Leistikow: Tackling your questions, Part 2 ... Linebackers after Colbert, run-game solutions and wrestling worries
Pads were finally popping again Wednesday in Iowa City, with the Iowa Hawkeyes conducting their first full-contact practice in more than nine months.
Media access to coaches and players (who haven't been allowed to do interviews since July 16) is tentatively scheduled to resume next week. To run some clock until then, I assembled some more questions from my text-message group (subscribers can join for no added cost here) and offer up some answers.
Here's Part 2! (ICYMI, here was Part 1.)
With no Djimon Colbert and no Dillon Doyle this season, how concerning is Iowa’s linebacker depth?
After receiving this question, I looked back on my projected 2020 starting lineup (an annual exercise in the days after Iowa’s bowl game) and was reminded that Colbert and Doyle were primed for starting roles at inside linebacker this fall.
Doyle, of course, transferred to Baylor after his father/strength coach was removed from the program. And Colbert is opting out this season, a development first reported by Hawkeye Nation’s Rob Howe and confirmed by the Register, with plans to return in 2021.
But the short answer is: I feel good about Iowa’s linebackers. Nick Niemann was tremendous off the bench in the Holiday Bowl (including a pick-six in the 49-24 win vs. USC) after Colbert struggled in pass coverage against the Trojans' fleet receivers. I think Niemann will be joined in Iowa’s 4-2-5 alignment by either Jack Campbell, Seth Benson or Jestin Jacobs — all impressive-looking athletes waiting for their turn. And don't forget about Barrington Wade, who could see time on the inside or if/when Iowa goes 4-3. We've seen senior linebackers flourish before out of nowhere (Cole Fisher in 2015 being the prime example).
Niemann, a fifth-year senior, would make the most sense to call the defensive signals. If he does, it would mark the fourth straight year that Iowa rolled with a senior middle linebacker (Josey Jewell in 2017, Jack Hockaday in 2018, Kristian Welch in 2019).
What will coaches do to address three years of a dismal run game despite having NFL-caliber linemen?
Absolutely, it is disappointing that Iowa has not topped 4 yards per carry as a team in any of Brian Ferentz's three years as offensive coordinator (it finished at 3.95 last year, a feeble 90th among 130 FBS programs).
I do think the late-season insertion of Tyler Goodson as the No. 1 back gives Iowa the burst it was lacking post-Akrum Wadley, but more progress is needed. Iowa must take advantage of having three NFL-ready linemen on its roster this season in Alaric Jackson, Tyler Linderbaum and Coy Cronk.
On the run game, my mind flashes back to the end of last season, when Ferentz found success attacking the edges. Goodson’s early outside runs helped engineer the win against seventh-ranked Minnesota; Ihmir Smith-Marsette’s 45-yard touchdown on a reverse ignited a win at Nebraska; and receivers Tyrone Tracy Jr. and Smith-Marsette raced around end for Iowa's first two touchdowns in the Holiday Bowl.
While we could debate the effectiveness of zone-blocking schemes, I think the best thing Iowa can do for its run game is to be unpredictable in its play-calling. Smith-Marsette and Tracy, in particular, need to be deployed as regular run-game threats. If their presence keeps a safety or linebacker on his heels for an extra second, maybe that helps Goodson and the offensive line operate with more efficiency. Averaging 4.7 yards a carry this season (which would have barely cracked the top 50 nationally last year) is a reasonable goal.
Do you think there is enough preseason practice time this year to give new freshmen a chance to prove themselves?
Yes, I do. The Hawkeyes were back on the field Sept. 18, giving themselves pretty much a full training camp’s worth of time before the Oct. 24 opener at Purdue.
However, coach Kirk Ferentz has already said that players will be closely monitored to make sure they’re physically ready to play after so many training interruptions over the last 6½ months related to the COVID-19 pandemic. That might keep most younger players — who don't have nearly the strength-and-conditioning base of seasoned veterans — on the sidelines.
The good news is that Iowa doesn't need much of a youth infusion on offense, with well-stocked groups at offensive line, running back and receiver. As is often the case, the best chance to see a rookie flourish quickly is in Phil Parker’s secondary or on special teams. I don’t have names for you yet, but hopefully the media will get some peeks at practice before the season.
What are the biggest reasons for optimism about the 2020 team? Alternatively, what are the biggest reasons to be skeptical?
Let’s start with the glass-half-empty view.
If you were building an NFL team, your top two positional priorities would be quarterback and defensive end. Unfortunately, those are (in my mind) the two biggest areas of uncertainty for the 2020 Hawkeyes. Spencer Petras is the least-experienced starting QB in the Big Ten West, and there is no replacing A.J. Epenesa's dominance as an edge rusher.
If those positions are average or worse, Iowa will have a tough time going .500.
But there's a lot of internal hope that Petras, now in his third year on campus, is the real deal. The red-headed California QB who broke Jared Goff’s high school records couldn’t have asked for a better situation. He’ll be surrounded by an experienced offensive line and the best group of receivers of the Kirk Ferentz era.
If Petras is an instant hit and Parker’s defense can be a top-25 national unit (as it has been in six of the last seven years) … this team can consistently score 30-plus points and rule the Big Ten West for the first time since 2015.
What is going to happen with college wrestling season?
Expanding on what colleague Cody Goodwin wrote last month, expect the NCAA Championships (scheduled for March 18-20 in St. Louis) to be protected at all costs. Coaches are looking at a start date around Jan. 1, a limited schedule (conference-only duals, probably) and perhaps fewer national qualifiers.
Of all sports, close-quarters wrestling would benefit most from daily antigen testing that began Wednesday for Big Ten football programs. If football goes well, wrestling has a chance.
One last thought on wrestling: I think the NCAA should allow this abbreviated-at-best season as a “free” year of eligibility, like in football. In that case, Iowa 125-pound phenom Spencer Lee would recover his shot at four NCAA titles.
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.