Iowa football takeaways: Amani Jones becomes lead linebacker, Brandon Smith hasn't arrived yet, A.J. Epenesa playing both sides

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Amani Jones has emerged as the leader of an inexperienced Hawkeye linebacker corps, Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker said Tuesday.

The junior from Chicago began spring practices listed as the backup weakside linebacker. But when fans get their first glimpse of the Hawkeyes in Friday’s 7 p.m. open scrimmage, look for Jones to be the starting middle linebacker.

“The way he puts his effort and the time in, watching film, preparation, the energy and excitement that he brings to the field,” Parker said when asked what has impressed him about Jones through 12 practices. “And then, obviously, he finishes plays. He likes to go after guys and he does a good job of tackling guys. And you just like his enthusiasm.”

Iowa sophomore linebacker Amani Jones drills Wyoming's Jaylon Watson at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017.

Parker said if Iowa had a game this week, it would start Jones in the middle, with senior Aaron Mends at the weakside spot and sophomore Nick Niemann on the outside. The Hawkeyes are replacing three starters at linebacker, the biggest question mark on a defense that Parker seemed enthusiastic about overall when meeting with the media for the only time this spring.

And that starts with Jones, a heavy hitter on special teams who has set the Iowa team record by squat-lifting 625 pounds.

“I like his ability to read the box and diagnose the plays,” Parker said of Jones. “And when he goes, he goes. I think his ability to go ahead and trigger when he sees something. … He’s got a low center of gravity and he runs through guys. I’m really excited to see what he can do.”

Junior Kristian Welch was listed as the starting middle linebacker when spring began. He is now backing up Mends, Parker said. Senior Jack Hockaday is backing up Jones. Sophomore Barrington Wade is second string behind Niemann.

Parker praised all six linebackers, singling out Wade in his opening remarks.

“Wade has really done a tremendous job of increasing his knowledge and his ability to move around on the field,” Parker said.

Parker stressed that the starting assignments are still fluid. But he has been heartened to see his defense cut its mental errors “almost in half” since spring began. That, too, is a testament to how much Jones has learned about being a leader on defense.

Jones told reporters last week that he has been alternating between middle and weakside linebacker, and that he still got confused about his assignments at times.

Listening to Parker on Tuesday, that seems to no longer be the case. Iowa may have found its successor to all-American Josey Jewell.

Slow down the Brandon Smith hype

Two of Iowa’s top four wide receivers this spring are sophomores that have been getting plenty of publicity. But Hawkeye coaches have been reserved in their praise of Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith.

Head coach Kirk Ferentz and wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland both have pointed out that Smith-Marsette, a 6-foot-1, 175-pound speedster out of New Jersey, could benefit from spending less time on his phone and more time studying film.

On Tuesday, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz was asked about the playmaking ability of Smith, a 6-3, 219-pound high jump champion from Mississippi. Ferentz noted that Smith, an outside receiver, is likely to see plenty of single coverage.

Then he threw a little bit of a wet blanket on the hype surrounding Smith.

“I don’t know that he’s demonstrated he is a playmaker yet. If we get him to become one, boy, that would be terrific,” Ferentz said.

“I’d like to see him do something in a game.”

Smith caught three passes for 15 yards last season despite playing in all but two games. But he promptly fumbled away his longest reception, an eight-yard gain in a loss at Michigan State.

Ferentz praised Smith for the consistent effort he is showing in spring practices. He said Smith needs to work more on getting better releases off the line of scrimmage and running precise routes.

“But until he does something in a game besides fumble on an out (pattern),” Ferentz reiterated, “it’s going to be a little bit hard to say that he’s a guy we want to put in a position to make plays.”

It sounds like Iowa’s coaches are putting their young receivers on notice: They haven’t arrived yet, just because they’re listed on the depth chart.

Epenesa needs 'to listen a little better'

No Iowa sophomore has received more attention than A.J. Epenesa. The highly recruited defensive end saw plenty of playing time as a true freshman a year ago.

But Parker also spent more time Tuesday talking about what Epenesa needs to do better than he did bragging up his young star-in-the-making.

First, the positive: Parker said Epenesa has shown the ability to play both right and left end this spring after being exclusively on the right side a year ago. “That’s exciting to us,” he said.

“He's got to be a little more disciplined in knowing his responsibility and understand that people are going to change formations, they're going to change the calls for you,” Parker continued. “When you've got your hand in the ground, it's a lot harder for those defensive linemen to hear the secondary, the linebacker guys making calls. So he's definitely got to listen a little bit better.”

Epenesa, at 6-5, 277 pounds, is a special pass-rushing talent. But Iowa coaches are clearly trying to keep him grounded as well.

Brincks helping fill a void at DT

At the beginning of the spring, Iowa announced that sophomore defensive end Chauncey Golston was moving to the interior of the line, where more depth is needed.

On Tuesday, Parker said the Hawkeyes are trying the same experiment with senior Sam Brincks. Brincks, at 6-5, 275 pounds, is the primary backup at left end behind Anthony Nelson. He earned playing time last year by showing he could hold up well against opposing rush offenses.

But Iowa must replace the graduated Nathan Bazata at one defensive tackle spot and is minus Matt Nelson (injury) at the other spot this spring. Juniors Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff are the listed starters.

Parker said the Golston and Brincks moves aren’t set in stone, but do give the team more flexibility on the defensive line.

“We did it for two weeks with one and then we did two weeks with the other, and we'll probably switch them off going back and forth,” Parker said.

It will be interesting to see if either switch becomes permanent. As a senior, Brincks figures to be better equipped to handle a temporary change in assignment. But if Hawkeye coaches feel Golston has a long-term benefit at tackle, he could potentially provide three years of service there while adding size to his 265-pound frame.

Injuries to end spring

Iowa has been pretty healthy this spring, with only notable injuries to Nelson and starting guard Levi Paulsen. Neither are thought to be serious enough to jeopardize the regular season.

On Tuesday, Iowa sports information announced two other players would not be participating in Friday’s open practice to conclude the spring session.

Senior defensive end Parker Hesse, the leader of that unit, and reserve defensive back Wes Dvorak also will be out with minor injuries.