Iowa takeaways: Preparing for Air Raid, a blocker's dream, more true freshmen

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa’s next football opponent, North Texas at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, doesn’t list a tight end on its depth chart.

Meet the “Air Raid” offense: a quarterback, a running back, five linemen and four receivers.

“We’re going to have to get jams on their receivers,” outside linebacker Ben Niemann said. “Just have good eye discipline and depth in our drops.”

There’s no opponent like this in the Big Ten Conference. But the good news for the Hawkeyes (2-0), three-touchdown favorites, is that they got plenty of practice against a pass-heavy attack last week.

And they’re prepared to counter with “dime” personnel that saw a lot of action in Saturday’s 44-41 win against Iowa State.

The dime takes out linebackers Niemann and Bo Bower and deploys six defensive backs. Against the Cyclones, the alignment included corners Joshua Jackson, Michael Ojemudia, Manny Rugamba and safeties Miles Taylor, Jake Gervase and Amani Hooker.

It certainly was imperfect at times. Hooker, a lightly tested sophomore safety, found himself one-on-one with Iowa State all-time receiving leader Allen Lazard on third-and-goal.

Iowa's Joshua Jackson (15) and Miles Taylor (19) break up a pass intended for Iowa State's Allen Lazard during their game at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017.

Touchdown, Cyclones. A mistake?

“Sometimes, it’s how it works out,” said Josey Jewell, the lone linebacker in Iowa’s dime package. “But (Hooker) is pretty good in coverage. I think he can handle quite a bit, even if the guy’s pretty tall or pretty fast.”

Iowa’s been practicing more dime this week, with an effort to combat a Mean Green attack averaging 580.5 yards per game, ninth in FBS.

When Iowa goes dime, it also inserts true freshman A.J. Epenesa on the defensive line. The five-star recruit saw his snap count go from 10 in Week 1 to 15 in Week 2.

Look for that number to continue to climb.

“He's done some really good things out there,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “The more he plays, the more he'll play, if that makes sense.”

It does.

Hawkeye cornerbacks Joshua Jackson (15), Manny Rugamba (5) and Michael Ojemudia (11) pose for a portrait Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017, during Iowa football media day in Iowa City.

Manny or O.J.?

Ferentz said Tuesday he made the call to bench starter Rugamba in favor of Ojemudia in the second quarter of Saturday’s game in Ames.

“It's just a suggestion I made during the game,” Ferentz said. “I felt like … our tempo wasn't quite there. They both have been competing well in practice. I think O.J. (Ojemudia) has really grown a lot, especially since January. I think he's one of our more improved players. I said the same thing about Josh.”

So who’s the starter opposite Jackson?

Right now, Rugamba remains the listed starter. Ferentz also likes the way he’s seen true freshman Matt Hankins, the fourth corner, progress. Maybe we’ll see him a little bit Saturday, too.

“Hopefully at the end of this we'll have three guys playing really well,” Ferentz said, “and we'll need all three of those guys.”

Blockers relish spotlight

Fullback and tight end are technically “skill positions.” Even at Iowa, where blocking has long been the first duty for those players.

Drake Kulick and Peter Pekar proved as much in Saturday’s 44-41 win at Iowa State, seizing rare opportunities to catch passes.

It’s all part of a new Hawkeye offensive philosophy under first-year coordinator Brian Ferentz, Pekar said.

“There’s all sorts of opportunity for everybody. … Just keep on blocking like you do, and the passes will be there,” said Pekar, who caught one pass for nine yards on a fourth-quarter Iowa scoring drive.

If that doesn’t sound like much, consider that Pekar had caught one pass in his first three seasons.

Kulick, a senior fullback, had more yards receiving (29) than Cyclones star wide receiver Allen Lazard (23). He also entered play with one career catch, a 22-yarder two years ago.

“A lot of times, teams don’t account for a fullback in the flat,” Pekar said of Kulick’s 26-yard gain in the third quarter. “And that’s kind of what happened. It brings a lot of juice to the team, because stuff like that doesn’t always happen. Then you know the offense is firing on all cylinders when things like that happen.

“We’re a very dynamic offense. A lot of guys have a lot of talent.”

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz singled out the long Kulick reception (he had another for 3 yards) as a savvy play by sophomore quarterback Nate Stanley. Many quarterbacks fixate on trying to make a deep connection and don’t even look for an underneath receiver, Ferentz noted.

“(Quarterbacks coach) Ken (O’Keefe) always talks about, 'You're not going to go broke making a deposit.' That was a smart play on his part getting it to Drake,” Ferentz said.

More true freshmen

In addition to acknowledging true freshman offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs would likely play soon, Ferentz is continuing to let out more rope on rookies at skilled positions.

Saturday, he turned to receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette for the game-winning touchdown, and receiver Brandon Smith’s redshirt came off. Both are in the top four in that position group now.

Next up: Max Cooper. The speedy 6-foot, 175-pound rookie receiver from Wisconsin is being considered for action in Iowa’s punt-return game, and Ferentz said he would play at some point this season.

“He's done a nice job back there as a young kid,” Ferentz said.

Ferentz also is making true freshman Ivory Kelly-Martin his lead kickoff return man. He likes what Kelly-Martin has shown in practice, and it takes a little workload off top running back Akrum Wadley.

Kelly-Martin returned two kicks for 39 yards against the Cyclones.

“I don't even know what the yardage was, but he looked like he belonged out there,” Ferentz said. “That's how he's looked in practice. We want to get his feet wet and get him going here (in the run game), too.”

Seats available

Iowa announced that 5,700 tickets remained for Saturday’s game, in which tickets are $45 for adults, $25 for children. As of Tuesday, about 5,500 tickets were still available for the Sept. 23 home game against No. 5 Penn State. Those are $95 a pop for all ages.

On Monday, it was announced Iowa-Penn State would kick off under the lights — 6:30 p.m. CT.

“Very exciting,” Wadley said. “Got to love a night game.”

Hawk Central's Mark Emmert contributed to this report.