Hawkeyes' coordinators see growth in WRs, potential in LBs, a punt returner they can trust
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa’s wide receivers have accounted for 30 receptions and just one touchdown through four games, but the group has made some of the biggest plays of the season, Hawkeye offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said Wednesday.
“I've seen growth there. I've seen production,” Ferentz said. “But we're going to need more.”
The Hawkeyes (3-1, 0-1 Big Ten Conference) are averaging 13.3 yards per reception, up nearly a full yard from a year ago, thanks to some long gains by Ihmir Smith-Marsette (a 45-yarder against Iowa State) and Brandon Smith (a 30-yarder in the same game).
But it’s still tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant who are leading the way with 15 catches apiece. Fant has four of Iowa’s five receiving touchdowns. Senior wide receiver Nick Easley has the other, against Northern Iowa, a game in which he racked up 10 of his 12 receptions this year.
“Then you look at last week, and maybe they didn't make some of the biggest plays in the game from a passing game standpoint, but there were no bigger plays in the game than the in-cut that Brandon caught on a play-action pass when we went down and scored, where basically we were blanketed everywhere else on the field,” Ferentz said of a 14-yard gain in Saturday’s loss to Wisconsin.
A true freshman may be called on to add some juice to the wide receiver corps in the final eight games. Tyrone Tracy had his first career reception, a 22-yarder, in the Week 3 win over Northern Iowa. Ferentz said they’re trying him at both running back and wide receiver in practices.
“He's done a lot of really good things in practice and started to grow a little bit,” Ferentz said of Tracy. “So he's a guy that could certainly get in the mix as time goes on here.”
More highlights from a bye-week interview session with Ferentz, defensive coordinator Phil Parker and special teams coordinator LeVar Woods:
Fant gets extra attention, and that's a good thing
The junior has set the career record for touchdowns by a tight end at Iowa with 16. Yet he is averaging only 42 receiving yards per game this season and shuttles in and out of the lineup.
Ferentz said Fant, a 6-foot-5 mismatch, can create opportunities for teammates.
“If you put good players on the field, people are going to account for them. And if they're accounting for them, can we get the ball to other guys? And I think we've been able to do that,” Ferentz said.
“I think it's opened up some of the rest of the offense, and that's all been positive. I'm pleased with the production Noah has done. He's a guy we've tried to create matchups (with) at times, and we've been successful at times. Not as successful at others.”
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Coach's challenge is 'wasting your timeout'
There were a couple of questionable officiating decisions in Saturday’s loss that Iowa coaches didn’t challenge, and Ferentz said there’s a good reason.
“The officials tell us in the locker room every single play in college football is reviewed upstairs. So if you challenge it, you're simply trying to make yourself feel better, I guess. You're not going to change the outcome,” he said.
“If you challenge a play, you're simply wasting a timeout. I know that's not what people want to hear. It's not popular, but that's the reality of it.”
Linebackers: Depth, proper attitude, and still in flux
Parker had to replace three starting linebackers from a season ago and is still tinkering with that group. But he said his job has been made easier by the attitudes of those players.
“Nobody really cares who is the starter. Everybody understands that they might play,” Parker said.
Amani Jones started the season-opener at middle linebacker, but he was quickly replaced by Jack Hockaday. Kristian Welch and Djimon Colbert have split time at the weakside spot.
And now Parker must replace Nick Niemann at outside linebacker. Niemann hurt his leg on the final defensive play against Wisconsin and is out for “a couple of weeks,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday.
Parker said Barrington Wade, Welch and true freshman Seth Benson are the three options to replace Niemann.
It sounds as if Wade, a sophomore, will get the first crack.
“He's been doing a good job in practice,” Parker said of Wade. “So we're pleased to see where he's going.”
As for Jones, Parker reiterated that the junior hasn’t been forgotten.
“I think he has a lot of upside and we like his energy, and we like the way he can find the ball,” Parker said of Jones. “Sometimes we're going to have to put him in there and we have to live with some mistakes that goes on. But we're very pleased with the way he's handled the situation and how positive he's been.”
Freshmen pushing for playing time, not a redshirt
Ferentz mentioned Tracy and wide receiver Nico Ragaini as a pair of rookies who will be evaluated with an eye on whether their potential impact is great enough to play them in more than four games, thus using up a season of their eligibility. He said running back Henry Geil was needed when starter Ivory Kelly-Martin missed two games with injury, but that they would rather retain his redshirt season.
On defense, Parker said Benson isn’t the only true freshman who will force him to make a difficult decision.
Safety Riley Moss has been so impressive on special teams that he’ll certainly play throughout the season rather than redshirting. That gives Parker the option of using him in games as well, and Moss did play in dime packages Saturday.
Cornerback Julius Brents, who replaced the injured Matt Hankins on Saturday, is another rookie likely to see extensive action this season, Parker said.
Freshman safety Kaevon Merriweather is someone who will get a long look during the bye week to try to determine his immediate future.
“The big decisions are going to come later down the road,” Parker said of how much to play true freshmen.
No punt-return changes expected
Woods is in his first year as a full-time special teams coordinator, and Saturday saw some rough moments for his punt-return unit.
Kyle Groeneweg fumbled one return after a 23-yard gain.
Shaun Beyer saw another punt graze his leg while he was blocking a Wisconsin player. That gaffe led to a Badger touchdown.
Groeneweg inexplicably signaled a fair catch and fielded another punt, despite standing on his 3-yard line.
Woods said he hasn’t lost faith in Groeneweg, a senior who has returned 10 punts for 76 yards while drawing praise from both Woods and Kirk Ferentz throughout training camp and into the season. Woods said he saw no reason to make a change in that role. Smith-Marsette and safety Amani Hooker are two other options.
“He has made some plays that we've all been happy with,” Woods said of Groeneweg. “There are some things that we've got to fix, and that's not just him or one person. It's a team effort. It's all of us involved, starting right here (pointing to himself), and then we've got to get it fixed.
“I think, too, if you've watched and studied us close, we're very, very close to being a dangerous return unit.”
Woods said the Groeneweg fumble was the result of “bad ball security.”
“You should always have the ball on the outside arm. He'll be the first to tell you that. It's a deal where he had a really good return, had a really good thing going, and boom, the ball pops out,” Woods said. “I know he's sick about it today, as we all are.”
As for Beyer, Woods said: “It comes down to communication. And I'm not going to say that that's Shaun's deal. That's a team deal on our part. All of us involved in communication, all 11 guys on the field, and all of us on the sideline are involved in communication, and that's something we're working on.
“I think Shaun was working, hustling, knowing he had a good returner back there, and kind of got knocked into it.”