Depth chart analysis: Iowa offense thin in spots
IOWA CITY, Ia. – On April 11, Kirk Ferentz referenced a large drop-off in depth behind some starters in a quote that Iowa fans hope doesn't live in infamy.
"A lot of our 2s right now are 3s, quite frankly, on both sides of the ball," the head coach said following an open practice at Valley Stadium.
Rebuilding that depth — and fast — has been a summer priority, and with fall camp under way, the race to be ready for the Sept. 5 opener against Illinois State is accelerated.
"We do feel better right now; I feel better after watching one practice in pads," Ferentz said in response to the 2s vs. 3s question. "Their retention was impressive the first two workouts."
Below is a depth-chart breakdown of where the Hawkeyes stand entering fall camp, with a depth confidence on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being most confident) for each of the eight categories:
(6-2, 209) is the guy — the only guy. Fans are already panicky about the possibility of a significant injury to QB1. Kirk Ferentz joked at the Big Ten Media Days, "We may have to borrow the sliding pit" from baseball coach Rick Heller for Beathard to perfect tackle avoidance.
August camp intrigue: Iowa's search for a 2017 starter has begun. The backup in spring ball was, by default, redshirt freshman Tyler Wiegers (6-4, 222) with Jake Rudock now in a Michigan uniform. But true freshmen and Iowa prep champions Ryan Boyle (6-2, 215) and Drew Cook (6-5, 220) arrived in the summer and on Thursday began to officially battle to become emergency option No. 3, and push Wiegers for No. 2.
Depth confidence: 2. By 2017, it might be an 8. Wiegers got a lot of spring reps as one of two scholarship QBs and looked better than his 6-for-18 spring-game outing would indicate. When sneaky-good Class of 2016 recruit Nathan Stanley joins the program, the 2017 competition will get crowded and interesting.
Locked-in: The fall depth chart lists junior LeShun Daniels (6-0, 225) alone on the No. 1 line for the first time, with explosive-but-injury-riddled senior Jordan Canzeri (5-9, 192) at No. 2. Ideally, they form a 1-2 dynamic duo for the Hawkeyes like Fred Russell and Jermelle Lewis (2002), or Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher (2009) during Ferentz's prime Orange Bowl years. Iowa is loaded at fullback, with road-grading seniors Macon Plewa (6-2, 244) and Adam Cox (5-11, 234).
August camp intrigue: If anyone can become the first 1,000-yard rusher, it's probably Daniels — despite 51 career carries to date. There's high interest in how many touches go to sophomore Derrick Mitchell Jr. (6-1, 212), a spring sensation after converting from wide receiver. Mitchell (aka "DMX") and shifty sophomore Akrum Wadley (5-11, 185) are expected to be in the mix, too. Wadley's biggest issue is maintaining his weight.
Depth confidence: 9. After three years of converted fullback Mark Weisman in the featured-back role because of injuries and attrition, there's excitement at the variety of 2015 options. At fullback, Cox could be back for a sixth year in 2016 thanks to a medical redshirt after missing last season.
Wide receivers/tight ends
Coaches have outlined a clear top three at receiver since spring in senior
Tevaun Smith (6-2, 205), junior Matt VandeBerg (6-1, 185) and senior Jacob Hillyer (6-4, 212). Smith has all the tools to become the Hawkeyes' fifth-ever 1,000-yard receiver. VandeBerg might lead the team in catches. At tight end, senior Henry Krieger-Coble (6-4, 250) enters the spotlight with Jake Duzey (6-4, 248) likely to miss most, or all, of September while rehabbing from knee surgery (torn patellar tendon).
August camp intrigue: The key to Smith's emergence as a high-end receiver is getting somebody to take attention away from him. That somebody could be redshirt freshman Jay Scheel (6-1, 195), a dazzling prospect who is finally healthy and was elevated to the No. 2 line behind VandeBerg on the fall depth chart. True freshman Emmanuel Ogwo (6-0, 170) and converted running back Jonathan Parker (5-8, 185) could be deep-threat options.
Depth confidence: 6. While Duzey's injury was a setback, junior George Kittle (6-4, 235) and sophomore Jon Wisnieski (6-5, 247) showed spring-game promise at tight end. Kittle especially has turned heads early in fall camp. Receiver depth going into 2016 is a big question mark; Scheel and someone else need to emerge.
Locked-in: Welcome to the area of threat-level-red concern. Let's start with the best news: Senior center Austin Blythe (6-3, 290) is an experienced stalwart who will call all the line signals. Every rep for the two new starters at tackle — sophomore Boone Myers (6-5, 300) on the left to replace the Outland Trophy-winning Brandon Scherff, sophomore Ike Boettger (6-6, 300) on the right — is precious. The starter at left guard, senior Eric Simmons (6-2, 295), has played primarily on special teams in his career, and senior right guard Jordan Walsh (6-4, 290) has been up and down in 24 career starts.
