Iowa football held its final spring practice on Saturday. Here are five observations.

Kennington Lloyd Smith III
Des Moines Register

IOWA CITY − Iowa football's spring practice period is in the books.

The team participated in its annual open scrimmage on Saturday to conclude the spring period, and it provided a peak into how the 2023 roster is progressing entering a key summer period.

It's difficult to draw sweeping conclusions due to the small sample size (Saturday's session was just one of 15 spring practices) and injuries that kept players out, but coach Kirk Ferentz said he believes the team took a step forward over the last several weeks.

Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz watches during the Hawkeyes' final spring football practice Saturday at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

"We are a new team. There's no question about that," Ferentz said. "Got a lot of work to do, a lot of big leadership void to fill. We're hardly a finished (product) right now, but I think we have improved."

Iowa will surely be an active transfer portal participant. New arrivals will shake up position battles and ongoing battles will continue to take place. But we learned a few things on Saturday.

Several starters were held out due to injury

Iowa's final spring practice revealed the team's injury situation entering the summer period. Offensive line and wide receiver attrition has been notable throughout the spring practice period, but there were other notable injuries on Saturday, and the majority were projected starters this fall. The following players were held out or limited (didn't participate in 11-on-11 situation):

Offense: Quarterback Cade McNamara (limited participant), wide receivers Seth Anderson, Jacob Bostick and Nico Ragaini, offensive linemen Connor Colby, Michael Myslinski, Daijon Parker and Mason Richman.

Defense: Linemen Yahya Black, Joe Evans (limited participant) Logan Lee and Noah Shannon.

Saturday's scrimmage provided a new development at quarterback

There's no question about who Iowa's starting quarterback will be this fall. Transfer Cade McNamara has firmly established himself as a leader in his first few months on campus. But there's a real battle for the No. 2 quarterback spot. Sophomore Joe Labas, who quarterbacked Iowa to a bowl-game win in late December, entered the off-season as the No. 2 guy, but Ferentz stated on Saturday that sophomore transfer Deacon Hill (Wisconsin) has surpassed him on the depth chart.

With McNamara limited throughout spring, Hill and Labas have been splitting first-, second- and third team reps. Saturday's scrimmage saw Hill assume about a 2:1 ratio split of first-team reps, and Labas took the majority of second- and third-team reps. The competition will carry over into summer workouts and fall camp, but it's notable how quickly both transfer quarterbacks have made impressions.

"As of today, it'd be (Hill)," Ferentz said. "That can go back and forth and it's like a lot of stuff right now, nobody's got any jobs locked up right now. Everybody's going to keep working here and keep competing and we'll see who improves and what things look like in August. But (Hill)'s made a good showing for himself."

Iowa's tight ends show explosiveness, versatility in 11-on-11 situations

With only one scholarship receiver available on Saturday (Diante Vines), plenty of attention was on Iowa's tight end group. As expected, it looks like a position of strength.

Junior Luke Lachey, who emerged late last season in place of soon-to-be NFL draft pick Sam LaPorta, didn't receive a heavy workload on Saturday but still provided a glimpse of his role this fall. Last season LaPorta assumed some wide receiver duties in Iowa's offense, it appears that Lachey is on the same track. He lined up in several positions on Saturday, including outside boundary receiver, slot receiver and in his usual tight end alignment.

Transfer Erick All was a limited participant as he recovers from a back injury, but he recorded a few touchdown catches in 7-on-7 (non-contact, skill players vs. skill players) drills and got a handful of 11-on-11 snaps. Sophomore Addison Ostrenga saw plenty of first-team reps in two-tight end sets (in place of All) and had the biggest play of the scrimmage: a nearly 30-yard touchdown catch-and-run off a pass from Hill.

All, Ostrenga and Lachey saw snaps from the slot receiver position, including Ostrenga's touchdown catch. Iowa's wide receiver situation this fall is to be determined, and the tight ends are likely candidates to fill some gaps.

“I think our tight end room is very special," McNamara said. "We’ve got a lot of guys in that room that can go right now. That’s going to be the strength. We’ll see. (Fall) camp is where we kind of find ourselves and see what kind of offense we’re going to be.”

Iowa tight end Erick All runs with the ball during the Hawkeyes' final spring football practice Saturday at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

The cornerback position is still a work in progress

One of the biggest positions of optimism on Iowa's team is defensive back. Despite losing future draft picks Riley Moss and Kaevon Merriweather, there's an expectation for another standout season. Saturday's scrimmage didn't provide any standout performances or noteworthy highlights, but it shed a light on what the next few months have in store.

Starting cornerback Jermari Harris is still working his way back from injury. He had a strong week of practice but he's still a ways from 100% healthy.

Iowa defensive back Xavier Nwankpa (1) defends during the Hawkeyes' final spring football practice Saturday at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

"We just kind of remind him that (he) missed a whole season," Ferentz said. "That's a long time, no matter who you are. He was away from the game and it almost felt sometimes like he was trying to make a play on every play. But I thought this past week, especially, he really was kind of looking more like he did when he left."

Iowa rotated sophomore TJ Hall and redshirt freshman Deshaun Lee in Harris' place opposite Cooper DeJean during 11-on-11 sessions. It could be to preserve Harris, develop depth at that spot or both. But Ferentz stated that cornerback would be a position of need in the spring transfer portal window.

Iowa's kicking situation is in a very strong place

This time last year, Iowa's coaching staff was concerned about the kicking competition after a rough outing by prospects Aaron Blom and Drew Stevens. This spring, Ferentz had no complaints about what he saw.

"Last year I don't know if we've seen a worse kicking exhibition over the course of the spring," Ferentz said. "Now this spring has just been (the opposite). Both those guys have done a great job. Drew really played well for us and Aaron's had a really good spring too. All of the sudden we've got two guys that are really performing nicely."

Stevens, who connected on 16-of-18 field goals last season, was perfect on Saturday. Ditto for Blom, who is cross-training at punter this spring.

Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz speaks with reporters after the Hawkeyes' final spring practice Saturday at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

Starting punter Tory Taylor didn't participate on Saturday, as Iowa's coaches wanted to use the day to develop depth behind him. That opened the door for Blom to punt with the starting unit.

"(Blom)'s really taken off this spring," Taylor said. "It's been fun to watch him and help him grow."