Leistikow: Injuries will happen when Big Ten football resumes. How does Hawkeyes' depth stack up?

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

The second Sunday of the NFL season saw a rash of injuries to premier players.

Looks like ACL tears for Saquon Barkley, Nick Bosa and Courtland Sutton. Serious ankle sprains for Jimmy Garoppolo and Christian McCaffrey. A dreaded hamstring for Davante Adams.

Even the pros are feeling the pains and strains of shortened/interrupted preparation time for this unprecedented football season in the COVID-19 era.

So, we should not be surprised if Big Ten Conference programs — set to relaunch their season the weekend of Oct. 23-24 — experience a higher rate of injuries than usual.

Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz is wary that shortened preparation will lead to a spate of soft-tissue injuries. Still, the 22nd-year Hawkeye head coach knows that all 14 schools are dealing with the same timetable to a return. His Hawkeyes got back on the field Friday night for the first time since Aug. 9. They practiced again Saturday and Sunday, trying to get their bodies prepared for the nine-game season ahead.

“We don’t have any wiggle room for an average day or a bad day,” Ferentz said. “We’ve got to make every play count, every snap count, knowing it won’t be the volume we’re typically used to.”

A premium will be placed on quality depth this Big Ten season. Those that don't have it will pay the price in the loss column. On that note, here’s an early shot at ranking Iowa’s 11 position groups from deepest to thinnest.

No. 1: Wide receivers

It's rare to say that wide receivers are THE strength of an Iowa football team. The Hawkeyes list 19 wide receivers on their roster, 10 of whom are on scholarship. The return of last year’s Big Four of Brandon Smith, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy Jr. (combined 163 catches for 2,189 receiving yards and 21 total touchdowns in 2019), brings optimism for an even higher-octane offense.

Youngsters Calvin Lockett or Desmond Hutson seem poised to emerge if there are injuries, and Max Cooper hasn't gone away. Credit to assistant coach Kelton Copeland for bolstering the receivers room.

Tyler Linderbaum (65) and Mark Kallenberger (71) figure to bolster the interior of Iowa's offensive line this fall, especially if Alaric Jackson and Coy Cronk hold down the edges.

No. 2: Offensive line

Alaric Jackson is practicing and figures to be a fourth-year, left-tackle fixture and high NFL draft pick. To his right, you might find veterans Mark Kallenberger, Tyler Linderbaum, Kyler Schott and Indiana grad transfer Coy Cronk.

Even with first-rounder Tristan Wirfs gone, this might be Tim Polasek’s best offensive line yet. The competition should be intense at guard, with Cole Banwart, Justin Britt and Cody Ince pushing for roles. Kallenberger can move to tackle, which gives Iowa nice flexibility. The only worry is at backup center, should something happen to preseason AP second-team all-American Linderbaum.

No. 3: Cornerbacks

Defensive coordinator Phil Parker cranks out capable corners even in down years, and he only lost Michael Ojemudia to the Denver Broncos and D.J. Johnson to Purdue. Matt Hankins, Riley Moss and Julius Brents give Iowa a combination of range and ball skills, but Parker also seems to like 177-pounders Jermari Harris and Terry Roberts back there, too.

Add in sophomore Dane Belton as a reliable returner at the cash position in Iowa’s 4-2-5, and it’s obvious that corner play could be Iowa’s defensive strength.

No. 4: Linebackers

Iowa might see a player opt-out at this position, but Ferentz said nothing is official there yet. Nick Niemann seems like a perfect candidate at middle linebacker after his emergence in the Holiday Bowl and Dillon Doyle's departure for Baylor. Djimon Colbert has two years of starting experience, but coaches are also high on sophomore Jack Campbell (6-foot-5, 243 pounds).

Iowa will no doubt be in a base 4-2-5 in the opener at Purdue, so it takes just two starters. I’m excited to see the development of prize recruit Jestin Jacobs, and I’ve been impressed with Seth Benson on special teams.

