivory Kelly-Martin — last year’s No. 1 at this time — is No. 3. Maybe we'll see some true freshmen in spot duty. But the expectation is that Sargent and Young are set to carry the backfield workload as redshirt juniors.
It makes sense. Look at the stats. Against Illinois and Nebraska, Sargent had 43 carries for 295 yards (6.9 per carry) and Young had 32 for 150 (4.7) with a combined seven touchdowns.
Look for Iowa to roll with a Sargent-Young duo in Week 1 against Miami of Ohio. I like Young as a second-half battering ram against tiring defenses. If Iowa lucks out and both guys stay healthy … Kelly-Martin still had a redshirt year in his pocket.
3. Here’s a player you’re not excited about yet … but you soon will be.
Maybe you've heard that Iowa is the first team in college football history trying to replace two tight ends that were first-round picks in the same NFL Draft.
Not to worry, though. Really.
You’re going to love Nate Wieting. Yes, the same Nate Wieting who has three receptions in 29 career games.
The fifth-year senior has been dynamite during closed practices. Wieting has become a primary target in the passing game, a comforting outlet for Stanley with glue for hands.
We’ll probably see a lot of single-tight end sets this fall — with Wieting being that guy. If the receivers are as good as we think, then Wieting (who has made his mark as a blocker to date) could very well flourish. I think 30-plus receptions is well within reach.
“I might be crazy. I know he’s got three career catches. … But he’s played a lot,” Brian Ferentz said. “The reason he hasn’t had the catches is we’ve got two guys that just got drafted in the first round. It doesn’t mean he’s (bad).
“And we want to get the ball to our best players. Right now, he’s a guy that warrants getting the ball.”
4. Why aren’t we more worried about Iowa starting a freshman center?
Tyler Linderbaum on Aug. 31 will become Kirk Ferentz’s first freshman to start at center in 13 years. Yet he’s already gained the confidence of coaches and teammates that he’s the no-doubt guy, a leader beyond his years.
“The fact that we’re not sitting here talking about him is a real positive thing,” Brian Ferentz was saying the other day. “When I look at the experience I’ve had in coaching with first-year centers, the fact that it’s not a big story line is a positive.”
It’s gotten to the point where if Linderbaum gets hurt … that could be a problem. Cole Banwart, who was in a boot this week, would be the primary backup. After that, the situation gets dicey.
Linderbaum’s mean. He’s tough. And … he’s still young.
Shotgun-snap accuracy was an issue during the Kids Day scrimmage. Kirk Ferentz acknowledged that wasn’t a first-time problem. So, buckle up for some mistakes. But rest assured, he’s by far the best Iowa has at one of the team's most critical positions.
5. The Nico Ragaini hype is legit.
You hear something once, you check into it. You hear something twice, you start giving it more credibility. You hear something constantly and then you SEE it first-hand … then you’ve got confirmation.
Nico Ragaini, a redshirt freshman from Connecticut who was somewhat of an afterthought in the Class of 2018, is going to be a big part of this offense. It’s crazy to say that about a guy with one career catch (in mop-up duty) for seven yards. But here we are.
Finding open space is the key to any offense, and Ragaini has proven to coaches and Stanley he can get open quickly from the line of scrimmage. His precise routes and reliable hands were on display during the Kids Day at Kinnick practice (he unofficially led the team with seven catches for 82 yards, validating his eight-catch, 96-yard day at the final spring practice). Ragaini will operate out of the slot, and you’ll see him catch a lot of balls 3 to 7 yards off the line of scrimmage — much like Nick Easley did the last two years, except teammates insist he’s faster than Easley.
I see no reason to back down from my late-spring prediction that Ragaini will lead the Hawkeyes in receptions in 2019.
6. Kirk Ferentz probably bristled upon hearing about Mel Kiper Jr.’s 2020 big board.
Kiper, the longtime ESPN NFL Draft guru, this week projected defensive end A.J. Epenesa as the fifth overall pick and right tackle Tristan Wirfs seventh. That hype is the last thing Iowa’s head coach wants either player thinking about.
