Leistikow: 5 things worth watching in Iowa football's spring scrimmage

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — Before punching in the keystrokes to write the 2022 spring football “game” preview column (which you’re reading now), I took some time to look back at last year’s coverage.

What hot takes would end up freezing cold?

What observations from that hot-and-sunny May 1 open practice at Kinnick Stadium wound up being prescient ahead of the fall?

Somewhat surprisingly, there were more truths to be found than misleading performances.

A nutshell breakdown of what we saw roughly one year ago …

The quarterbacks were shaky and inconsistent, with head coach Kirk Ferentz saying afterward that since-transferred third-stringer Deuce Hogan was “still trying to figure some things out.” (All played out accordingly.)

Ferentz didn’t feel great about much … but he was optimistic about kicker Caleb Shudak. (He sure was right.)

A receiver that stood out was true freshman Arland Bruce IV. (He continuously improved and would score four touchdowns on 35 touches.)

Freshman running backs Gavin and Leshon Williams were impressive and effective as backups. (That played out nicely in the Citrus Bowl loss to Kentucky.)

Little-known defensive tackle Lukas Van Ness was disruptive. (He is known now, after a seven-sack season that earned him freshman all-America honors.)

I wrote that Riley Moss “was probably the team’s MVP” of the scrimmage and had been praised for getting his hands on a lot of footballs all spring. (Despite missing 3½ games, Moss would become the Big Ten’s defensive back of the year and is now back for fifth season.)

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While there were a few off-the-mark quotes (such as Tyler Goodson saying he felt he could win the Doak Walker Award behind Iowa’s offensive line, which was an obvious weak spot in 2021), the recap shows that we can learn a lot in the Hawkeyes’ spring-ending scrimmage action. We should get roughly 90 minutes of 11-on-11 football. The action begins at 9:45 a.m. Saturday at Kinnick Stadium (gates open at 8:45), with warm (hallelujah!) and windy (of course) conditions in the forecast.

Here are five starting-point topics I’ll be watching on Saturday but will certainly be ready for anyone or anything that stands out … and report back to you.

Spencer Petras (7) wound up playing every snap of the Citrus Bowl, but he's still trying to lock down Iowa's starting quarterback job with Alex Padilla (8) and Joe Labas (5) in pursuit.

Does the offense truly look different? Or is it more of the same?

While this is a public showcase, I wouldn’t expect Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz to hold everything back out of paranoid secrecy. This is Iowa's 15th and final spring practice, a day where the offense needs to validate what it's worked on for 14 preceding practices. The offense moving the football with some polish would be a positive development for summertime narratives.

Given the injury situation at linebacker — it’s likely that dinged-up starters Jack Campbell, Seth Benson and Jestin Jacobs will be withheld for precautionary reasons — the offense should have some opportunity to click. With a month of interviews in the notebooks, we’ve heard that there has been a simplification of the offense and perhaps some new ways of running routes for wide receivers. Ferentz also emphasized how he wants the football in the quarterback’s hands as little as possible — that the QB1 is the “distributor” of the offense. Let’s see how much the quick-pass game is invoked on Saturday.

This is obviously a notable day for the three possible starting quarterbacks in the fall, too. Is Spencer Petras in total command of the job as we exit spring ball? Has Alex Padilla used this crucial on-field time to pull even with (or surpass) Petras in the QB conversation? And, perhaps most notably among a hopeful fan base, how much ground has freshman Joe Labas covered over the course of five weeks?

"He’s a natural at making something happen. I think that’s Joe’s strong suit," wide receiver Keagan Johnson said recently. "Commanding the huddle, some of those things will come over time."

Hopefully, all three QBs are healthy and get opportunities to lead the No. 1 offense.

More:Looking for a breakout Iowa running back? Leshon Williams may be that guy for the Hawkeyes

Who is Iowa’s best defensive lineman?

Another spring 2021 observation was that Zach VanValkenburg was tracking for a big jump as a sixth-year senior, and that played out. He was the Hawkeyes’ most dominant defensive lineman last fall. VanValkenburg’s leadership, too, must be replaced. Teammates marveled at how VanValkenburg always had an answer for any question that came up … on any topic.

