With several key players out, Iowa football measures spring practice success and development
IOWA CITY — On Saturday morning, fans entered Kinnick Stadium with anxious emotions about seeing the 2022 Iowa football team for the first time. Questions on fans' and media members' minds centered on the offense, about the execution and ultimately who will be starting quarterback. Defensively, how would the Hawkeyes' defensive line perform? And who has the edge in the kicking competition?
The open practice lasted about 90 minutes, a shorter time than usual. The starters played some during the scrimmage portion, but the majority of reps went to the second and third teams. Head coach Kirk Ferentz and his staff weren't trying to be secretive; a lot of returning players are out with varying degrees of injury right now.
Ferentz said that those injuries have been a central theme of spring practice. The mounting number of sidelined players has affected what they've been able to do in practice and was a reason why there was a limited workload on Saturday.
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"The volume of work we're doing right now is a little bit less," Ferentz said. "It's been like that all spring because of the injuries. We had talked about how we're going to do spring practice a couple months ago, then injuries almost kind of forced our hands, cutting back some of the reps, especially for guys that have played. We have a couple guys you can predict what they'll look like when we get going."
Several players with starting experience missed most of spring practice, or all of it: offensive lineman Justin Britt, defensive backs Jermari Harris, Kaevon Merriweather and Terry Roberts, and linebackers Seth Benson, Jack Campbell and Jestin Jacobs.
By Saturday, a few more names were inactive, including defensive lineman Joe Evans, offensive lineman Nick DeJong and wide receiver Keagan Johnson. An unofficial count had at least 22 scholarship/rotational walk-on players not participating on Saturday.
"That's been one of the lowlights of things (this spring)," Ferentz said. "Way too many guys on the sidelines. Hopefully we can move past that. I think if there's good news there it's that most of the guys should be back by June. So that's important and hopefully that stays the case."
While frustrating, Ferentz tempered his injury comments by stating the goal of spring practice is to see individual improvement. And injuries have opened the door for some players to get more reps than anticipated. It's been beneficial for everyone who stayed healthy, from third-string reserves to dependable starters like receiver Charlie Jones.
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“Thankfully I was able to stay healthy this spring," Jones said. "And my reps did increase a lot, which helped me a lot. I think I took some good steps this spring, worked on a lot of things.”
Ferentz said that for "a high percentage" of practices, there were times when the team maxed out at four active receivers. Couple that with sophomore tight end Luke Lachey missing the past few weeks with a hand injury, and there have been difficulties running team plays or 7-on-7 drills.
On Saturday, several reserve pass-catchers made the most of their opportunities. Walk-ons Jack Johnson (four catches) and Kaden Wetjen (three catches) each had a touchdown reception. At tight end, walk-on Johnny Pascuzzi had a couple of receptions including a long gain on a fourth-and-7 pass from quarterback Alex Padilla.
"That's a guy (Pascuzzi) taking advantage of an opportunity," Ferentz said. "He was on the scout team last year. Has done some good things out there. (Walk-on wide receiver) Alec Wick made a really nice catch (Saturday), a nice play the other day in the red zone Thursday morning. It's all hands on deck. We need to get guys healthy, get them back where they can perform, just get that consistency that you need with that group."
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From an injured player's perspective, Roberts said any player wants to be out there but the chance to coach up younger teammates is just as rewarding. He alluded to defensive coordinator Phil Parker's constant "next man up" teachings and said the starters have used this time to serve as player-coaches to help build depth on defense.
"All of the younger guys have stepped up," Roberts said. "With me, Kaevon and Jermari being out throughout the entire spring ball, we've helped the younger guys get caught up with the older players mentally. So, if they're well-prepared if one of us goes down during the season, they go in and it's like no one ever replaced us."
Without three key pieces, Iowa's first-team secondary went as followed: senior Riley Moss and sophomore Brenden Deasfernandes at cornerback, juniors Sebastian Castro and Quinn Schulte at safety, and sophomore Cooper DeJean at cash.
DeJean's strong spring continued on Saturday with a handful of pass deflections and, as a gunner on the punt team, he downed a Tory Taylor punt inside the 5-yard line.
"Cooper is making a good name for himself," Ferentz said. "He's learning every day, does a lot of good things. I go back to the bowl game. He gave us a chance with that come-across-the-field tackle on their big play where if we had gotten a stop, ifs ands buts, all that stuff. But at least he gave us a chance to keep fighting there.
"Those kinds of plays to me, I'm not sure you teach those. Some guys I don't want to say do that naturally, not to use the word 'naturally,' but that's how he's wired. He plays it all the way through. Yeah, he's doing a good job. He'll be good on special teams, too, obviously."
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Due to injury, the improvement of certain position groups or a side of the ball is hard to quantify given the amount of top-line contributors missing this spring. However, Ferentz did see overall progress and the all-important individual improvement that's key during this period. Attrition is almost certain during any season; the chance to work through that in spring and build depth could pay dividends in the fall.
Despite the setbacks, players left practice No. 15 in good spirits. With the bulk of the injured players returning for the summer period, they see plenty of time to find the cohesion necessary to succeed. And by then, there will be a group of reserves with much more experience than when spring practice began.
“I feel like all spring our tempo’s been good," Jones said. "It’s practice No. 15 so the defense starts to catch on a little bit. I thought we went out there and our intent was good. I don’t think it was a waste of time at all. We improved and we got better. Younger guys got in there. It was good for us.”
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.