Leistikow: 10 things we learned from Iowa football interviews, including Alaric Jackson's vegan diet and a new name at receiver
The most unusual Iowa football offseason ever feels like it’s finally winding down, even if the settings still aren’t normal.
On Tuesday, Hawkeye players spoke to the media for the first time in more than 2½ months. Eleven Hawkeyes — 10 on offense, plus the star kicker — met for 10-minute shifts on a Zoom call. Eleven defensive players are on the menu for Wednesday, and the entire coaching staff will conduct interviews Thursday at Kinnick Stadium.
In effect, this entire week serves as the replacement for the annual, early-August Iowa football media day. It’s certainly not the same intimate feel and detailed information will be even more difficult to come by in the socially-distanced, COVID-19 era. But it feels safer to talk about football, especially in light of daily-testing capabilities and only four positive coronavirus tests (out of 644 department-wide) last week.
Here are 10 thoughts on what I heard Tuesday.
1. For the first time in a long time, players can confidently talk about a looming football game.
Iowa’s slated to visit Purdue on Oct. 24, seven Saturdays after the originally scheduled Sept. 5 opener against Northern Iowa.
One by one, players spoke about the frustration they felt about hearing there would be a season, then there wouldn't be. But since practice resumed Sept. 18, the pace has picked up considerably. Players feel like they're in training-camp mode, even though they also have academic requirements they don't usually have in early- to mid-August.
“It felt very good, the first day I got out there," sophomore receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr. said. "It was kind of a relief … to actually go out there and practice and have a schedule and run some actual plays with a football and to have an actual quarterback and have coaches watch your film ... it just feels good to be back in a routine.
"Oh man, I'm just waiting for the first game to come around to get the feel of gameday."
2. Alaric Jackson has gone to a vegan "lifestyle" and certainly looks thinner.
"To each his own," said Jackson, who noted he's still packing 320 pounds on his 6-foot-6 frame despite not eating meat.
"Nothing's changed, I just lost some body fat, that's all. Just looking forward to the season for the most part."
There was a legitimate feeling within the program that Jackson might not return to the field for the Hawkeyes. But the 34-game starter at left tackle is back for Year 4 in Iowa’s starting lineup, although for the first time he'll be protecting the blind-side of a quarterback other than three-year starter Nate Stanley.
"I never left or went anywhere. There was no defined choice, whether there was a season or not," Jackson said. "I wasn't going to (consider an) opt-out until there was a defined choice. Now we're playing football, so I'm here."
Only two Hawkeyes are opting out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns: fourth-year linebacker Djimon Colbert and second-year defensive lineman Taajhir McCall.
3. In his first media availability as a Hawkeye, No. 1 running back Tyler Goodson said he thinks Iowa can win the Big Ten championship.
To be clear, "can" is much different than predicting Iowa "will" go to (and win in) Indianapolis.
But Goodson's confidence comes, in part, from seeing a strong culture emerge from the summer's allegations of racial bias within the Iowa football program.
“The main thing for us is leadership," Goodson said. "Our leadership has grown, and I think our leadership will take us far."
Many players affirmed a strong culture, with veteran lineman Cole Banwart adding, "I think we’re the closest we’ve been in my five years here."
Goodson has two interesting distinctions. One, he became the first true freshman to lead Iowa in rushing yards last fall with 638. Two, Iowa has never lost with him as the starter. His four starts coincided with Iowa's season-ending, four-game win streak to finish 10-3. Maybe he's onto something ...
4. Though practice access is off limits to media, it’s been hard to miss Charlie Jones in practice photos.
And a pair of wide receivers brought him up as someone who’s been making waves and practicing with the first team.
“He’s making plays all over the place in practice right now,” Tracy said. “I’m very excited to see what he can do on Saturdays. He’s fast, and he’s very athletic.”
A native of Deerfield, Illinois, Jones transferred to Iowa from Buffalo of the Mid-American Conference the same summer that Oliver Martin arrived from Michigan. While Martin got all of the attention then, Jones (5-foot-11, 187 pounds) was a forgotten man of sorts while redshirting. But now, Martin has transferred again (to Nebraska) and Jones appears poised to make his mark. During last year’s bowl prep, special-teams coordinator LeVar Woods even brought Jones’ name up as a possible kick-return man. Clearly, he’s doing some good things in Iowa City.
