Hawkeyes breakdown: Analyzing what matters in Iowa's spring game
IOWA CITY, Ia. — No question, Iowa’s spring football open practice, or game — or whatever you want to call it — at 1 p.m. Saturday at Kinnick Stadium must be consumed with context.
Offensive coordinator Greg Davis provided insight into what he wants to see.
No. 1, he said: “I would like everybody that starts, to finish and not be hurt. That's my biggest goal.”
Makes sense. An ominous C.J. Beathard or Desmond King injury would be a rotten way to cap the 15th and final spring practice.
No. 2: “I'd like to execute and keep the ball off the ground — don't throw it to them,” Davis said, before adding that defensive coordinator Phil Parker “hopes we do throw it to him.”
Ball security is important to Kirk Ferentz-led Hawkeye teams. It’s taught. It’s expected. We saw where fumbling got Akrum Wadley over a 12-month stretch, until Iowa had no running backs left at Northwestern. Mental mistakes bring wrath, as Beathard found out during last year’s game/practice when he went to make a tackle after throwing an interception to Brandon Snyder.
No. 3, per Davis: “Just go execute. We're not worried so much about what it looks like, as there are certain players that we want to see and there are certain plays that we may run to give that player a chance, that maybe not situationally would be something you do.”
In other words, this is a chance to throw things against the wall in full-contact action and see what sticks. Young players will get their biggest public opportunity to shine Saturday, because once August rolls around, most practice time will revolve around the 1s and 2s.
So with that in mind, here are five reasons why Saturday’s scrimmage is important:
O-tackles vs. D-ends
In the lead-up to the 2015 season, Iowa's defense completely overpowered the offense. Drew Ott and Nate Meier had a lot to do with that, but those defensive ends are gone.
Enter sophomores Parker Hesse and Matt Nelson and freshman Anthony Nelson, a likely three-man rotation that will be expected to generate pass rush despite their youth. Their fast-track development is key to avoiding a drop-off from a 2015 unit that was particularly salty during the first eight games.
Even though Iowa’s offensive tackles (Cole Croston and Ike Boettger) have more experience than they did a year ago, seeing some push into the backfield from the three primary ends would be a positive indicator.
“There’s inside concerns about pass rush. We’re trying to prove that we can rush the quarterback and get hurries and pressures,” said Matt Nelson, a 6-foot-8, 275-pound Cedar Rapids Xavier product. “We have to do that with four defensive linemen, especially the ends. So we really have to step up to meet those expectations.”
Seeking a No. 2 tight end
Depth at this historically great position at Iowa is rarely questioned, but this is a concern as spring wraps up, especially with Davis’ desire to deploy two or three tight ends at a time.
George Kittle is the clear No. 1, and he has the potential to be Iowa’s most dynamic tight end since Dallas Clark. Behind him, there’s one career catch at this key spot (by Jameer Outsey).
Jon Wisnieski is having his best spring. It would be ideal if this Dowling Catholic product with an impressive frame (6-5, 250) could emerge as a redshirt junior. Walk-on Peter Pekar has had a strong spring too. Converted linebacker Outsey is the listed No. 2, but he’s still learning the position.
In 2013 and 2014, Iowa found a home-run receiving threat in Damond Powell. Last year, it was Tevaun Smith.
Beathard could use high-octane targets to open up what Iowa wants to do most: run the football effectively. We’ve heard great things about Jay Scheel this spring. Jerminic Smith had one great game as a true freshman last fall. Word is Jonathan Parker is successfully pairing his speed and familiarity at receiver. We know freshman Emmanuel Ogwo has blazing speed.
Don’t forget Wadley, who might have the best football quicks of anyone on the roster. Davis says the junior will be more involved in the passing game.
Seeing what these guys (and others) can do Saturday against a secondary led by King, the Jim Thorpe Award winner, will be intriguing.
The place-kicker derby
In introducing Iowa’s kicking game during an April 13 news conference, two of assistant coach Chris White’s first words were "big concern."
So don’t expect a refined group of specialists Saturday, especially at punter, where two more walk-on candidates are expected to challenge listed No. 1 Colten Rastetter: incoming freshman Jackson Terry and Central Michigan graduate transfer Ron Coluzzi.
But at place-kicker, the Hawkeyes have a chance to distinguish between sophomores Miguel Recinos and Mick Ellis — though White thinks this battle will go all the way up to the Sept. 3 opener against Miami of Ohio.
“One guy has a good day; the other guy has a good day. We've just got to be more consistent,” White said.
A kicker’s success or failure could give or cost Iowa a win or two in 2016. Iowa probably doesn't beat Pittsburgh 27-24 last Sept. 19 without Marshall Koehn.
The next Cole Fisher?
Fisher was essentially an unknown a year ago. As the No. 2 weak-side linebacker, he intercepted Tyler Wiegers twice (at Valley Stadium and in the spring game). By the last week of August, he was named first string over incumbent starter Bo Bower.
As a fifth-year senior, Fisher went on to start the first 14 games of his career and finished with 116 tackles, second on the team.
But now, who can replace him?
It’s worth watching the presence of sophomores Aaron Mends and Jack Hockaday. Mends (listed No. 1) has violent power for his size, but Hockaday “has done a good job there and he's pressed him,” Parker said. “It's good to have competition at every spot. Nobody has anything locked up."
Bower is still around, too. It’s a key battle, where a play or two Saturday might make an eyebrow-raising difference. It certainly did last April for Fisher.