Leistikow: 15 observations from Iowa's final spring football practice
IOWA CITY — Iowa’s spring football program isn’t completely finished. Two more weeks of strength training are on deck before Hawkeye players wrap up their final semester academic requirements and head home until early June.
But the next time they can practice on a football field together doesn’t come for another three-plus months. Until the dog days of fall camp in August, there won’t be much actual Hawkeye football to dig into.
So, let’s take one last spin through some stuff that jumped out from Saturday’s open practice at Kinnick Stadium.
Left tackle Mason Richman made the historical comment that former four-year left tackle Alaric Jackson and former defensive end A.J. Epenesa made each other better by battling every day in practice. The same went for former three-year tackle (and first-round draft pick) Tristan Wirfs and defensive end Chauncey Golston.
A year ago, Richman found himself confronted with Zach VanValkenburg in practice. Now that opponent at times is muscular sophomore Lukas Van Ness, who could be tracking to be the Hawkeyes’ best pass rusher of 2022. I have a confident feeling Hawkeye fans will really like Richman and Van Ness this year. And those two will continue to sharpen one another.
Could tackle be the strength of the offensive line after it was a weakness in 2021? It sounds like Jack Plumb has taken most of the drama out of the right-tackle position with a strong Citrus Bowl and solid spring. If Richman and Plumb successfully hold down the tackle spots, that would allow Connor Colby to repeat as the right-guard starter. That type of lineup consistency would be nice, but staying healthy is never a given up front.
It was surreal to see a No. 65 snapping the ball to No. 7 in warmups and with the first-team offense. No, that wasn’t Tyler Linderbaum. A number switch for Logan Jones — who is following the Linderbaum path, going from defensive line to center — sure seems to be a positive indicator for the highly acclaimed redshirt sophomore from Council Bluffs.
A healthy spring for David Davidkov is a positive for Iowa’s tackle depth. The big-time Class of 2020 recruit is just a redshirt freshman, and he was the No. 2 left tackle Saturday. Davidkov rarely gave an inch in pass protection during the practice vs. the No. 2 defense.
Head coach Kirk Ferentz mentioned the enjoyable personality and impressive leadership that is emanating from redshirt sophomore running back Gavin Williams. The Dowling Catholic alum — after gaining 98 yards on 16 carries against Kentucky after Tyler Goodson’s bowl-game opt-out — feels like a very important piece to this 2022 team.
I was impressed with the few catches made by Leshon Williams, who is expected to be the other half of Iowa’s 1-2 run-game punch this fall. If the tackles are indeed playing at a higher level this year, I wonder if the screen-passing game could be a staple in an offense that needs to find some juice.
Post-Linderbaum, who is Iowa’s best offensive player? It might be senior tight end Sam LaPorta, who spoke Saturday about his decision to return to school after a fantastic Citrus Bowl (seven catches, 122 yards). “Being able to come out and finish out my degree and finish my senior year with my boys, I don’t know how I could pass that up,” he said. “There’s no place like the University of Iowa, and I truly believe that.”
It seems like a lock that LaPorta would be one of the three players chosen to represent the Hawkeyes at Big Ten Media Days in late July.
Honestly, it was a tough day to evaluate the defense. There were so many injuries, with prime contributors like Joe Evans, Jack Campbell, Seth Benson, Jestin Jacobs, Kaevon Merriweather, Jermari Harris and Terry Roberts sidelined. And Ferentz was a little bit frustrated afterward, understandably, that there were so many missing pieces this spring.
But let’s think about the future for a second. There was a lot of positive buzz this spring about backup linebackers Jay Higgins, Karson Sharar, Kyler Fisher and Jaden Harrell. The fact that the first-team offense didn’t do too much despite so many missing defensive starters is concerning on one hand, but a vote of confidence about the growing defensive depth on the other.
Of the four early-enrollee defensive players, cornerback T.J. Hall of Fresno generated the strongest impression as someone who could be a factor sooner than later.
What about five-star safety Xavier Nwankpa? He sure looks the part (6-foot-3, 211 pounds), and it was good to see him playing in the Iowa spring game just 4½ months after his historic commitment to the Hawkeyes. Nwankpa had a physical goal-line tackle on running back Zach Brand on Saturday from the free-safety spot. Coaches report he is learning quickly and being a great teammate. Combine that with his obvious physical skills, and I have little doubt “X” will be a factor this fall, but it’s too early to say how significant.
So, I wrote 1,400 words about the quarterbacks after Saturday's practice. But let’s talk QBs one more time. It would take a precedent-breaking event under Ferentz for 19-year-old Joe Labas to go from No. 3 quarterback to No. 1 in a matter of four months. (A decision will need to be made by late August on the starting quarterback, and offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said he is opposed to the concept of alternating QBs.)
But those of you wanting to see more of Labas — who has some really nice moments in the spring scrimmage — should be encouraged that he’s forcing his way into the conversation. It would be a worse development if Iowa had shaky backup behind presumed starter Spencer Petras. But, in fact, No. 2 Alex Padilla showed some good stuff last season and now Labas is clearly ascending fast.
Kirk Ferentz reminded us that in that top-five showdown at Kinnick Stadium in October, Penn State crumbled when starting quarterback Sean Clifford was knocked out by Campbell. Take heart that the Hawkeyes have multiple viable guys for the fall, if Petras becomes injured or deemed ineffective.
Even if Labas isn’t the guy in Week 1 vs. South Dakota State, he could be called upon sometime in the fall. And if not, he becomes a highly intriguing choice in the 2023 with three years’ eligibility remaining. Coaches obviously see something special in Labas, or he would not have gotten so many snaps Saturday (7-for-12, 93 yards, one touchdown).
There were three players who were largely unknown that made a spring-game mark. Will wide receivers Jack Johnson and Kaden Wetjen (who each scored a touchdown) and tight end Johnny Pascuzzi (who had some clutch catches and, Kirk Ferentz reported, has earned the hilarious nickname "Johnny Jacuzzi") become footnotes? Or was this the sign of something more? No way to know now, but just remember those three walk-on names.
Special-teams time! Wow, the Hawkeyes are lucky to have Tory Taylor handling punts. He was practically showing off Saturday, with some towering punts and drop-dead gorgeous boots that retreated inside the 5-yard line. Cooper DeJean downed one of them. But the depth behind Taylor is … not good. The Hawkeyes could be in trouble if Taylor becomes sidelined at any point for any reason. He also looks to be the No. 1 holder (not DeJean, sorry).
Lots of thoughts at placekicker. Watching warmups, I liked the power and accuracy shown from sophomore Aaron Blom of Oskaloosa and early-enrollee Drew Stevens, a South Carolina native who has the same private kicking coach as 2019 consensus all-American Keith Duncan. However, both kickers were inconsistent in the live drills. I had Blom 5-for-8 on field goals with a pass rush and Stevens 4-for-8, but that’s not counting reps that were deemed “do-overs” after bad snaps or holds.
It was a windy day, and it was the first-ever practice at Kinnick for Stevens — who shook off his nerves and got better as the practice went on. The kicking competition will spill into August, but both guys have potential. As Kirk Ferentz put it, they just lack consistency.
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.