Iowa football's defense and offense need holes filled: Here's what to watch for this spring

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The Iowa football team began spring practices Wednesday without the comfort of knowing Josey Jewell would be in the middle of its defense.

That’s like having to replace a star quarterback. And to make matters more complicated, Jewell’s linebacker cohorts Bo Bower and Ben Niemann have also graduated.

There are so many questions that must start to be answered every season during these 15 practice sessions, which culminate with a 7 p.m. April 20 open scrimmage at Kinnick Stadium. For the Hawkeyes, it starts at linebacker, but certainly doesn’t end there.

Here are five things to keep a close eye on over the next five weeks of Iowa football practices:

Who will be the heart of the defense?

The initial depth chart lists junior Kristian Welch at middle linebacker, flanked by senior Aaron Mends and sophomore Nick Niemann (yes, that’s Ben’s little brother). Those three have a combined 26 tackles in their Iowa careers, mostly on special teams. So a dropoff is inevitable. The trick for Iowa’s coaches and players is to make sure it’s not too steep.

Iowa linebacker Aaron Mends, celebrating the victory over Nebraska last year, could be a hard-to-contain mainstay for the Hawkeye defense for three more seasons.

“We’ve been working on that for months, actually,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday when asked about finding a new trio of starting linebackers.

But that work has been done in nonpublic practice sessions. This spring, for the first time, Iowa’s linebacker hopefuls will be on display April 20. What will they show?

“The biggest thing coming out of December was it was clearly cloudy still,” Ferentz said. “It’s anybody’s ball game right now. And some guys have a lot of position flexibility; other guys maybe not as much. The key, then, for us right now is I think to figure out who the best three are and then where can we put them most effectively. And then if we can find a fourth guy, a fifth guy, a sixth guy.”

Mends has been in the program the longest and once before was atop the depth chart in spring only to see Bower grab his spot. He’ll be pushed this spring by Amani Jones. Senior Jack Hockaday is listed behind Welch. The outside spot might provide the most intrigue, with sophomore Barrington Wade backing up the equally inexperienced Niemann to begin with. But Ferentz and defensive coordinator Phil Parker have both suggested that a senior safety could be groomed to handle that spot, which requires more play in space, in the summer practice sessions.

That means it’s up to Niemann, Wade, or some other emerging contender to prove that such a plan is not necessary.

“We’re not going to make any rash decisions right off the bat,” Ferentz said. “But at the same time, we have to start putting guys in the proper spots. So that really is up to them right now, the players. Basically players determine what the depth chart is going to be. The biggest thing we have to do as coaches is make sure we don’t put them in a position where it’s not realistic for them to have success. That’s part of our job is to figure out what position can we line a guy up to have the most opportunity for success and then they’ve got to take it from there. It’s what we see in practice, how guys come on.”

Ferentz pointed to fifth-year senior Cole Fisher’s rapid rise to the top of the depth chart at weak-side linebacker in 2015. But he also said it’s possible a first-year player could end up earning a larger role.

It will be the story of the spring, summer and fall for the Hawkeyes.

Who backs up Stanley?

Iowa has a known commodity in junior quarterback Nate Stanley, coming off a 26-touchdown debut season as the starter. That’s of great comfort to the coaches.

Stanley is a sturdy 6-foot-4, 242 pounds. But what happens if he should get injured? That might be keeping Ferentz up at night this spring.

Redshirt freshman Peyton Mansell would be next in line. True freshman Spencer Petras arrived on campus in January to try to get quickly up to speed as well. No player on a football roster is more popular among fans than a backup quarterback. So we don’t need to tell you to keep an eye on this one.

“There’s really nothing we can do to speed them up,” Ferentz said of his two young signal callers. “The common denominator between Peyton and Spencer is neither of them (have) played, basically. But there still is a world of difference, Spencer just getting here a couple months ago. But they both have really good attitudes. They’re both very willing, very sharp guys.”

Mansell, a Texas native who operated solely in the shotgun in high school, had the luxury of learning behind Tyler Wiegers and Ryan Boyle last fall. But those two quarterbacks have transferred elsewhere searching for some playing time. That means Mansell’s time could be now.

“This is the best way for them to learn. They’re going to be thrown into the water and they’re going to learn how to swim real quickly,” Ferentz said. “We saw Peyton make a ton of progress during the fall last year. Just from basic things like taking a snap under center. That was something he’d never done before. He struggled pretty significantly.