If they announce their pro intention in 4-5 months, they’ll follow the trend that James Daniels (second round), T.J. Hockenson (first round), Noah Fant (first round) and Amani Hooker (fourth round) have set in leaving Iowa after their third year.
Fans, enjoy them while they’re here.
Coaches, they’re going to try to get the most from them while they’re here. One of the ways they’re obviously trying to push each guy along is by publicly saying — in their own subtle tone — that neither has really arrived yet. Epenesa needs to become more complete; Wirfs needs to get meaner and more physical.
One positive thing, though, is clear: Epenesa going against Alaric Jackson and Chauncey Golston going against Wirfs has made all four players better. They’re also tired of going against each other and are ready to (try to) dominate someone else.
7. Phil Parker told me he’d prefer to rotate his defensive line (similar to hockey line shifts), as he did a year ago.
Before you groan and start thinking, “Great; that’ll cut into Epenesa’s snap count again,” remember that Parker kept starters Anthony Nelson and Parker Hesse in his third-and-long package a year ago, too, which escalated their playing time. I’d expect Epenesa (outside) and Chauncey Golston (inside) to be third-down guys in addition to their every-down responsibilities on the first team.
If Parker rotates eight again, the first unit will be last year’s second (from left to right): Golston, Cedrick Lattimore, Brady Reiff and Epenesa.
The second unit would definitely include tackle Daviyon Nixon, who was named by Parker as an emerging player in fall camp, along with (as listed) John Waggoner, Noah Shannon and Amani Jones. I would expect Jones to be a third-down guy, too, with his speed and tenacity off the edge.
I liked this explanation from Parker about the benefits of the D-line shifts.
“That kept guys fresh,” he said of 2018, when Iowa recorded the program’s highest sack total (35) in 16 years and intercepted a Big Ten-best 20 passes. “Which helps us in the back end more than a lot of people understand.”
8. It's too bad for Iowa that Amani Hooker turned pro.
Of the four early NFL losses, that one probably hurts the most. Imagine if Parker had the option of a Hooker/Geno Stone combo at safety with talented freshman D.J. Johnson holding down the cash position?
The consistent rumblings behind the scenes have been concerns about Iowa's free-safety position. The Hawkeyes were still searching for an answer there as fall camp closed. For now, Kaevon Merriweather appears to have held off a surge from walk-on Jack Koerner.
As long as free safety can be an average link instead of a weak one, Iowa's defense should be salty. Parker thinks the front four is the strength of the defense; assistant defensive coordinator Seth Wallace said this is the deepest group of linebackers he's had here.
9. Iowa's kicking game was a high offseason priority, and all signs are positive.
When Caleb Shudak and Keith Duncan combined to make all 13 live-action field-goal attempts during Kids Day, that was consistent with what coaches have seen for much of fall camp. Both walk-ons have been kicking well, giving special-teams coordinator LeVar Woods reassurance that placements will be in good hands (er, feet) after the departure of Miguel Recinos.
Don't be surprised to see both kickers play. A wise approach might be to see how they fare in games against Miami and Rutgers, then settle on one going forward. Shudak has the stronger leg for kickoffs, but both have been reliable on field goals of 50-plus yards.
Word is that graduate transfer Michael Sleep-Dalton has been doing well in practice (he was so-so on Kids Day), as has incumbent Colten Rastetter. With Sleep-Dalton earning the No. 1 job, Rastetter maintains value as an exceptional holder. Together, they help the kicking game — which Iowa will need to be successful. Lots of tight contests should be expected this fall.
(As a sidenote: Sleep-Dalton turns 27 in September! Talk about a veteran presence. He's more than halfway to AARP eligibility.)
10. I'll split this final thought into two.
No. 1, the reviews on the true freshmen class have been very encouraging. Their fast progress might not show up much this fall, but it bodes well for future roster strength. That's a testament to Iowa's recruiting strategy.
No. 2, now that the North end zone is fully complete ... man, it sure seems imposing. So steep. Standing on the field and looking up, with the new scoreboard in operation and shiny glass protecting the sweet-looking suites, it certainly is an impressive structure. If Kinnick Stadium is rocking, good luck to any opponent pinned back near the North stands.
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.