Leistikow: Next 3 months will shape Hawkeyes' 2016 fate

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Spring practice is over, and fall camp won’t break until August.

Yet what happens in the next 3½ months could quietly be the most pivotal factor in determining the success of the 2016 Iowa football team.

Iowa cornerback Desmond King was likely heading to Ball State, until Phil Parker made a recruiting stop to Michigan. Now King's one of the nation's top defensive players.

How can that be? Let’s use the NFL Draft — which runs Thursday through Saturday in Chicago — to illustrate the point.

During Iowa’s amazing 2015 run, credit was repeatedly traced to the program’s 21 seniors. From Jordan Canzeri to Cole Fisher to Henry Krieger Coble to Jordan Walsh, most of that class played the best football of their lives. It translated to a 12-0 regular season and the Rose Bowl.

Yet, it’s possible that one or fewer Hawkeyes will be selected in the seven-round, 253-pick bonanza. (Only Austin Blythe is projected to go as a late-round pick according to a CBSSports.com mock draft, and an NFL.com mock has no Hawkeye getting drafted.)

What gives? It shows those seniors didn't have the most raw talent, but they maximized it amid an all-for-one, one-for-all culture.

Compare that with 2014. One assistant coach divulged that year’s culture was “weak.” So it now makes sense that even though they produced the No. 5 overall pick in the 2015 draft (in Brandon Scherff) and two more early-round picks, those Hawkeyes were an underachieving 7-6.

So, what’s in store for the 2016 culture?

It's TBD. The summer is when that develops the most.

“It’s a critical time,” quarterback C.J. Beathard said.

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In the spring, inevitable annual roster turnover triggers a reset button. I firmly believe that the decision to put Beathard atop the Jan. 8, 2015, depth chart was the biggest step in changing the program’s direction. The cloud of a quarterback controversy officially evaporated when Jake Rudock headed to Michigan.

A new culture was beginning. It became Beathard’s team. He was the affable, talented, natural leader who was easy to rally around.

He’s the guy you want leading the 2016 charge, too, as the dog days of summer approach.

Improvement now must come from self-discipline. Only strength coaches can work with the players when they return June 6 to begin their summer program.

“I’m definitely going to work with these receivers and backs and tight ends as much as we can in the summer, throughout the summer,” Beathard said, “and make sure we’re not skipping a beat.”

Middle linebacker Josey Jewell is another natural leader. He became the first sophomore under Kirk Ferentz to be named permanent team captain. He’s taken command of his position group, and the defense.

Beefed-up Wadley prepared to take hits, dish out omelets

“Just the small things, doing everything right — trying to do everything right — on and off the field,” Jewell explained, “and just showing the younger guys sometimes how to do things.”

Beathard and Jewell are a good start. Who else will emerge?

“It takes a lot more than just one on each side, you know what I’m saying?” junior right tackle Ike Boettger said. “(When) it’s more of a community thing, I feel like the chemistry is so much better. That’s what we had last year.”

Jim Thorpe Award winner Desmond King seems to be answering Ferentz’s challenge to be a more vocal leader. He’s certainly a prominent figure, with his portrait going up in the All-American Room of the Iowa Football Performance Center last week.

“A lot of younger guys are looking up to me,” King said. “That’s one thing, as a senior, you’ve got (be) accountable. … You have to make that next step to maturity.”

It’s easy to roll your eyes at this culture stuff. But if King isn’t watching extra film this summer, do the younger defensive backs think they can get by without it, too?

The proverb of “iron sharpens iron” is especially true in Iowa football. It's something tight end George Kittle learned last year from seniors like Krieger Coble and Jake Duzey.

Now, Kittle’s a senior. From the on-deck circle to the batter's box.

“We’re adding to it, just trying to make it the best culture we can possibly be,” Kittle said. “The big thing is the young guys believing it, too, and that’s something that maybe hasn’t happened in past years.”

The 2016 culture seems to be trending toward strong, leaving "weak" behind.

But important relationships will grow in the months ahead — over bacon and eggs, in film rooms, on the practice field.

On Sept. 3 — Iowa's season opener against Miami of Ohio — we'll get an idea how it all went.