“He’s got a lot of good attributes. He’s a good leader. Guys really respond to him. We’ve seen him grow. This is going to be a really important period for him, keep pushing forward for the next 15 days. And Spencer’s just starting from scratch, but again a good football mentality, a very serious, hard-working guy.”

Who snaps the ball?

Iowa has one interior offensive lineman with extensive playing experience, and that’s Keegan Render. The senior from Indianola was a starting guard last year. Now he may need to play center to replace the departed James Daniels, a likely first-round NFL Draft pick.

That’s the initial plan, but it also would leave the Hawkeyes having to break in two new starting guards. Who mans those three spots is almost as important as who gets the three starting jobs in the middle of the defense.

Senior Ross Reynolds and junior Levi Paulsen are atop the depth chart at guard to start spring. Sophomore Cole Banwart, who battled injuries last season but is coming on strong, is the backup center. It’s possible he could show enough to earn the starting job, which would push Render back to one of the guard spots. Or not.

“Last year, (Render) jumped in when James couldn’t go (in the season opener) and he was our No. 2 guy (at center). So we’ll start out with him there,” Ferentz said. “We’ll see how Cole comes along. He was doing some good things last fall and then couldn’t practice in December because he had a little bit of a surgery issue. He’s really done some good things, too.”

Converted defensive lineman Levi Duwa would be next in line at center. At guard, Levi Paulsen’s twin brother Landan is listed as his backup, with redshirt freshman Coy Kirkpatrick behind Reynolds.

“We’re just trying to build some depth and see where that all goes,” Ferentz said.

It’s not a flashy thing to monitor during a spring scrimmage, but fans should do so nonetheless.

Who carries the ball?

And here’s why: Iowa is also trying to build up a new stable of running backs after 1,000-yard rusher Akrum Wadley graduated. That will be an easier process if the offensive line can jell early.

Sophomore Toren Young (193 yards, two touchdowns last year) is listed atop the depth chart. But he figures to split time with sophomore Ivory Kelly-Martin (184, three). That’s a fine plan if both pan out.

Young is the bulkier bruiser at 221 pounds. Kelly-Martin is slimmer (200) and scattier, also returning kickoffs last year.

Redshirt freshman Kyshaun Bryan, injured last year, will try to carve out a role. But the position is so thin that Iowa has moved defensive back Cam Harrell into the running back rotation for the spring.

Identifying each player’s strengths will be more challenging because the coaches will need to limit practice repetitions for each in order to avoid overwork injuries, at least until some freshmen arrive in the summer.

“We like our running backs; there just aren’t many of them. So there’s a lot to like, but there’s not a lot of guys to like, if that makes sense,” Ferentz quipped.

It does. But that needs to change by the fall. If Young and Kelly-Martin can stay healthy and handle big workloads (like Wadley and LeShun Daniels Jr. in 2016), this won’t be as much of a concern. But there’s a big opening here for a rookie running back to make some noise. This is a fun competition to keep an eye on all spring and summer.

Special teams? Yes, special teams

Finally, two important positions that might get overlooked, and may not even be showcased in a spring game: punter and long-snapper. The Hawkeyes need to find reliable options at both, whether fans want to spend much time thinking about it or not.

Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz talks with punter Colten Rastetter against Boston College during the 2017 Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in Bronx, New York on Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017.

Iowa’s punting game never got much altitude last year, and the same two competitors figure to battle for the starting job again. Initially, sophomore Ryan Gersonde is listed on the top line after averaging 42.5 yards on his 13 boots a year ago. Junior Colten Rastetter held the job for most of the season, but could only manage 37.8 yards on his 55 punts. Those numbers won’t cut it, and new Iowa special teams coordinator LeVar Woods is certainly aware of the need to develop an improved option.

You only notice long-snappers when they mess up or catch a pass on a fake field goal. Tyler Kluver never did the former, and once did the latter, in four terrific years. And that leaves a big void for someone to fill.

Junior Jackson Subbert enters spring with the first crack at taking over for Kluver. Sophomore Austin Spiewak is second on the depth chart. A third option would be redshirt freshman Marshall Coluzzi, younger brother of former Iowa punter Ron Coluzzi.

It’s a job that requires 100 percent accuracy. That’s a high standard. But the Hawkeyes, and their fans, won’t rest unless they find someone who can achieve that.