No. 5: Specialists

Not only does Iowa have a consensus all-American placekicker in Keith Duncan returning, but backup Caleb Shudak is outstanding on kickoffs and would be an excellent option on placements, too. Throw in the fact that Iowa has the Big Ten’s best kickoff return man in Smith-Marsette, and special-teams coordinator LeVar Woods has a lot to be proud of.

Punter is a major question mark, though, with Australian Tory Taylor — who has never played American football — the likely front-runner for that crucial position in Ferentz's field-position style. Injury-plagued Ryan Gersonde and North Dakota State transfer Nick Phelps are the other options.

No. 6: Running backs

Iowa is justifiably excited about Tyler Goodson, who last year became the first true freshman of the Ferentz era to lead the team in rushing. Senior Mekhi Sargent has also shown an ability to carry a heavy workload, and Ivory Kelly-Martin is a former No. 1 who is returning from a redshirt year.

What's missing is a true power back after Toren Young left school early. Maybe Shadrick Byrd (5-10, 210) can fit that bill. Iowa also must break in a new fullback after Brady Ross’ departure.

No. 7: Defensive tackles

The grad-transfer addition of Jack Heflin from Northern Illinois probably deserved more attention than it got. He likely instantly becomes Iowa's top interior lineman, and that’s saying something considering the flashes shown last fall by Daviyon Nixon (three sacks). Ferentz also has been raving about Austin Schulte’s growth, and Noah Shannon seems ticketed for rotational duty.

But Iowa can’t afford much attrition here, and stout tackle play is the key to Parker’s annually-tough run defense.

Dane Belton becomes a significant chess piece for defensive coordinator Phil Parker this fall. Does he fit best at cash or safety?

No. 8: Safeties

This was a tough one to grade, because if Belton slides to safety … the comfort level with this group is greatly increased. And that would mean Parker feels good with someone else (perhaps Moss?) at the cash role. That would be a great scenario. Free safety Jack Koerner’s status will need monitoring after his offseason boating accident, but he practiced over the weekend. If Kaevon Merriweather puts it all together — Parker sees great potential in him — this position group can overcome the early NFL departure of Geno Stone.

Somebody else needs to emerge here. Maybe prized recruit Dallas Craddieth (one career game played) is ready to take the next step in Year 3.

No. 9: Tight ends

It might seem crazy to see this position ranked low in depth confidence at Iowa, but remember this would have been T.J. Hockenson’s fifth-year senior season. Sophomore Sam LaPorta looked great in the Holiday Bowl, and he has the makings to be Iowa’s next tight-end star. Iowa fingers are crossed that No. 2 Shaun Beyer (seven career catches) can stay healthy in his fifth-year season.

Behind them, Iowa has unknown quantities in freshmen Josiah Miamen, Elijah Yelverton and Luke Lachey. It would be ideal if they could each get another year of development while LaPorta and Beyer hold down the tight end position.

No. 10: Defensive ends

Second-round NFL Draft pick A.J. Epenesa was so dominant the last two years that there will obviously be some drop-off. This is Chauncey Golston’s show now, but he’s going to need help. The leading candidates to start opposite of him are Zach Van Valkenburg, John Waggoner and walk-on Joe Evans (who was terrific as a pass-rush specialist last year, but he has more of a linebacker build).

We know Logan Lee is a great talent; maybe he can join the fray. If Golston misses any time, Iowa will really be hurting in the pass rush.

No. 11: Quarterbacks

With Nate Stanley gone, Iowa has three scholarship quarterbacks with no starting experience. Third-year sophomore Spencer Petras has won the starting job and the confidence of his teammates and offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz. Petras will get a long leash to learn as he goes. If he can't play for any reason, Iowa will have serious concerns at football’s most important position.

With limited training camp, I’d expect redshirt freshman Alex Padilla to hang onto the No. 2 job based on his knowledge of the system. But it will be fun to see what talented true freshman Deuce Hogan can do, whenever his time comes.

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.