Observations from Iowa football practice: Nelson out, Epenesa and Hankins rising
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa opened its football practice to the media Monday morning, providing a 15-minute window into its preparations for the Sept. 2 season opener against Wyoming.
A few observations:
Junior defensive end Matt Nelson was in uniform but did not participate in the drills witnessed by reporters. The 6-foot-8, 285-pounder out of Cedar Rapids broke his foot on the first day of spring practices, but said Saturday that he is fully healed. He did say that he was still “shaking off the rust,” however.
In his absence, five-star recruitA.J. Epenesa ran with the second-stringers (Parker Hesse and Anthony Nelson made up the first unit). Epenesa even lined up at end in one five-man front formation that saw Hesse slide inside. He clearly is pushing for immediate playing time.
So is cornerback Matt Hankins, another true freshman who was getting second-team reps. The Texas native was singled out for praise at Saturday’s media day by defensive coordinator Phil Parker as well as teammates Josh Jackson and Manny Rugamba, who are the starting cornerbacks.
Junior free safety Jake Gervase, elevated to starting status after the knee injury suffered by Brandon Snyder this spring, was getting a lot of instruction from Parker. He also seemed to be seeking it, asking questions as the defense tried different formations. He was even seen blitzing up the middle in one lineup. Parker said Saturday that he’s asking Gervase to become more vocal and take on a leadership role required of his position.
Junior Jack Hockaday, listed as the backup at middle linebacker, also sat out the practice and was seen riding an exercise bicycle. Sophomore Kristian Welch has been moved to second string in his absence and has shown every indication he plans to remain there.
Sophomore Nathan Stanley took the first snaps at quarterback, for what that’s worth. Junior Tyler Wiegers got equal time with the starting unit. Both remain locked in a battle for the starting job, and there’s no end in sight for that decision.
Senior Akrum Wadley and redshirt freshman Toren Young split time at tailback with the first unit. Graduate transfer James Butler was with the second-stringers, but that designation seems likely to be temporary. Wadley and Butler each surpassed 1,000 yards on the ground last season, Butler doing so at Nevada. But it’s notable that Young has apparently moved past sophomore Toks Akinribade in the tailback pecking order. Young is the bigger, more punishing runner, which provides a starker contrast to Wadley’s style.
At wide receiver, the trio that took the field for the opening plays were senior Matt VandeBerg, junior-college transfer Nick Easley and sophomore Devonte Young. VandeBerg is working his way back from a foot injury, and showed no ill effects. Junior Adrian Falconer drew high praise Saturday from wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland, who called him his most improved player. But he was with the second unit Monday.
Sophomore tight end Nate Wieting, listed as a second-stringer on Iowa’s depth chart last month, was also riding a stationary bike instead of practicing.
Fans will get to draw their own conclusions after watching Iowa’s lone open practice session, scheduled for noon Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. Gates for the annual Kids Day festivities open at 11 a.m. Admission is free. Players will sign autographs (for children only) starting at 11:30 a.m.