Analysis: Hawkeyes look for a quick dose of depth after four linemen suspended

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

The intrigue surrounding the Iowa football training camp has turned to the second-stringers, now that four of the team’s top linemen have been suspended for the season opener against Northern Illinois.

There is urgency among the Hawkeye coaching staff to identify backup players that can be elevated immediately at offensive and defensive tackle — positions that were short on experience to begin with. It could be a surprise opportunity for some young players to shine; or a wakeup call for a team that struggled to protect the quarterback and to stop opposing rushing games at times last season.

Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz announced Wednesday that starting offensive tackle Alaric Jackson and starting defensive tackle Cedrick Lattimore have been suspended for the Sept. 1 opener for an unspecified violation of team rules.

Levi Paulsen got the start at offensive tackle for Iowa in the Pinstripe Bowl last December when Alaric Jackson was suspended. Jackson is suspended again for this season's opener, along with fellow starter Tristan Wirfs. Can it be Paulsen, whose natural position is guard, to the rescue again? Or will the Hawkeyes look elsewhere for depth at the tackle spots?

This comes on top of previously announced suspensions for starting offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs and backup defensive tackle Brady Reiff. Both of those were for alcohol-related arrests last month.

“As a coach, one of the most important decisions is to hold student-athletes accountable,” Ferentz said in a university news release. “It is painful for the players and the team to impose a suspension, but we have high standards and there is an expectation all players abide by our rules.”

The player infraction is not a legal matter, Iowa said. Violation of team policy or rules can include academic performance, attendance, timeliness, behavior, effort and engagement.

The issues surfaced in late spring and both players were given guidelines to meet and milestones to achieve over the past 10 weeks.

“Their response has been excellent, and I am very pleased with how they are meeting our expectations,” Ferentz said.

That would indicate that Jackson and Lattimore are in line to return to their starting roles for the Week 2 home matchup with Iowa State. Reiff and Wirfs figure to be back for that as well.

Last season, Ferentz suspended starting cornerback Manny Rugamba for the opening game against Wyoming, which featured NFL-bound quarterback Josh Allen. It didn’t matter. Josh Jackson proved to be a star in his own right, beginning with that 24-3 Hawkeyes victory. He now plays for the Green Bay Packers.

But it did begin a puzzling spiral for Rugamba, who never seemed to get his footing, lost his starting job and eventually decided to transfer this summer. So keep an eye on how all four suspended Hawkeyes react to their one-game banishment. They are all being counted on to help Iowa win games; Jackson and Wirfs have shown NFL potential. They can’t afford to let off-field issues linger into the fall, or their backups may become permanent replacements.

Here are four positions where Iowa is in need of a quick dose of depth, and some likely candidates to provide it:

Offensive tackle: A veteran, a Paulsen twin or is Kallenberger ready to shine?

For Jackson, this is the second consecutive game he will miss for running afoul of team policies. The sophomore also was suspended from the Pinstripe Bowl in December. It’s doubtful he would remain on the team if a third infraction occurs.

Levi Paulsen started in Jackson’s place for that Hawkeye victory over Boston College and would be a logical choice to do so again Sept. 1. But Paulsen missed time this spring with an injury and enters fall camp, which began Friday, listed as a backup right guard. Still, he is a fourth-year junior in the Iowa program and has the size (6-foot-5, 305 pounds) to handle the job.

“We’ve got to do the best job we can do, as a program, finding a way to help him stay healthy,” Iowa offensive line coach Tim Polasek said of Paulsen this summer. “Every time he kind of gets going, there’s an injury that pops up.”

The Hawkeyes have no other players who have ever started a game at tackle.

The listed backups are senior Dalton Ferguson (6-4, 308) and redshirt freshman Mark Kallenberger (6-6, 282). Kallenberger, of Bettendorf, was a highly regarded prospect who got lost in Wirfs’ shadow a bit last season. He is the best athlete among this group and should have a path to his first start if he remains healthy.

