IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa's spring football practices wrapped up Friday, leaving coach Kirk Ferentz feeling both cautious and optimistic about his team. As usual.
"I think we see the guys, especially this past week, come together a little bit better, and look a little bit more like a team, and then right along with it, see some leadership starting to develop on the football team in a lot of different areas, which is encouraging," Ferentz told reporters after an open practice at Kinnick Stadium attended by 9,300.
"We were in game uniforms tonight but were hardly game ready."
The evening began with somber news about an injury to a senior. Two juniors on defense stole the show.
With 15 practices in the books, here are 10 things we think we learned (contents may have shifted by the time August arrives):
An injury, some clarity at linebacker
The three linebacker spots are the biggest position battles of 2018 for Iowa. The team can’t afford a misstep when elevating the successors to Josey Jewell, Bo Bower and Ben Niemann.
So it was a big blow to the Hawkeye plans when word surfaced that senior linebacker Aaron Mends suffered a knee injury in Wednesday's practice that was likely season-ending. Mends was positioned as the starter at weakside linebacker. Instead, Kristian Welch took that spot Friday and likely will battle Jack Hockaday to keep it.
Nothing figures to be decided until August. Or did we see the anointing of two starters late in the spring practice sessions?
Defensive coordinator Phil Parker said last week that Amani Jones (middle) and Nick Niemann (outside) were the front-runners after a dozen practices in which they were pushed by Hockaday, Welch and Barrington Wade.
Jones, a stout junior from Chicago, seemed to be taking Jewell’s leadership mantle. He certainly looked the part Friday.
"He's got a natural vibe to him or juice," Ferentz said of Jones. "He's done some good things for us already on special teams. Now, the trick is, can he convert it into every down-playing out there? But he's made a lot of progress this spring."
Nothing has been publicly declared, of course. But Jones taking ownership of the middle of the Hawkeye defense would be the biggest potential development of the spring.
The backup quarterback quandary
Unlike last year, Iowa is set at quarterback heading into the summer. Junior Nate Stanley enters his second year as the starter with a much better handle on the playbook and the swagger you need from the leader of your offense.
The drama now is at the backup spot. Redshirt freshman Peyton Mansell, in his first spring in the program, showed some moxie in Friday's open practice, shifting around in the pocket to complete eight of his nine passes for 75 yards.
QB Peyton Mansell nearly scrambles in for a TD during Iowa football’s open practice on Friday. Matthew Bain/Hawk Central
He’ll need to keep that up to keep ahead of true freshman Spencer Petras, who arrived in Iowa City in January to get a jumpstart on a career that could see him be the next three-year starter for the Hawkeyes. That’s assuming Iowa can redshirt him this season, and let him get one more fall of seasoning behind Stanley in 2019. Ferentz praised Petras for how quickly he picked things up this spring.
Mansell can scuttle those plans by being so good that he becomes Stanley’s heir apparent. Or by not picking things up quickly enough and watching Petras earn playing time this year, much as Stanley did in 2016 when he beat out Tyler Wiegers for the No. 2 spot as a true freshman.
Either way, Iowa needs a healthy Stanley to be at his best this season. But which young quarterback becomes his eventual replacement will be a fascinating situation to watch play out.
Young wideouts in the spotlight
Here’s what we know about sophomore wide receivers Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith: They have terrific upside; they can’t afford many more of their freshmen fumbles; Iowa coaches will publicly praise them one moment and temper that enthusiasm the next.
And then there’s this: They hold the key to productivity among Iowa’s wideouts.
Sure, senior Nick Easley is back after a team-leading 51 receptions last year. Go ahead and pencil him in for more of the same.
But he’ll need a running partner or two to help him stretch defenses. Smith-Marsette, the New Jersey speedster, and Smith, the Mississippi leaper, must be those guys this year.
If they can approach their ceiling quickly, Iowa’s offense can take the roof off of opposing defenses. If not, it’s difficult to see how the Hawkeyes can gain big chunks of yardage through the air.
Fant/Hockenson ready to break out
Of course, Iowa is blessed to have a pair of tight ends who are fast enough to get downfield. Junior Noah Fant and sophomore T.J. Hockenson were a fairly dynamic duo a year ago, combining for 54 receptions and 14 touchdowns.
Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz indicated he wants to get his tight ends more involved, which is smart. The more Iowa can line them both up together, the more pressure it puts on defenses to account for the 6-foot-5 bookends while also bracing to stop the run.
Fant added 10 pounds, up to 241, and seems poised to take his spot as the best tight end in the Big Ten Conference, if not the nation. Hockenson, who earned playing time with strong blocking skills, is equally determined to be the playmaker he was at Chariton High School.
A conservative estimate is that the Fant/Hockenson duo should get 84 catches this season. It’s also possible they double last year’s output. If so, the lack of depth at wide receiver becomes much less of a concern.
Iowa defensive end Sam Brincks says he’s a solid run defender but is working on his pass rush. Mark Emmert / The Register
Looking for a boost at defensive tackle
Iowa has a surplus of talented defensive ends. Junior Anthony Nelson and sophomore A.J. Epenesa give the Hawkeyes a pair of terrors in the pass-rush game that few teams can match. Senior Parker Hesse, although out with an injury for the final spring practice, is as strong of a leader as the team has, and a very good player to boot.
The interior of the defensive line is a little less settled. With senior Matt Nelson missing spring practices again with an injury (he’s expected back this summer), Iowa coaches tinkered with moving a couple of ends inside.