5. If you’re wondering about daily testing, here’s how it’s going at Iowa.
The Hawkeyes have been practicing five days a week, typically in the morning. The standard schedule is to finish practice, In a recent interview with HawkeyeReport.com, team doctor Andy Peterson said each Big Ten school is capped at 170 daily tests per day and cannot purchase more. He said that Iowa has 124 players and 46 support-staff members (including coaches, trainers and managers), so the math is about right.
Gamedays will be different, with tests required four hours prior to kickoff. The benefit of daily testing is that players who test negative don't have to be subject to contact tracing. The key, of course, to every player is not getting that phone call that you came back positive.
"Everybody on the team knows how important playing football is," wide receiver Brandon Smith said. "We wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize that. Everybody knows the safety precautions of what we have to do. Be smart, wear your mask if you go get food."
6. Banwart is a bit of a forgotten man on the Hawkeyes’ 2020 offensive line.
Guard play was a sore spot for the Hawkeyes in 2019, in part because of injuries to Banwart. The Ottosen native started the final five games at right guard in Iowa’s 2018 season, but his 2019 was limited to three games (two starts). He had season-ending knee surgery in October after playing his final snaps in Iowa’s 10-3 loss at Michigan in Week 5. In fact, he said he was on the receiving end of "The Wave" at Kinnick as he recovered during the Purdue game Oct. 19.
The recovery, he said, took eight-plus months. But now Banwart is back in the mix for what is expected to be an experienced front five. Practice photos have shown him running at times with the first-team offense. He said he's close to 100%.
"Right now, I'm a full-go. Everything's feeling good," Banwart said. "Really excited for this year."
At minimum, Banwart gives Iowa a reliable depth piece. At best, he becomes a full-season fixture at guard, which will have plenty of competition with Mark Kallenberger, Cody Ince, Kyler Schott and Justin Britt also vying for a starting role.
7. Ihmir Smith-Marsette is absolutely willing to be Iowa’s lead punt returner.
The dynamic kick-return man (who has touchdown runbacks in his last two games) and senior with an NFL future isn’t worried about the injury risk that can come with catching punts as defenders approaches him on 50-yard sprints.
“I'm a football player, I'm not worried about that," Smith-Marsette said.
We might hear more from Woods on Thursday what he’s thinking at punt returner, but after last year’s experiments with Nico Ragaini and Max Cooper, there's room for improvement. Considering Smith-Marsette averages 29.9 yards per kickoff return, he's certainly got difference-making octane that Iowa needs in the punt-return game.
8. Keith Duncan converted a Big Ten-record 29 field goals last season, but two key members of his operation need replacing.
Long snapper Jackson Subbert and holder Colten Rastetter were praised as having machine-like efficiency during magnificent 2019, in which he navigated rough Midwest weather to convert 29 of 34 field-goal attempts — including 14 of 18 on distances of 40-plus yards — on his way to become Iowa’s 26th consensus all-American.
Austin Spiewak (a walk-on senior from Rolling Meadows, Illinois) is the front-runner to snap darts back to holder Ryan Gersonde (a fourth-year junior punter from Milwaukee) for the right-footed Duncan, who also converted 32-of-32 PATs last season. Successful kicks are a team operation.
"We've had a great operation, I think, every single year I've been here," Duncan said. "And I'd say every single snapper and every single holder are doing a great job right now."
9. Duncan loves to have fans in the stands, so he has an idea.
Even though the Big Ten Conference isn't planning to allow fans for games (aside from player families and university staff), Duncan would like to see some exceptions.
Not for the big donors, but for the students. He got the idea from Texas (where he's originally from), which provided complimentary but required coronavirus tests for student ticketholders. If the student tests negative, he or she can go to the game. (Kickers are always thinking.)
“I’d personally love to see the students come in," Duncan said. "They’re extremely involved in our university. It would be great for at least them to get in, as well as our families.”
10. Before he met the Iowa media for the first time as starting quarterback, Spencer Petras made some news.
The third-year sophomore said during Jordan Bohannon's "The Standpoint" podcast that no matter how well he plays this season, he’ll return to the Hawkeyes for the 2021 season.
“Yeah. Definitely. The only guy that went one and done for a (starting) quarterback as far as I know was Mitchell Trubisky,” Petras said. “And we can kind of see how that turned out.”
(As a life-long Chicago Bears fan, I’ll say ouch … because the truth hurts.)
So, what are the odds Petras will be really good in this late-arriving season? With a Big Ten-only, nine-game schedule, he's going to be tested from the get-go. And he's got a lot on his shoulders.
“He just has a commanding personality," roommate, friend and starting center Tyler Linderbaum said. "What you’re looking for in a leader. As each day goes on, he’s building more and more confidence.”
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.