10 things we learned this spring about Hawkeye football
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The 15th and final Iowa football spring practice is in the books. A sun-splashed spring game with nearly 20,000 fans closed it out.
Here’s some of what they saw Saturday, and what we can glean from this spring:
1. The offense is going to be fine
It’s a fact of football life: The defense is ahead of the offense in the spring, especially when a slew of starters are out.
First-teamers C.J. Beathard (quarterback), Sean Welsh (center/guard) and James Daniels (center/guard) were out Saturday, as was top backup lineman Keegan Render. That meant the pressed-into-action replacements — Lucas LeGrand at center, and Dalton Ferguson at right guard — were overmatched by veteran defensive tackles Jaleel Johnson and Nathan Bazata.
Tyler Wiegers’ first pass of the day was batted down; none of his first 21 pass attempts went for more than nine yards. The first-team offense’s lone scoring drive was 17 plays and gained just 45 yards, resulting in Miguel Recinos’ 40-yard field goal.
No big deal, though. Put Beathard in there and some reliable starters against a defense that doesn’t know every play you run, and it’ll be different.
“We did really well all spring. It’s just different when you’re missing a lot of guys,” said tight end George Kittle, who had one catch for three yards. “We didn’t have a full week of preparation with the guys we were missing. But, yeah, we have a full vertical-threat game. You’ll see that. Yeah, don’t worry.”
2. Wiegers isn’t there yet
Speaking of quarterbacks, Iowa predominantly used two Saturday. It was good to give Wiegers a full day with the 1s, but the redshirt sophomore showed why it’s good he’s still the backup for another year.
His most forgettable play turned into freshman Michael Ojemudia’s most memorable one: Wiegers gathered a bobbled snap from the ground, then whirled around and threw from his end zone into double coverage.
The ill-advised pass sailed into the hands of Ojemudia, who juked his way into the end zone for a 17-yard interception-return touchdown.
“He’ll learn from that,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “I go back to my first spring game (in 1999), when Robert Gallery went that way and everybody else went this way. He was still a tight end back then (and eventually won the Outland Trophy). It’s not 70,000 people, but still; it’s different, so it’s a really good exercise for Tyler to go through.”
Wiegers finished 14-for-28 for 100 yards with two interceptions (one by Desmond King). Wiegers did throw some nice passes with zip and accuracy, including an 8-yard completion to Riley McCarron on third-and-6.
3. Kittle is the real deal
If opposing defenses are smart, they’ll pay a lot of attention to Iowa’s No. 1 tight end next fall.
With position coach LeVar Woods saying earlier this spring that Kittle “can be as good as anybody that’s played here,” the 6-4, 250-pound senior is going to be fun to watch.
He can line up anywhere — at the usual power tight end spot (he’s the Hawkeyes’ best blocker at his position) or as a third wide receiver, taking the Jacob Hillyer role of a year ago.
“He brings a lot to the table, because he’s a tough match defensively,” offensive coordinator Greg Davis said.
It looks like Jon Wisnieski and Peter Pekar will battle to be the No. 2 tight end. Both looked good Saturday, with two catches apiece. Jameer Outsey seems to have fallen out of the picture.
4. Receiver more open than ever
Kittle is great at tight end, but other than Matt VandeBerg, Iowa has yet to find a second reliable option at wide receiver.
McCarron dropped what would’ve been a nice 31-yard touchdown pass from Wiegers. Jerminic Smith also dropped a ball he should’ve caught. The troubling thing? Both guys are listed first-teamers, along with VandeBerg.
Redshirt sophomore Jay Scheel has been the buzz of the spring. He ran some nice routes Saturday, but with little time for the quarterbacks to find their receivers, Scheel wound up catching one ball for just seven yards.
5. Jewell keeps getting better
King is the big name on the Hawkeye defense, but middle linebacker Josey Jewell might be the one guy Iowa can’t afford to lose.
Last year’s leading tackler was all over the place Saturday. On consecutive plays, he had a tackle for loss on Akrum Wadley and batted down a Wiegers pass while blitzing.
He’s got two years left, and he’s already been voted permanent captain. The two-star recruit from Decorah seems destined to be a Hawkeye great.
“I’m smiling a little bit, just because [I] keep going back to how smart we are; we almost didn’t recruit him. I’m glad we weren’t that dumb,” Ferentz cracked Saturday. “We were close to being that dumb, but we weren’t.
“How much better he can be? The great thing about experience is it can push you up the charts a little bit if you use it, and he’s trying to do everything he can to get an edge. He’s just that kind of guy.”
