Leistikow thoughts: Inspiring outlooks from Iowa role players Amani Jones, Levi Paulsen

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa will honor 19 departing seniors before Saturday’s home football game against Illinois, the last of their Hawkeye careers at Kinnick Stadium.

Outside of quarterback Nate Stanley and perhaps linebacker Kristian Welch, there aren’t a lot of stars in the group. A fullback, two long snappers, two punters and two tight ends are among the 19.

This is largely a class of role players.

Amani Jones is one of them. Levi Paulsen is another.

One came to Iowa City from the south side of Chicago; the other from the tiny town of Moville (population 1,500) in northwest Iowa.

Neither will play a prominent role against the Illini.

But, as they stood for perhaps their final interviews as Hawkeyes on Tuesday at the Hansen Football Performance Center, they beamed with the realization of how much their perspective has changed and how much they've matured amid playing-time disappointments.

Amani Jones (52, alongside teammate Terry Roberts against Penn State) has given Iowa's special teams an electric jolt with his energy and attacking mindset.

Jones reflected on his upbringing in a rough neighborhood of Chicago — and how it has compared to his four years in Iowa City.

“I’m not going to lie, my first year here, I was scared,” Jones said. “Because it was so quiet. Where I’m from, when it’s quiet, you don’t walk down that block. You tend to keep your head on a swivel.”

Even though he lost a starting middle-linebacker job less than a quarter into the 2018 season and never regained it, Jones has continued to maintain his public smile. Although, he admitted, that hasn't been easy. Toren Young, a team captain, helped keep Jones' spirits up.

“Where I’m from,” Jones said, “whatever’s going on in your life, you don’t let it show.”

On Saturday, two 15-passenger vans of Jones' family and friends will make the drive from Chicago to Iowa City. They can be assured of seeing No. 52 on special teams, where he has been an energizing presence.

Jones won’t be playing 70 snaps at linebacker, but he hopes to leave a lasting impression with his family and teammates ... and the Kinnick fans.

“I want to show them how I get the crowd hyped. I’m that guy,” Jones said. “When the kickoff or kickoff return comes, I’m the person you watch. … I have fun on the field and bring hype to everything I do.”

As for Paulsen?

He has seven career starts on Iowa’s offensive line, including the first four games of this season. But he’s essentially been benched since the Michigan game. Certainly not the outcome a senior dreams about.

“No matter what happens,” Paulsen said he’s learned, as his twin brother (Landan) starts at left guard, “the coaches are going to do what’s best for the team.”

On one big Hawkeye play last month, I remember seeing Paulsen, in his No. 66 jersey, waving his helmet in the air and jumping up and down on the sideline as if he were the team's biggest fan.

Paulsen has come to grips that his finishing role at Iowa is to be a senior leader for young players like Cody Ince and Justin Britt. Like Jones, he has developed a positive outlook after his playing demotion.

“I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Paulsen said. “I’d love to be out there playing right now, knocking some heads. I also love leading these guys and really showing them the right way to do things.”

Sure, Jones and Paulsen would love to be playing more as their football careers wind down.

But they’ve found maturity at Iowa and see a brighter life ahead than they did 4-5 years ago.

Give them a cheer Saturday. Give all these Hawkeye seniors a cheer. Because Iowa's developmental program often shows up in the character department, too.

Brandon Smith (12) was able to celebrate Iowa's 23-19 victory against Minnesota after playing just one snap. The junior wide receiver should be a much more prevalent part of Iowa's plans against Illinois.

Wide receiver Brandon Smith will play Saturday, but expectations should be tempered.

Save for one throwaway snap in the 23-19 win against Minnesota, Smith has missed Iowa’s last three games recovering from ankle surgery. But he returned to this week’s depth chart (albeit as a second-teamer, behind the emerging Tyrone Tracy Jr.) and is expected to play for Iowa (7-3, 4-3 Big Ten Conference) against Illinois (6-4, 4-3).

Smith was playing at a high level before getting injured in the fourth quarter against Purdue on Oct. 19. His 33 receptions are still just six behind Nico Ragaini for the team lead.

Teammate Ihmir Smith-Marsette reported Tuesday that Smith was “running smooth” in practice and working with the first team.

“He’s going to be the same old Brandon he was before he left,” Smith-Marsette said. “Making plays, big blocks. It’s just good to have him back.”