August camp intrigue:
There's desperation for depth here: Who will provide it? How quickly 2014 starter
(6-3, 288) can reacclimate to things after missing spring ball for non-football reasons is key. Blythe is impressed with true freshman
(6-4, 285), a four-star recruit who is not yet on the two-deep. Can junior
(6-5, 295) or freshman
(6-4, 305) emerge as the top backup tackle?
Depth confidence: 3. The ability to protect Beathard could be blown up by one or two injuries. Simmons could slide to center if needed, and Welsh is proven at guard. Iowa signed five Class of 2015 offensive linemen, so help for future teams is already being developed.
Locked-in: Despite losing senior defensive tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat to the NFL, Iowa feels good about a three-man rotation of junior Jaleel Johnson (6-4, 310), sophomore Nathan Bazata (6-2, 284) and junior Faith Ekakitie (6-3, 290). Senior defensive end Drew Ott (6-4, 272) has star potential. The 2014 team leader in sacks and tackles for loss a year ago was named one of 11 players on the Big Ten's watch list. Low-to-the-ground senior Nate Meier (6-2, 252) is the other starting end, but needs to up his 2014 production (two sacks, 13 starts).
August camp intrigue: Ott and Meier overwhelmed tackles Myers and Boettger in spring ball. Are they that good, or are the tackles that raw? Freshmen defensive ends Parker Hesse (6-3, 240; a converted linebacker) and Matt Nelson (6-8, 270) are the future, and both figure to see plenty of action.
Depth confidence: 5. Senior Darian Cooper (6-2, 282), who played 25 games with two starts in his first two seasons, figured to be a 2015 fixture. But he still hasn't been medically cleared from a significant knee injury he suffered a year ago. Iowa has 20 defensive linemen listed in its media guide, but few have emerged. The urgency for development is high.
Locked-in: Sophomores Ben Niemann (6-3, 225), Josey Jewell (6-2, 230) and Bo Bower (6-1, 228) are the listed starters, but Ferentz says it will be a five-man rotation that also includes seniors Travis Perry (6-3, 234) and Cole Fisher (6-2, 236). This is a group that was torched by Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl, but it also enters 2015 with a chip on its collective shoulder.
August camp intrigue: Not-yet-mentioned is freshman Aaron Mends (6-0, 212), who position coach Jim Reid marveled about during spring ball for his speed and hard-hitting ability. How the linebacker rotation works could be interesting; Jewell seems to be at home at middle linebacker, which should soften the loss of Quinton Alston.
Depth confidence: 7. Improvement is widely expected from this group, which hopefully for Iowa fans will perform closer to 2013 levels (Anthony Hitchens, Christian Kirksey and James Morris) than 2014. Some of Iowa's top Class of 2015 recruits (Angelo Garbutt and Jack Hockaday) are linebackers, too.
Locked-in: Two of Iowa's top overall players live in the defensive backfield. Junior cornerback Desmond King (5-11, 200) held Odell Beckham Jr. to two catches in the 2014 Outback Bowl and could end up starting 50 games as a Hawkeye; senior free safety Jordan Lomax (5-10, 205) is a second-year starter whose value as a team leader is immeasurable. Junior Greg Mabin (6-2, 200) is the other starting corner, but he had a rough TaxSlayer Bowl and needs to rebound. Sophomore Miles Taylor (6-0, 195) and junior Anthony Gair (6-2, 210) are battling to start at strong safety.
August camp intrigue: The Taylor/Gair battle was referenced as a good one by Lomax, even though freshman Brandon Snyder (6-1, 210) is listed as Taylor's backup. Two things could help cornerback depth: How quickly converted freshman running back Jalen Embry (6-0, 184) can adjust to a new position, and how much senior Sean Draper (6-0, 190) and junior Maurice Fleming (6-0, 205) can push Mabin.
Depth confidence: 6. King and Lomax are an excellent starting point, and Taylor (hard hitter) and Snyder (intercepted Beathard in the spring game) look good. Iowa has made defensive back a high priority in the recruiting Class of 2016 (with plans to convert receivers Lance Billings and Emmanuel Rugamba to DB), a sign of the need for long-term depth here.
Locked-in: Senior Marshall Koehn of Solon (6-0, 200) is the unquestioned placekicker and boomer of touchbacks. It appears senior Dillon Kidd (6-2, 215) is going to be the starting punter after being pushed by Koehn, Connor Kornbrath (now off the team) and Miguel Recinos (6-1, 180) during spring drills. The fall depth chart doesn't list return specialists, but look for King to be the primary return man.
August camp intrigue: Whoever punts footballs and covers kicks in 2015 will need to collectively upgrade a net punting rank of 117th out of 125 FBS teams. How and with whom Chris White and LeVar Woods shore up kick coverage is a top priority. This is the area that a true freshmen can see the field, like Niemann did last year.
Depth confidence: 4. Rock-solid special teams play, once a hallmark of the Ferentz era, is a lingering sore spot (See: Nebraska 37, Iowa 34). But at least Koehn (made 11 of his final 12 field-goal attempts in 2014 after starting 2-for-5) provides a measure of stability on placements.