6. Sean Welsh will be the starting center
That’s not yet a fact; just an educated guess.
The tea leaves have been pointing this way, with Ferentz saying at Valley Stadium that he wanted a center with experience, and Welsh enters his junior year with 23 starts. Davis added fuel to the speculation Wednesday.
“He’s kind of built like a center,” Davis said of Iowa’s smallest yet most effective starting lineman (6-3, 288). “And he’s a tough guy, and he’s a smart guy.”
Saturday, Welsh didn’t play because of a sore ankle. The job still could be awarded to James Daniels, who was listed the No. 1 center after the Rose Bowl. But after knee surgery cost the true sophomore all of spring practice, the logical move is to keep him at guard, where he played almost all of his snaps last season.
“It took a little bit of adjusting,” Welsh said Saturday, “and here we are.”
7. It’s good to have Ike back
Perhaps the most under-reported injury of the 2015 Hawkeye season was the high-ankle sprain that right tackle Ike Boettger suffered Oct. 10 against Illinois. He didn’t play again until a few snaps in the Rose Bowl.
Sure, Iowa’s line was OK without him, but he had been blossoming as a fixture on the right side of the line.
“It was real tough for me,” the Cedar Falls native said. “I tried to go a few times in practice, and I just told coach, 'I can go out there. But you’re not going to get me at my best.' ”
He started to feel better over the winter, and on Saturday he played full snaps with the first-team offense. With Boettger and Cole Croston at tackle and Boone Myers moving inside to left guard, the perimeter of Iowa’s line is in solid shape as spring camp concludes.
8. Akrum Wadley is a sleeper
He’s listed as second-team running back behind LeShun Daniels Jr., but Wadley might be one of Iowa’s most effective offensive weapons in 2016.
On Saturday, he ran with more confidence and power than we’ve seen from him, yet he didn’t seem to lose any of his explosiveness. And with Davis saying earlier this week he wanted to get Wadley the ball in the passing game more often, the junior is definitely an instrumental piece in the Hawkeyes’ fall plans.
“The things that he can do on the football field can’t be coached,” running backs coach Chris White said. “And … I think he understands that this team needs him, and he’s really growing up.”
9. Recruiting is alive and well
A slew of signed, committed and uncommitted high school prospects were on hand Saturday.
Five days earlier, Iowa hit a recruiting jackpot with four-star Class of 2017 running back Eno Benjamin of Wylie, Texas, announcing his choice of the Hawkeyes over Michigan, Baylor and Oklahoma State.
The commitment of Benjamin was seismic, because (unlike class jewel A.J. Epenesa) he had no significant ties to Iowa beforehand.
On and off the field, the Hawkeye program right now is seen as winner. You couldn’t have said that a year ago at this time.
10. Cleaning up …
- We caught the kicking game on a good day. Ferentz said the battle between Recinos and Mick Ellis has been back and forth, up and down. We probably won’t get a decision on placements until at least August.
- Quarterback Drew Cook seems to be filling out and figuring it out as his first full year in the program nears completion. The former Iowa City Regina star completed eight of 13 passes for 116 yards — including a 24-yard touchdown to Connor Keane — while running the second-team offense. Iowa wouldn’t have switched Ryan Boyle to receiver if it didn’t feel OK about Cook.
- The defensive end position is going to be a continuing question mark, but Matt Nelson might end up being the best of the bunch. The sophomore dislodged the football from Wiegers while making a touch (no-contact) sack Saturday.
SPRING GAME STATS
The Des Moines Register and Cedar Rapids Gazette combined efforts to put together spring-game statistics for Iowa:
Passing – Wiegers 14-for-28, 100 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT; Cook 8-for-13, 116 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT; Schmidt 3-for-4, 52 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT.
Rushing – Wadley 9-33, Daniels 6-27, Graham 3-21, Joly 6-11, Cook 6-8, Wiegers 4-(-11).
Receiving – McCarron 3-17, Bishop 2-54, Boyle 2-44 (1 TD), Keane 2-36 (1 TD), Pekar 2-17, Wisnieski 2-11, VandeBerg 2-10, Wadley 1-18, Joly 1-10, Daniels 1-9, Kulick 1-9, Vejvoda 1-8, Scheel 1-7, Parker 1-6, J. Smith 1-6, Kittle 1-3, Manders 1-3.
Field goals – Recinos 1-for-1 (made 40).
Punts (avg.) – Rastetter 3-47.0, Camby 3-34.3.
Sacks – Johnson 1, M. Nelson 1, Hulett 1, Brincks 1, Jansen 1.
Interceptions – Ojemudia 1 (TD), King 1.