Landan Paulsen, Levi’s twin, hasn’t gotten his chance to play yet but has drawn praise for his improvement this spring. He’s a darkhorse contender to get a start.

Whoever gets the nod must contend with NFL prospect Sutton Smith, a junior defensive end for the Huskies who had 14 sacks a year ago.

Defensive tackle: Is Golston ready for prime time, or does an end move inside?

Lattimore, a junior, is the presumed starter at left defensive tackle alongside senior Matt Nelson. He is Iowa's best run-stuffer, with 15 tackles in 2017, when he started six games.

Reiff, also a junior, is slated as Nelson’s backup. He is undersized (6-3, 272) but relentless, racking up 13 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble last season in spot duty.

The good news for Iowa is that Nelson has proclaimed himself the healthiest he’s been in years. He should be a solid option in the middle of the line all season long.

Who starts alongside Nelson in the opener is the big question. Sophomore Chauncey Golston is listed as the next man in. But he just converted from defensive end this spring and has never appeared in a game at tackle. At 265 pounds, he also is 30 pounds lighter than Lattimore.

"I think he’s going to open some eyes this fall," Iowa defensive line coach Reese Morgan said in May of Golston. "Chauncey is just starting to really develop the confidence, along with the ability he already had. He’s not arrived yet, but he’s on that path."

Junior Garret Jansen is a two-year letter-winner who showed promise last season. He weighs 280 pounds and would be a logical third option at defensive tackle for the Hawkeyes in the opener.

Iowa has shown a willingness to move ends inside, though — a path Nelson also took. So could the Hawkeyes call on one of the backup ends — A.J. Epenesa or Sam Brincks — to play inside for one game? Brincks, a senior, did practice some there during the spring. The coaching staff has been reluctant to move talented sophomore Epenesa away from his end spot, where he is very disruptive. But for one game, maybe those concerns would be eased.

At any rate, Iowa needs to rotate three or four defensive tackles throughout the game, and the season, so finding the next best options was a priority even before the two suspensions.

Cornerback: A freshman or two will have to be worth at least a nickel

Rugamba entered the summer as the Hawkeye cornerback with the most career starts. But he had lost that role and seemed poised to be the team’s nickel back in his junior year.

His departure provides an opening, likely for a freshman, to see considerable playing time. Sophomore Matt Hankins and junior Michael Ojemudia are the likely starters, but no team can get by using just two cornerbacks.

Redshirt freshmen Trey Creamer and Josh Turner are considered the backups as August camp begins. Hawkeye coaches are high on each.

But don’t discount true freshman D.J. Johnson, a big-time recruit from Indianapolis. Iowa hasn’t hesitated to use rookie cornerbacks, with Hankins and Rugamba the two most recent examples. He’ll get his chance to prove he belongs sooner rather than later.

Quarterback: Mansell, Petras battle to be ready in an emergency

Last August, the talk was all about whether Nate Stanley or Tyler Wiegers would get the starting quarterback job. A year later, with Stanley coming off a 26-touchdown debut season and Wiegers opting to move along, the spotlight shifts to the backup spot.

Redshirt freshman Peyton Mansell has a hold on it for now, by virtue of having been in the program longer than true freshman Spencer Petras. Mansell, at 6-2, 210, is more of a dual-threat signal-caller. Petras (6-5, 227) is the prototypical big-armed pocket passer.

Which would get the call in the event that Stanley is injured? That’s what veteran quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe will be assessing throughout this month. Keep in mind that Stanley came to Iowa as a rookie in the summer of 2016 and promptly beat out Wiegers for the No. 2 job behind C.J. Beathard. Also keep in mind that Petras has been on campus since January, so he’s had more time to acclimate himself to the college game, the playbook and the training room.

This is far from a slam-dunk for the older Mansell.

Fans can form their own opinions of the two backup quarterbacks — and the likely next man in at offensive tackle, defensive tackle and cornerback — at the annual Kids Day open practice at noon Saturday inside Kinnick Stadium.