The Iowa coach provides an opening overview of this spring. Chad Leistikow | Hawkcentral.com
IOWA CITY, Ia. — When the topic of spring football comes up, some Iowa fans really get into it. Others’ response? Wake me up in September.
No matter how you feel, digest this: What happens in these next four weeks of practice will translate heavily into 2016 Hawkeye success or disappointment.
As coaches begin to discover what spring fruits were produced from a winter in the weight room, players are trying to impress them with 15 open auditions — including at Valley Stadium on April 8 and at Kinnick Stadium to end spring practice April 23.
And maybe most importantly during this stretch, a culture will be strengthened. Tight bonds were cemented a year ago at this time and were widely credited for Iowa’s historic 12-0 regular season and first Rose Bowl berth in 25 years.
All of those things are on Kirk Ferentz’s radar. And his 18th team could be really good. The pressure ramped up this week, as practice began Wednesday, to build on last year’s 12-2 breakthrough.
“The one good thing — not every year, but for most years, over the last 15 at least — we’ve had a chance to have a good, competitive football team,” Ferentz said. “There are a lot of things that go into it. Some you can't control, but the things you can control, that's the key.”
With that backdrop in mind, here is my second annual Kirk Ferentz Spring To-Do List.
Keep the culture strong
Ferentz’s son, offensive line coach Brian Ferentz, has called the 2014 Iowa football culture weak. It’s no wonder that talented team went 7-6 against an average schedule. But the strong 2015 culture must be maintained.
Less than an hour after the 45-16 loss to Stanford, junior wide receiver Matt VandeBerg understood this was the biggest challenge ahead.
“We’ve got a lot of seniors that were busting their butts. They set a great example for the rest of us,” he said. “Now we need to go out there and do the same thing they did, to show the young guys that 12-0 can be done here.”
Having C.J. Beathard back is key. Respect inside the Iowa Football Performance Center grew as the all-Big Ten Conference quarterback played through painful injuries to reach the finish line. This winter, linebacker Josey Jewell became the first sophomore under Kirk Ferentz to be voted a permanent Hawkeye captain. Those two are a good start. If Drew Ott (a captain last year) is granted a fifth season by the NCAA, locker-room leadership would near a resolution.
Returning all-America cornerback Desmond King needs to step up in this department, too.
“Those guys move up, and there is another void to be filled,” Ferentz said. “So those are the things that you're looking at during the course of the spring just to see not only what guys are doing on the field, but what they're doing in terms of just handling the situations that they're confronted with.”
VandeBerg … then who?
Of all the position groups needing to take a giant step forward in 2016, wide receiver might top the list.
VandeBerg returns, and he’s dependable. His 65 catches last season were the third most by an Iowa receiver in a season, but a 10.8-yards-per-catch average demonstrates the need for explosive help. Gone are speedy and tall targets in senior starters Tevaun Smith (and his 4.38-second 40-yard dash) and Jacob Hillyer (6-foot-4), respectively.
If Beathard’s potential is going to be maximized at quarterback, this spring is an important testing ground to find somebody who can be a star. Jerminic Smith (one big game as a true freshman) and Riley McCarron (5-9 senior who had big touchdown catch at Iowa State) are the assigned starters for now, but a huge victory for receivers coach Bobby Kennedy would be to uncover somebody — perhaps Adrian Falconer, Andre Harris, Jonathan Parker or Jay Scheel — that enjoys an April breakthrough like Derrick Willies (now at Texas Tech) did two years ago.
“That whole group,” Ferentz said, “we're going to need some guys to step up.”
Kittle … then who?
Iowa’s top touchdown target at tight end is back in George Kittle, but with Henry Krieger Coble (another Hawkeye who impressed on Pro Day) and Jake Duzey out of the picture, there are job openings. Offensive coordinator Greg Davis runs multiple two- and three-tight end sets.
Jameer Outsey, a converted linebacker, is the No. 2. Is this the year Dowling Catholic graduate Jon Wisnieski puts it all together? What about walk-on Peter Pekar? Nate Vejvoda (6-5, 235) redshirted as a true freshman, and he's packed on 20 pounds since the summer. Plus, at least three incoming freshmen tight ends could be considered in August.
Tight end isn’t usually a worry under Ferentz; odds are depth will emerge here.
Let backup QBs compete
With Beathard nursing his way toward 100 percent after sports-hernia surgery, now is the time to put redshirt freshmen Ryan Boyle and Drew Cook in a steel-cage competition and see who emerges as the clear No. 3 quarterback. Until now, they’ve been virtually tied.
“We have good feelings about them," Ferentz said, "and are eager to see how it pans out this spring.”
Tyler Wiegers is entrenched as the No. 2 and, unless the sophomore-to-be gets hurt, will be the primary backup to Beathard before having the inside track to the 2017 starting job.
