At BTN Tour stop, Iowa football's physicality, depth on display

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

You know the drill. The Big Ten Network stops every August for one behind-the-scenes look at each conference team’s football practice and operation.

You know it’s the league network — they mostly focus on the positive. So feel free to put as much or as little stock into what comes out of it as you want.

Monday, the bus tour was in Iowa City.

Iowa linebacker coach Seth Wallace, right, works with Djimon Colbert during Saturday's "Kids Day at Kinnick."

No surprise: There wasn’t much hard news, if any, from Kirk Ferentz or his coordinators. No quarterback decision between Nathan Stanley and Tyler Wiegers; a big Friday-night scrimmage might finally sort that out.

But here are some of the interesting nuggets that emerged: (Feel free to add salt.)

What the analysts said

BTN’s Gerry DiNardo made perhaps the most encouraging comment of the day, tweeting: “From (player) 1 to 105 this may be 1 of the best looking Iowa teams we’ve seen. Every position group was impressive physically.”

DiNardo, the former Indiana coach, has been doing this bus tour for more than a decade, so that's saying something. And it's probably not much of an exaggeration.

Iowa is extremely deep at running back, with Akrum Wadley, Toren Young and James Butler at the top; it's stock-piling young, big bodies on the offensive line (like Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs) behind a veteran starting unit; it's featuring a seven-deep blend of athletic and blocking tight ends; and it feels very good about its quality numbers at defensive end and linebacker.

The big questions, of course, remain at quarterback, wide receiver and safety — something BTN studio host Dave Revsine pointed out in a tweet: “Still a little underwhelming in the pass game in Iowa City – though clear progress has been made since spring game. I'd guess Stanley as QB.”

And BTN reporter Tom Dienhart said of the group’s eighth tour stop out of 14 that, “without a doubt, it was the most physical” practice they've seen so far.

Takes on the offense

The BTN folks spent a lot of time focusing on the dynamic of Kirk Ferentz’s 34-year-old son being his first-year offensive coordinator.

“This is a New Kirk move,” BTN’s Glen Mason said from the Chicago studios, before adding about Brian Ferentz’s challenge: “I don’t know how you have a good offense unless you have a real talented quarterback.”

And that’s where Brian Ferentz got asked about Wiegers vs. Stanley.

“You wish maybe you could put it all together in one guy,” he said, wearing a T-shirt that read "STRONG" behind the state of Iowa outline. “Tyler has a little more experience in the system. I think he’s often more comfortable just managing the offense and the simple procedural things that happen. And then you’ve got a guy like Nate who’s a little bit younger … but he’s got a big, explosive arm, and he can sure throw it a long way.”

Does the tie go to the younger guy? Sophomore Stanley looked better during Saturday’s Kids Day open practice, but DiNardo said he saw no separation between the two in Monday’s practice.

Also on the concern list

Kirk Ferentz told Revsine that true freshmen Brandon Smith, Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Max Cooper could be immediate contributors.

That’s consistent with what Saturday’s open practice showed, too.

BTN’s Howard Griffith expressed concern about Iowa’s wide receivers, saying the group needs to find more players like Marvin McNutt (Iowa’s only 1,000-yard receiver in the last 16 seasons, in 2011).

“I don’t know that that was addressed today, necessarily,” Griffith said. “They’re going to have a strong running game. When you have that, to be able to throw over the top of those defenses to loosen them up — you’ve got to be able to do that.”

On the encouraging list

Defensively, Iowa seems to be trending up. Griffith raved about cornerback Manny Rugamba. That confidence was echoed by defensive coordinator Phil Parker in a brief interview.

Parker likes what he’s seen in Iowa’s first 13 practices of fall camp — “especially at corner,” between Rugamba and Joshua Jackson. That was consistent with something Kirk Ferentz said Saturday about Jackson’s impressive growth as he enters his redshirt junior year.

Safety will be another issue.

Dienhart also didn't tamp down fans' enthusiasm for A.J. Epenesa, predicting a "big impact" from the incoming five-star freshman defensive end and noting, "the hype is real."

The BTN boys raved about center James Daniels, with Griffith saying the true junior would enjoy a great pro career someday. "He's a center that you can pull anytime you want, to the left, to the right," Griffith said. "He's just that athletic. He's a special player."

The final words

Wadley and linebacker Josey Jewell kept things close to the vest during their air time.

But DiNardo noted about a team that Vegas put at over/under 6.5 regular-season wins, "If someone underrates Iowa, it's a problem."

And speaking of final words, Kirk Ferentz's interview teased that 2007 AFC Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders would be coming in to speak to the team this week.

"To have that connectivity and guys in the program feel comfortable coming back and being part of the family," Ferentz said, "that’s the best part about sports. It always has been."