Three rookies stand out on Iowa's defense during Kids Day scrimmage
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The Iowa football team has a couple of openings in the middle of the defensive line — at least temporarily — and judging from what we saw at Saturday’s Kids Day scrimmage, a fifth-year senior and a true freshman are answering the call.
Sam Brincks, who was lured to Iowa City as a walk-on five years ago, looks to be in line to start in place of the suspended Cedrick Lattimore in the Sept. 1 season opener against Northern Illinois. Brincks had been a defensive end until this spring.
“He’s really starting to blossom,” Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said of Brincks after his team’s eighth practice session of fall camp. “This past eight months his confidence is really growing. He works extremely hard. He’s conscientious. He’s smart. And he’s a really good team member and team leader.”
Brincks, a 6-foot-5, 275-pound native of Carroll, is just the latest end to move inside for the Hawkeyes. Matt Nelson made the switch a year ago and figures to start at the other tackle spot all season. Chauncey Golston also worked at the tackle and end spots in Saturday’s annual open practice/autograph session at Kinnick Stadium.
In addition, starting defensive end Parker Hesse slid into the middle of the line, replaced at end by A.J. Epenesa, in pass-rushing situations. Ferentz said that will be a continuing look from the Hawkeyes.
“If we do have some position flexibility, it will help us keep the best guys on the field when we need to and still be able to rotate guys,” Ferentz said.
Defensive linemen weren’t able to make contact with quarterbacks Saturday, so it was hard to tell how effective the pass rush was. Linemen were often seen easing up as they approached the four Hawkeye quarterbacks. But backup defensive tackle Brady Reiff, who also is suspended for the opening game, appeared to have the highest motor of the unit in 11-on-11 drills, darting into the backfield with regularity.
The surprise of the afternoon was seeing true freshman Tyler Linderbaum get a great deal of work with the second-stringers at defensive tackle. It was especially astonishing when you consider that he had spent the bulk of his summer playing baseball for his Solon High School team.
But Linderbaum was no stranger to campus, as Ferentz explained.
“He was doing that (playing baseball), taking a class and also in our workout program first thing in the morning, 6 o‘clock. So he was getting some miles on his car and he had to sleep here because he was in school. He impressed us this summer just by doing what he did and juggling that whole schedule,” Ferentz said of Linderbaum, who enters his first college training camp at 6-2, 270.
“He seems to be one of those guys that there’s a little something to him, besides being a good player. There’s something to him that just kind of makes other people a little bit better.”
Indeed, Linderbaum didn’t make any noticeably outstanding plays. But there was no drop-off in line play while he was on the field either.
That’s one true freshman for Hawkeye fans to keep an eye on. There were a couple of others on the Iowa defense as well Saturday.
Linebacker shuffle includes rookie from South Dakota
Ferentz had said Friday that junior Amani Jones at middle linebacker and sophomore Nick Niemann at outside linebacker were ahead of the pack in that important unit, which must replace three starters from a year ago. Junior Kristian Welch started alongside those two at the weakside spot Saturday.
But Welch’s hold on that job is tenuous. On the opening drive of the scrimmage, defensive coordinator Phil Parker substituted redshirt freshman Djimon Colbert and sophomore Barrington Wade for Niemann and Welch. Colbert saw extensive action with the first team. Wade got limited reps as he works his way back to full health, which Ferentz indicated would officially occur Monday.
The next three linebackers in were senior Jack Hockaday (as expected) and two true freshman — Dillon Doyle of Iowa City West and Seth Benson.
Benson was the most impressive of the group. He later saw time with the starting linebackers and seemed to always be in position to make plays.
Benson is a native of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, who committed to the Hawkeyes just before Christmas. His other option was South Dakota State, where much of his family attended. Among those whose advice Benson sought before making his decision was Chad Greenway, another South Dakota native who had a terrific career as a Hawkeye linebacker before heading to the NFL.
Ferentz said the competition for the final starting linebacker spot is between Welch, Hockaday, Wade and Colbert.
“I think any one of those guys could surface,” he said.
As for Benson: “I don’t know that he’ll be in the two-deep this year or if we’ll play him on special teams. But with Barrington being out, he’s getting some work and he’s looked pretty impressive, too. I don’t know if he’s doing the right thing but he just seems to be around the ball all the time. So that’s a good thing if you’re a defensive guy.”
Second-stringers are the intrigue in the secondary
That brings us to the back end of Iowa’s defense, where the four starters seem pretty clear. Amani Hooker and Jake Gervase appear to form a terrific set of safeties. Hooker, once again, was particularly active Saturday. He’s a special athlete.
Matt Hankins and Michael Ojemudia are the starting cornerback tandem. They were rarely tested by the Iowa offense, which attacked the middle of the field most frequently.
The backup cornerbacks were redshirt freshman Josh Turner and true freshman Julius Brents. In nickel packages, it was Turner getting the call with Hankins sliding into the slot.
Brents, at 6-2, 180, had a fantastic day. His breakup of a pass during 7-on-7 drills was as fine of a play as you’ll see a defensive back make.
Redshirt freshman Trey Creamer, who is listed as a second-stringer, played sparingly on the third or fourth unit Saturday.
Parker, who is not prone to flattery, was more than willing to talk up Brents on Friday.
“He’s long and strong. He’s a guy that pays attention to detail and gives great effort. He’s a very talented person and understands what he needs to do,” Parker said. “I think he’ll be the next guy.”
When talking about Iowa cornerbacks, calling someone “the next guy” is high praise indeed. Brents sure looked the part Saturday.
But Ferentz cautioned that the rookie had blown a blitz assignment Friday.
“So that part you’re going to live with,” Ferentz said of Brents, and all first-year players really.
At safety, Geno Stone is the clear No. 3 option and the sophomore looks like an athlete hungry for more playing time. He could start on many teams, and will at Iowa before long.
With Brandon Snyder’s decision to transfer a couple of weeks ago, the most interesting battle is for the next few spots, if Iowa should need to go that deep.
Junior John Milani of Iowa City West is holding down the fourth safety slot for now, and he looked like a solid option.
Behind him were true freshmen Kaevon Merriweather and Dallas Craddieth. Merriweather got the longer look Saturday, for what that’s worth. At 6-2, he’s another long-limbed defensive back, a mold Parker likes when trying to defend spread offenses.
Redshirt freshman Riley Moss of Ankeny Centennial was the final safety option, although he did his best work Saturday on special teams, where he showed he has a knack for downing punts near the goal line. That is likely where is primary value will be this season.
“When younger guys get in with the 2s or the 1s, they seem to learn faster,” Ferentz said of the valuable experience players such as Linderbaum, Benson and Brents are getting. “There’s a little bit of a flow to it.”
There was a little bit of flow indeed to Iowa's defense Saturday. There is plenty of depth and youth on that side of the ball. It's high-end talent that needs to emerge if this is going to be a special season.