Senior Sam Brincks (6-5, 275) and sophomore Chauncey Golston (6-5, 265) both got long looks at defensive tackle, where playing time may be more abundant. Is that a sign that Brincks and Golston are so talented that defensive line coach Reese Morgan wants to find more opportunities for them? Or that Morgan isn’t sold on his listed starters, Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff?
Brincks started alongside Lattimore on Friday, for what that's worth. Golston slid back outside and was a second-string end.
Assuming Matt Nelson returns at full strength, the burden shifts to Lattimore (6-3, 295) to take a big step forward as the top run-stuffer, a la Nathan Bazata or Jaleel Johnson. Lattimore was inconsistent a year ago and lost his starting job.
Lattimore and Nelson at their best would alleviate most of the concerns about the tackle spots. Reiff (6-3, 272) could rotate in on passing downs, where his high motor is most effective.
If not, then the Brincks/Golston experiment will likely continue all summer. Rest assured, Morgan will keep tinkering until he finds three or four tackles that give him a sense of confidence.
Is running back truly a job-share?
The conventional thought heading into spring was that sophomore running backs Ivory Kelly-Martin and Toren Young would split the workload as Iowa seeks to replace 1,000-yard rusher Akrum Wadley. That’s more or less how it played out last season, when Young gained 193 yards and Kelly-Martin 184 in spot duty.
Kelly-Martin, the quicker of the two, emerged as a top option at kickoff returner (19 for 404 yards) and also caught four passes out of the backfield. That enabled him to play in all 13 games.
Toren Young rips of a 20-yard run in Iowa’s open practice Friday night. Matthew Bain/Hawk Central
Young, the sturdier back, saw action in only seven games and wasn’t used in Iowa’s Pinstripe Bowl victory.
So it was interesting to hear the coaching staff and Young himself speak as if he’s capable of being a workhorse out of the backfield this fall. He was listed as the starter on the spring depth chart, a designation that may not carry much meaning.
Running backs coach Derrick Foster was effusive in praising Young’s leadership. Young pointed to his heavy usage at Monona Grove High School in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s certainly ready to be the clear-cut top running back.
How it will actually play out will be one of the enduring mysteries of the summer. What is obvious is that the Hawkeyes need them both to be at their best to have any shot at replicating Wadley’s productivity.
Four safeties in search of work
The only question at safety is how to use four (and maybe more) worthy players effectively. Senior Jake Gervase and junior Amani Hooker have earned the right to start. Hooker may be the biggest difference-maker on the back end of Parker’s defense. He dominated Friday's practice session, seeming to be everywhere on the field.
Sophomore Geno Stone is ready for a bigger workload as well, and certainly will be a special-teams stalwart, if nothing else.
And don’t forget about senior Brandon Snyder, a one-time starter who will return to the field this summer after a second knee surgery. Parker has hinted about moving a safety into the outside linebacker role in passing situations.
Something will have to be done to maximize the talent at this position.
Is Rugamba read to re-emerge?
At cornerback, it’s a second-stringer that comes to mind first when evaluating the potential of the unit.
Junior Manny Rugamba, who is backing up Michael Ojemudia heading into the summer, is looking for a bounce-back season after watching his star fall throughout 2017. Parker is pleased with Ojemudia’s development, so it’s a job that Rugamba must win. Or else he’ll be primarily an option in nickel coverage, which is nowhere near where he seemed headed after a stirring freshman campaign.
"I thought I was preparing good, but you can always prepare better," Ojemudia said Friday, speaking of the lesson he learned from his sophomore season. "I feel this is a great opportunity to show what I can do. ... I think it's my job. I've been working for it every day."
On the other side, sophomore Matt Hankins looks ready for his first year as a starter.
Banwart a prototypical Iowa guy
The interior of Iowa’s offensive line will be anchored by senior Keegan Render. But redshirt sophomore Cole Banwart, who battled injuries a year ago, made a strong case for playing time at center or right guard.
Offensive line coach Tim Polasek made an amusing quip this spring about Banwart “taking off the pajamas and putting on his big-boy pants.”
“I’ve never heard of that. I’m not even quite sure what that means,” Banwart later confessed.
“We’re always out there working hard. … We don’t want to have the best eight guys. We want to be the best unit,” Banwart added. “I don’t know where I’ll end up or where I’ll be. I’m just focusing on the next day.”
Banwart grew up helping the family trucking business in tiny Ottosen (“there was around 42 people,” he said), a work ethic he said has helped him as a Hawkeye. That’s a familiar refrain for Iowa football players.
From a small town to big-boy pants. Banwart, at 6-foot-4, 296 pounds, looks like he could be the next unassuming mainstay in the middle of the Hawkeye line.
A hunt for a punter
Finally, it’s time to talk punting. Don’t quit reading now, this is actually of key importance for Iowa this year. The Hawkeyes simply cannot afford another season of not knowing from one punt to the next what they’re going to get from junior Colten Rastetter or sophomore Ryan Gersonde.
The view early in the spring was that Gersonde, who is on scholarship, has the leg up. He did average 42.5 yards on his 13 boots a year ago (Rastetter mustered only 37.8 on 55 punts). But it wasn’t pretty for either player.
On Friday, Rastetter actually looked a little better on his punts.
If Gersonde is to become the guy, he needs to settle on a style, special teams coach LeVar Woods told reporters this spring. Keep an eye on this battle this summer. Seriously.