Leistikow: Tying up spring football's loose ends (Plus, predictions!)
Spring football practice at Iowa has drifted into the rear-view mirror.
But before it completely fades out of sight, here are some final thoughts, observations and predictions on some important-but-under-the-radar topics:
Positive medical report
Injuries are a part of football. Fortunately for Iowa this spring, major injuries weren’t.
Five expected starters, including quarterback C.J. Beathard (shoulder bruise), missed the April 23 spring game. Two of them barely got written about all spring, but that gets alleviated now: James Daniels and Ben Niemann, both critical pieces in the 2016 puzzle, are progressing nicely.
Daniels, who had knee surgery after the Rose Bowl, was already doing individual drills last week. Given how quickly he rose through the ranks as a true freshman, I think he’ll make up ground quickly and be a force — probably at right guard — on Iowa’s opening-day offensive line.
Niemann was maybe one of the quietest stars of the 2015 Hawkeyes, because at outside linebacker he could protect the dreaded edge and help in pass coverage. Ankle surgery kept him out of spring practice, but on our "Hawk Central" radio show this week, linebackers coach Seth Wallace said Niemann’s recovery has been “outstanding” and that he should be 100 percent when the team returns for summer conditioning June 6.
Whither Derrick Mitchell?
It’ll be interesting to see how Derrick Mitchell Jr. (who missed the spring with an injury) and incoming rookies are incorporated into the running back fold. The tandem of LeShun Daniels Jr. and Akrum Wadley has the potential to be Iowa’s best since Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher in 2009.
Daniels and Wadley had impressive springs. Their bodies are built for the workload. And with Wadley being Iowa’s best player in space and a decent pass blocker, he gets my vote for third-down back over Mitchell. When Mitchell entered the huddle last year, it telegraphed that Iowa had a passing play called.
Prediction 1 in the running back group: If healthy (very important “if” considering both had nagging ankle issues last season), Daniels and Wadley will combine for more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage in 2016. Daniels will top 200 carries and become Iowa’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Marcus Coker (2011), and Wadley will exceed 1,000 after his first 150 touches (rushing and receiving).
Prediction 2: At least one true freshman — either Toks Akinribade or Toren Young — will play right away. Nonconference play will be a lower-pressure opportunity for one or both to get their feet wet, then be seasoned for the 2017 mix when Daniels is gone and Wadley is a senior.
Quietly powerful position
A year ago, so much was written about new offensive tackles Boone Myers and Ike Boettger that it was convenient to overlook that senior road graders Austin Blythe and Jordan Walsh were returning.
With major questions at defensive end this spring, the overlooked position of strength became defensive tackle. It's there that senior Jaleel Johnson and junior Nathan Bazata stir comparisons to 2014’s Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat — a hulking NFL talent and a high-motor grit guy.
Throw in improving senior Faith Ekakitie, and this should be a three-man rotation that takes a lot of blocking flesh away from young ends Parker Hesse, Matt Nelson and Anthony Nelson.
Expect some attrition
In my spring media guide, there are ink asterisks next to a handful of scholarship players. These are names that I don’t think will be listed when the next roster is issued in late July.
It wouldn’t be appropriate to name them here. But it’s not unusual to see 3-5 offseason departures. One is already announced (cornerback Maurice Fleming), and more will follow. Last offseason, Iowa saw quarterback Jake Rudock, fullback John Kenny and defensive backs Malik Rucker, Solomon Warfield and Jalen Embry officially leave the program.
Attrition can be a good thing for all parties. Walk-ons Brandon Snyder and Tyler Kluver are next in line for scholarships, and vacancies could help gray-shirt Noah Clayberg jump on board earlier than planned. Plus, the quickly-filling Class of 2017 could use a little more cushion to build on recruiting momentum.
More to like about Boyle move
Ryan Boyle’s transition from quarterback to wide receiver wound up being the biggest story coming out of the spring game. And after further review, there’s another reason — beyond the obvious immediate position need — to dig it.
The Hawkeyes only brought in one receiver (Devonte Young) in the Class of 2016. None of the 10 known 2017 commitments are wideouts. And two current starting spots will be vacated in 2017 (when seniors Matt VandeBerg and Riley McCarron are gone). So Boyle, the former Dowling Catholic star, might be less than 11 months away from competing for starter’s snaps at receiver.
A prediction: Receivers coach Bobby Kennedy’s top five next season will eventually be (not necessarily in this order) VandeBerg, McCarron, Jerminic Smith, Jay Scheel and Boyle. Jonathan Parker and Adrian Falconer will compete for the sixth spot and spot duty.
A subtle comparison
In revisiting Kirk Ferentz’s spring game press conference, I heard something that initially slipped past me: a comparison between Aaron Mends to Anthony Hitchens.
Mends is competing with Jack Hockaday and Bo Bower to be Iowa’s third starting linebacker, on the weak side (joining Niemann and middle man Josey Jewell). Mends packs power and athleticism into his 6-foot-1 frame, just like Hitchens did before starring at Iowa in 2013 and becoming an NFL success.
Since arriving in Iowa City, Mends is 20 pounds heavier going into his redshirt sophomore year.
“Now I’m fitting into the position a little bit better. Last year, I was a little smaller,” he told me after the spring game. “But now I’m 225. We have until August, so next season you might see me a lot more than that.”
Much like what Iowa coaches saw in James Daniels last season, this is the guy worth getting on the field even if he makes a few mistakes. From Ferentz's mouth, the upside is high. I expect Mends to start the Sept. 3 opener against Miami of Ohio, and he might even follow the path of predecessor Cole Fisher as one of Iowa’s top tacklers in 2016.