Head coach Kirk Ferentz didn't sound as optimistic about what Smith could do against the Illini.

"I don't know how many plays he can go (in) for," Ferentz said. "He's probably not in the best of shape right now, (but) he's got fresh legs. That's one good thing."

Health willing (and it sounds promising), Tyler Goodson could see his biggest workload yet.

The true freshman from Georgia received three votes of confidence this week. No. 1, he was listed first string on the depth chart for the first time. No. 2, Ferentz confirmed that Goodson looks “good to go” after suffering an ankle injury against Minnesota. No. 3, the head coach isn't holding back his talented young running back.

Ferentz intentionally tamps down hype on younger players. Recent examples include Tristan Wirfs and A.J. Epenesa, who are expected first-round NFL draft picks.

Pretty much every time he is asked about Goodson, Ferentz makes sure to praise Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young, too. But Ferentz is finally showing with his actions that Goodson gives this offense something the other guys don’t. That’s why Goodson earned his first career start against Minnesota.

“The other guys have their capabilities, too,” Ferentz said, “but we just felt it was his opportunity to get a little bit more exposure and thought he really responded well.”

After receiving 13 carries and gaining 94 yards (mostly in the first quarter), Goodson should be ready for a big day against an Illinois defense that is great at getting takeaways, but bad against the run.

The Illini gave up 363 yards rushing to Nebraska, 332 to Minnesota, 295 to Michigan and even 275 to offense-challenged Michigan State in their last game.

I asked Ferentz if Goodson could handle 20-plus carries.

“We may find out, I don't know,” he said. “Everything he’s done so far, he's responded pretty positively. So, it's been really encouraging.”

Give Goodson 20 carries Saturday, and he'll deliver Iowa's second 100-yard rushing game of 2019.

Ferentz assured us that Tyrone Tracy Jr. is healthy, too, even though the freshman receiver didn’t participate in postgame interviews Saturday for medical reasons.

That’s good news, considering Tracy has been the pass game’s best playmaker of late. Tracy has totaled 13 catches for 295 yards and two long touchdowns in the three games since Smith got hurt.

Smith-Marsette also provided his own Tracy update Tuesday. He told reporters he was impressed with the freshman’s ascent, but good-naturedly didn’t want to make a big deal about it because “he’ll see it and go crazy. But he still ain’t faster than me, before you all start going there.”

(Duly noted, Ihmir.)

Of note: In Big Ten games only, Smith-Marsette leads the team with 392 receiving yards. Tracy is second, with 391. Edge: Smith-Marsette.

Young defensive backs Julius Brents and Kaevon Merriweather could play down the stretch and keep their redshirts.

Ferentz confirmed that offensive lineman Justin Britt would redshirt; the true freshman has played four games — the maximum allowed to preserve a year of eligibility. But second-year players Brents (one game in 2019) and Merriweather (two) have the flexibility to play against Illinois and Nebraska.

Brents (a five-game starter in 2018) seems like he's shuffled back in the cornerback rotation, especially with Michael Ojemudia possibly returning from injury against Illinois. Merriweather, who began the season as the starting free safety before injuring his foot, is a more intriguing option. His raw quickness in the back end was apparent in the opener against Miami of Ohio.

Getting Merriweather time in two of Iowa's last three games would be a wise move by coaches, if indeed he's near the same level as current starter Jack Koerner, who didn't have his best day against Minnesota.

Saturday’s Kinnick crowd could be the smallest in the last 50 months.

More than 10,000 tickets remained for the Illinois game as of Tuesday, according to spokesman Steve Roe. With capacity knocked down to 69,250 after the North end zone renovations, that means the stadium might welcome fewer than 60,000 fans for the first time since early in the 2015 season.

This isn’t a big story, but it’s notable. Barring a big walk-up crowd (temperatures in the low-40s are expected), this will “beat” the Week 2 attendance of 61,808 against Rutgers as the smallest of the season.

The Saturday before Thanksgiving is annually a tricky spot on the calendar for families. Iowa’s 2017 game against Purdue in this spot drew 60,554 fans. If Saturday’s total falls below that, it’ll mark the smallest Kinnick crowd since 56,041 saw Iowa defeat North Texas, 62-16, on Sept. 26, 2015.

Quality of opponent is a factor, too. If Iowa was playing Wisconsin this week for the Big Ten West title, this would be a sellout. Iowa has won 10 of its last 11 meetings with Illinois.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.