A pecking order would be nice to establish before heralded recruit Nathan Stanley arrives this summer to give the Hawkeyes five scholarship quarterbacks.
The Iowa football coach discusses C.J. Beathard, Tyler Wiegers, Ryan Boyle and Drew Cook. Chad Leistikow/HawkCentral.com
Seeking: 3 backup linemen
A year ago on this list, the development of Boone Myers at left tackle and Ike Boettger at right tackle was deemed imperative. As it turned out, neither started in the Rose Bowl — Cole Croston was on the left, Sean Welsh the right.
That underscores how depth keys the most important area every year for Ferentz-coached Iowa. Seven Hawkeyes started on the line last year. The new front five (from left to right) of Croston, Myers, James Daniels (out for the spring following surgery), Welsh and Boettger has experience, but the spring starts with zero proven depth behind them. And the two best linemen off last year’s team — all-Big Ten power blockers Austin Blythe and Jordan Walsh — are gone.
“At least we've seen all these guys in a game situation now,” Ferentz said. “But that being said, there is a lot of growth to be had.”
Freshman Brett Waechter (6-5, 290) has added 15 pounds and is new to the depth chart at second-team left tackle. Perhaps backup left guard and former four-star recruit Ryan Ward can emerge in his senior year. Indianola’s Keegan Render (at right guard) is the only other scholarship lineman on the two-deep.
Backfield durability experiment
Why not hit for the cycle on offense for the to-do list? One of the most encouraging notes out of Ferentz’s spring-opening news conference Tuesday was that Akrum Wadley was hitting his weight consistently at 189-190 pounds. That’s a big trust win for Wadley, a junior-to-be who is Iowa’s lightning backfield option to starter LeShun Daniels Jr.’s thunder.
Iowa should test-drive the durability of Daniels (a senior dogged by injury history) and verify Wadley has gotten over his fumblitis. Both have to prove they can handle a heavy workload next fall, with Jordan Canzeri gone and third-down back Derrick Mitchell Jr. out for the spring.
It’s a key evaluation period for redshirt freshman Eric Graham and sophomore Marcel Joly, too, as incoming freshmen in Toks Akinribade and Toren Young will add to the competition this summer.
Seth Wallace is greeted by quite the challenge in his first spring as linebackers coach since taking over for Jim Reid, who departed for Boston College.
Beyond “The Outlaw” (Jewell) at middle linebacker, Iowa has to replace second-leading tackler Cole Fisher on the weak side. On the outside, starter Ben Niemann is out for the spring.
Sophomores-to-be Aaron Mends and Jack Hockaday are slated to battle to replace Fisher, whose presence helped control the edge that was a 2014 problem. And with Niemann out, returning junior Bo Bower and freshmen Angelo Garbutt and Nick Wilson moved up the depth chart.
“Players look different sometimes when they're with the first team than they do with the second team,” Ferentz said.
End game: Get comfortable
If Ott doesn’t return, defensive end will resemble Iowa’s inexperience at offensive tackle a year ago with two sophomore starters.
More than likely, the Iowa-bred trio of Parker Hesse (6-3, 250), Matt Nelson (6-8, 275) and Anthony Nelson (6-7, 250) will comprise the 2016 rotation. Hesse is the old man of the group. He's 20.
Matt Nelson, a former Cedar Rapids Xavier star, got experience late in the season when Nate Meier was hobbled.
“He had a good offseason,” Ferentz said. “He tested well a week-and-a-half ago. He's worked hard. He's tough-minded and I'm anxious to see him out there. He's, I think, a really good young prospect for us.”
This spring might not be enough to find answers to the giant unknown of the kicking game, but it’ll be a start.
The key area to watch is on placements, where sophomores Miguel Recinos and Mick Ellis (each with limited experience backing up departed Marshall Koehn) are battling to win the job. Recinos has the bigger leg.
Somebody not yet on campus might be the answer at punter and on kickoffs. Ron Coluzzi will walk on here as a fifth-year senior graduate transfer. At Central Michigan in 2015, Coluzzi handled kickoffs (recording 20 touchbacks on 61 tries) and punts (averaging 39.2 yards per boot).
More importantly, Coluzzi buried 20 of his 59 punts inside the 20-yard line and Central Michigan’s net punting average, while not great (80th nationally, 36.83), was better than Iowa’s (96th, 35.85). Walk-on Colten Rastetter is currently listed as Iowa’s first-teamer.
Stoke the fire
The 7-6 disappointment of 2014 fueled the Hawkeyes’ inner fire in 2015. It forced a program rebirth of sorts, which began in the new football building among 19- to 23-year-olds. What will drive these Hawkeyes?
Ferentz and his coaching staff need to harness motivation somewhere. Proving the blowout loss to Stanford was an anomaly would be a good start.
“Having a tough ending like we did last year,” Ferentz said, “you respond to it, or you get in the fetal position and let people run you over.”