There are general things you can expect from Iowa’s 6 p.m. open football practice Friday at Valley Stadium in West Des Moines.
A November feel: For all the logistics that go into this fourth annual event, which typically draws thousands of fans, it’s too bad that the first time it’s tried on a Friday night that windy and cold conditions (low-40s temperatures) are expected. Last year, it was a sunny 70 degrees on a Saturday afternoon. But there’s no rain in Friday’s forecast, so zip up the winter coat and enjoy the free opportunity to see the Hawkeyes in pads. (Hey, it’s warmer than the Purdue game.)
Some fresh faces: One of the exciting things for Hawkeye football geeks is seeing guys in action you either rarely see or haven’t seen before. This marks the first extended glimpse for most of the true freshmen, and there's more opportunity with at least four injured regulars sidelined: Offensive lineman James Daniels, running back Derrick Mitchell Jr., linebacker Ben Niemann and cornerback Greg Mabin.
Some drills, some scrimmaging: Iowa typically begins its open practices with stretching, special teams work and drills within position groups. A few of the more animated assistant coaches you can observe include Brian Ferentz (offensive line) and Seth Wallace (linebackers). It’s not always riveting stuff in the first hour, but the final hour should see some 11-on-11 scrimmaging, where anyone not wearing a red no-contact jersey can be tackled as hard as they would be on a fall Saturday.
Some rust: A year ago at Valley, the offense didn’t even come close to scoring a touchdown against the defense. The 2015 Hawkeyes went on to average 30.9 points per game and became the first team in school history to score 30-plus in five consecutive Big Ten Conference games. So, the rust is more of a product of new guys getting some of their first chances to work together and injuries.
Beyond general expectations, though, here are five specific areas to watch if you are indulging in April Friday Night Lights in West Des Moines:
The quarterback derby
We know senior C.J. Beathard is the clear starter. And on a cold night, don’t expect his surgically-repaired groin to be put to a full test. That means possibly some extended looks at the QB of Iowa’s future: Sophomore backup Tyler Wiegers and freshmen Ryan Boyle and Drew Cook.
Wiegers was the No. 2 last year, but this is the best chance for Boyle and Cook to separate themselves as the No. 3. Coach Kirk Ferentz said a few weeks ago both were on the same line. The practice at Valley Stadium, where Boyle starred for years as Dowling Catholic’s quaterback, could provide some visible separation between the two. One will likely end up as the No. 3 by August; with the other possibly on the scout team.
The guys in single digits
Who catches the passes? Besides Matt VandeBerg (65 catches in 2015), that’s a huge question mark for Iowa next season. At least two unexpected Hawkeyes need to make big jumps to replace the production and leadership of lost starters Tevaun Smith and Jacob Hillyer.
Keep a keen eye on the guys with low numbers on their uniforms: No. 3 Jay Scheel has been hailed as a practice star so far. No. 5 Ronald Nash is a walk-on, but brings some much-needed size to the group. No. 6 Emmanuel Ogwo is a mystery with pure speed. No. 9 Jerminic Smith is the listed starter but is in his first spring.
And let’s see if Jonathan Parker, No. 10, has taken a big step forward a year after transitioning from running back. "He's not just a jet sweep guy," receivers coach Bobby Kennedy said. "He catches the ball extremely well."
The full-sized Nelsons
Ferentz is going to get tired of reading about Iowa’s defensive end situation by August, if he isn’t already. While Drew Ott’s status remains in limbo, the two most interesting guys to watch Friday at defensive end are large Iowa-grown (unrelated) Nelsons.
The left-end starter is redshirt sophomore Matt Nelson, who is every bit of 6-foot-8, 275 pounds. Yet, defensive line coach Reese Morgan said the Cedar Rapids Xavier product “probably has the best consistent pad level of anybody in the front, including our shorter guys.”
The right-end backup is redshirt freshman Anthony Nelson, who enjoyed the biggest weight gain in the program since August with a 30-pound boost to 6-7, 250. Morgan said the Waukee product is “very good in the pass-rush game; he's got to get better at the point of attack.”
Both have to be good, and soon, for Iowa to generate a pass rush without blitzing.
Linebackers making plays
With the defensive ends having a challenge going against now-experienced tackles Cole Croston and Ike Boettger, linebackers will probably be very active. It’ll be interesting to see who besides Josey Jewell makes plays.
With outside linebacker Niemann (ankle) out until June, there are opportunities for new names to rise up. It was at Valley a year ago that a little-known senior named Cole Fisher recorded a pick-six while playing for the second-team defense. Fisher turned heads on the coaching staff and wound up starting all 14 games, becoming Iowa’s No. 2 tackler.
Could that 2016 somebody be Aaron Mends or Jack Hockaday? Both are locked in a close battle to replace Fisher at weak-side linebacker. “There's days where you walk off the field (and) one may have had a better day than the other,” Wallace said.
Junior Bo Bower and freshmen Angelo Garbutt and Nick Wilson (another Dowling alum) have also been bumped up on the depth chart with Niemann out. This is a great chance for one of them to make a big impression.
How’s the energy?
A year ago at Valley, Iowa defense was almost surprisingly demonstrative, hooting and hollering after repeatedly thwarting Beathard and the Hawkeye offense. Now we know that was a sign of things to come — a family togetherness that spawned a record 12-0 regular season that nobody saw coming.
The 2015 Hawkeyes were a lesson that strong culture within a program matters. That team had strong leaders like Austin Blythe, Jordan Lomax and Jordan Canzeri. Who besides Beathard and Jewell will visibly step up in 2016?
It may be cold Friday night, but seeing some fire from this new batch of players would be an encouragement.
Iowa's open practice at Valley: Need-to-know items
What: Iowa football’s fourth annual open practice at Valley Stadium, West Des Moines (4440 Mills Civic Parkway)
When: Practice begins at 6 p.m. Friday. (West and Southeast gates will open at 4:30 p.m.)
Admission: Free. No ticket necessary.
Forecast: Windy conditions expected with highs in the low 40s. No chance of rain.
Autographs: Players will sign at 5:30; the first 4,000 fans will receive a Hawkeye poster, which will be the only item available for autographs to keep the line moving.
Youth clinic: At approximately 7:45, a free youth clinic will be held on the Valley Stadium field for the first 275 children ages 7-12. Each participating child will receive a T-shirt. Authorization forms must be completed and signed by the child’s parent/guardian and presented to UI staff at the northwest gate at 7:15. Parents will not be allowed on the field during the clinic.
Concessions, parking and other rules: Concession stands will be open inside the stadium. Prohibited items include outside food or drink, umbrellas and strollers. Bags may also be searched upon stadium entry. All West Des Moines Community Schools property is alcohol- and tobacco-free. Tailgating is not allowed in the (free) surrounding parking lots on either city property or next-door Valley Church.