Iowa football coordinators' update on position battles from Cade McNamara to Jay Higgins

Kennington Lloyd Smith III
Des Moines Register

IOWA CITY − Iowa's spring football practice season will conclude on Saturday, marking another building block for the team's 2023 campaign. It's a time for competition at each position, and while it's common for battles to persist past spring, it provides a glimpse of who will be in the mix entering the summer period.

On Thursday, Iowa's three coordinators: Brian Ferentz (offense), Phil Parker (defense) and LeVar Woods (special teams) met with reporters to provide progress reports on their units and insight on positions of interest before Saturday's spring scrimmage.

Here are three takeaways:

Brian Ferentz updates Iowa's new-look quarterback room

Quarterback play was a catalyst for Iowa's struggling offense last season, and as a result the Hawkeye coaching staff brought in highly coveted Michigan transfer Cade McNamara and Wisconsin transfer Deacon Hill, a former four-star recruit.

McNamara, who is still recovering from a knee injury, will not be available Saturday in 11-on-11 situations but will get "some work," likely in 7-on-7 (skill players vs. skill players) sessions. But there's no question that he is the No. 1 guy.

"Cade's our starter," Ferentz said. "He may not have gotten all the reps right now but I can tell you from his actions on a daily basis since he got here, he's established himself. He is physically tough, he is mentally tough and more than that he is an ultra-competitive person. I don't know how to describe leadership. It's just kind of, you know when you see it, right? Certain people just radiate leadership, people gravitate towards them."

McNamara's absence in team situations has opened the door for first-team reps for fellow quarterbacks Joe Labas and Hill. Ferentz said Labas, who quarterbacked the Hawkeyes to a 21-0 Music City Bowl win over Kentucky, is having a "really good spring." Hill has impressed as well. Both will be players to watch on Saturday as the Hawkeye coaches try to determine who will be the No. 2 quarterback this fall.

"I really learned a lot about (Labas) last December and continue to, and I think he continues to grow and do a nice job," Ferentz said. "Deacon Hill is come in and done a really nice job for us. He has a big arm, a lot of arm talent, very accurate guy. But what probably impresses me more about Deacon than anything is his ability to learn and grow on a daily basis."

Listen:PODCAST: Iowa spring football's home stretch; how best to use Cooper DeJean?

Phil Parker provides an update on linebacker competition

Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker speaks with reporters at a spring football news conference Thursday at the Hansen Football Performance Center in Iowa City.

The position group where Iowa lost the most production from last season was linebacker. Starters Jack Campbell and Seth Benson (NFL Draft) and Jestin Jacobs (transferred to Oregon) are no longer on the roster. Through 14 practices, Parker sees the group on an upward trajectory.

One player in particular that Parker mentioned was senior Jay Higgins, who stepped into a larger role when Jacobs was lost to the season due to injury. Parker said Higgins has "brought some juice" and is a new leader on defense.

"I think Jay and (senior Kyler Fisher) have really done a really good job," Parker said. "I really like the way Jay's stepped up ... The communication and how they get things done up front, I think he's really doing a good job."

More:Leistikow: Iowa football's battle for playmaking supremacy between Cooper DeJean, Xavier Nwankpa

Parker mentioned Fisher as a player with outside linebacker/Cash versatility and two other young players (sophomores Jaden Harrell and Karson Sharar) who have progressed as well. Iowa will bring in a talented veteran this summer when Virginia transfer Nick Jackson gets to campus. The former All-ACC selection will be a welcome addition.

Asked what stood out about Jackson, Parker said: "I think a good football player that makes a lot of tackles. It doesn't matter where you're playing, if you're having that many tackles (three 100-plus tackle seasons). And really impressive when you sit down and talk to him and how he understands football."

More:Q&A: Iowa football commit Brevin Doll on hometown connection to Nile Kinnick, recruiting process

LeVar Woods says punt returner is solidified, new options emerging at kick returner

Spring practice is more for skill work on special teams. Fall camp is when actual scheme implementation will take place. Starting kicker (Drew Stevens) and punter (Tory Taylor) are solidified in their positions, as is punt returner, where star defensive back Cooper DeJean will assume that role again.

"I think he has a natural ability with the ball in his hands," Woods said. "The guy is fearless. He's smart, he's savvy as a football player."

Sophomore running back Kaleb Johnson assumed kick returner duties last season and is in the mix again this spring along with a few new names to watch, including defensive backs TJ Hall and Xavier Nwankpa, running back Leshon Williams and wide receivers Alec Wick and Kaden Wetjen.