As for the on-field play, the Hawkeyes feel pretty good about the interior duo of Logan Lee and Noah Shannon. Both started all 14 games at defensive tackle a year ago and ascended, perhaps showing their best in the Citrus Bowl. Their prowess is why the Hawkeyes have felt comfortable moving Lukas Van Ness exclusively to defensive end this spring, after he emerged in a backup tackle role last year.

“Very fast. You guys have seen him. He looks like Hercules,” Shannon said earlier this spring. “Like 275 (pounds) with a six-pack. You don’t really see that.”

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Van Ness is a long (6-foot-5), athletic player who could be the key to this whole defense. My eyes will be on No. 91 on Saturday, to see if he’s on the VanValkenburg (or better) track. Being on the end of the defensive line adds more responsibility, especially against read-option quarterbacks.

“The run-game part of it is where we need to see some things come along,” assistant defensive line coach Jay Niemann said. “He’s certainly in a good place and poised to have a good year.”

How close is Iowa to a center solution?

While it will be impossible to truly replace Iowa’s only Rimington Trophy winner in Tyler Linderbaum, the Hawkeyes will try anyway. Offensive line coach George Barnett said this week that sophomores Tyler Elsbury and Logan Jones have been splitting the No. 1 center reps. He also said that veteran Matt Fagan has been ceding reps to get Elsbury and Jones more action. Meantime, expected center contender Mike Myslinski is out until June.

So, it’s hard to say where the center battle stands, but seeing how good — or green — Elsbury and Jones are will provide some clues to the potential of this offensive line. From the sounds of it, Jones is very skilled at moving people around. That’s a big part of the job.

"He’s very competitive. He likes contact," Barnett said. "He’s really smart. He likes to ask questions. He likes to find out the ‘why’ of doing things. So, the transition is good. (But) we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

More:How Raimond Braithwaite has put his stamp on Iowa football's strength program

Watching Nos. 1, 3 and 6 in white with a curious eye.

The defense wears white on Saturday, and special attention will be paid to the backfield as Xavier Nwankpa (No. 1), Cooper DeJean (No. 3) and T.J. Hall (No. 6) participate in their first spring scrimmage as Hawkeyes.

There’s been a lot to like visually and verbally about those three tantalizing talents.

Strength coach Raimond Braithwaite confirmed Nwankpa's growth to 211 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame, up 16 pounds from his January arrival. A pretty good start for “X,” but now it’s time to see what he can do on the field. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker is using the five-star prospect from Southeast Polk as a safety; how fast he acclimates will determine how much we see him there (or at Iowa’s hybrid “cash” position) in the fall.

"He’s been outstanding, as far as developing good routines and having good habits,” Braithwaite said. “He’s an ultimate teammate."

DeJean is a well-known high-school playmaker as well, and he’s also been working at safety this spring. Can the versatile DeJean prove himself to be that type of guy that you’ve got to get on the field somewhere, anywhere?

And there’s a lot of intrigue in Hall, too. He is still just 17 years old (turns 18 on Monday). The Fresno product has been praised by multiple coaches, and that’s pretty rare for an unproven rookie. Considering junior Jermari Harris — who started six of Iowa's final seven games at cornerback last fall — was arrested for OWI on Sunday morning, the door is open Saturday ... and perhaps in Week 1, if Harris faces a suspension. 

Come for the kicking derby, stay for the scrimmage.

On fall Saturdays, specialists are always the first ones to take the field in full uniform. They need their practice kicks to not only get warmed up but to get a feel for the day’s weather conditions and what type of distance is possible in each direction.

Let’s be honest, for special-teams enthusiasts there is a lot of joy alone in watching Tory Taylor’s pregame punts. The hang time and accuracy can be mesmerizing. Iowa’s punt game is in good shape.

But to get a feel for where the placekickers stand, get to Kinnick a little early. Special-teams coordinator LeVar Woods last week noted that neither Lucas Amaya, Aaron Blom or Drew Stevens has appeared in a college game. Saturday gives them a chance to attempt pressure kicks — there will be some special-teams periods throughout practice — with 7,000 or so fans watching. There has been immense confidence in Iowa’s kicking game in the Keith Duncan/Caleb Shudak era. But now comes uncertainty.

While I’ll certainly be charting the kicks (and reporting back), I’m also looking for ball-striking power and consistency, especially on what’s expected to be a windy day. Whose kicks can hold up to the Midwest-weather challenges?

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.