Practice starts Wednesday, here are some items worth tracking
Iowa Hawkeyes quarterback Nathan Stanley (4) shouts instructions to the offense before a snap during a practice for the 2017 Outback Bowl at the University of Tampa in Tampa on Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2016. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Here’s your traditional “5 things to watch” spring list for Iowa football:
1. Of course, wide receiver
New wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland begins his first actual practice at Iowa without senior Matt VandeBerg, who is out this spring after reinjuring the left foot that cost him most of 2016.
Junior-college transfer Nick Easley (5-11, 203) is intriguing. Last season at Iowa Western, he caught 72 catches for 954 yards and seven touchdowns, which earned him first team All-American honors from the NJCAA.
Easley impressed the staff enough during winter training to earn a second-team spot on the latest spring depth chart.
“We threw a little curve ball in there, we put Nick Easley’s name on the depth chart, get something going there, stir it up a little bit,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said this week. “Here is a guy who did really well at Iowa Western. He’s come in and done a nice job in the winter program.
“Who knows what he’s going to do. He has a chance to go in there and compete, especially with Matt being out. It’s wide open right now for everybody to have a chance. Just basically the goal is to demonstrate they can play and help us win football games, then we’ll figure out where they belong afterward.”
That’s good. This is Easley’s first shot at Iowa on the football side of things. Let’s see how that goes. Easley comes to Iowa with similar credentials to wide receiver Andrew Stone. Stone caught 110 passes in two seasons at Iowa Western. At Iowa, he got caught in a deeper depth chart and caught four passes.
Easley won’t have the crowded depth chart as an obstacle. With VandeBerg out, Iowa has three scholarship receivers participating this spring.
But really, this position needs junior Jerminic Smith to bloom and for the four incoming freshman receivers — Max Cooper, Brandon Smith, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Henry Marchese — and maybe a fifth in athlete Trey Creamer to show up with a game-time mentality. One of those could happen this spring.
2. Finding at least three defensive tackles
Part of what gave Iowa’s defense a push in November last season was throttled snap counts for defensive tackles. Jaleel Johnson played 668 snaps last season. For comparison, free safety Brandon Snyder played 885. D-line coach Reese Morgan was able to spell Johnson, an NFL Combine invitee and Iowa’s most productive D-lineman last season, because Nathan Bazata and Faith Ekakitie gave him three tackles he could trust.
Of that group, only Bazata (6-2, 287) remains. Sophomore Cedric Lattimore (6-5, 295) played as a true freshman last season to get him ready for more of a workload this year. And it’s coming, he’s listed as a starter.
Beyond Bazata and Lattimore, No. 3 could be sophomore Brady Reiff, a 6-3, 260-pounder who impressed late last season, and senior Jake Hulett (6-3, 289), who missed last season after suffering a broken leg.
“That may be something we toy with,” Ferentz said about trying Nelson inside. “It would be part of the equation. Looks like we have a little depth right now.
“That’s something we’ll look into and see if he can move inside there and do it. He may be able to. If he does, that gives us a little bit more flexibility. I know mentally he can handle both, that’s not an issue. Physically, can you do both? That’s a different story. It’s different playing inside.”
A little recap, as a true freshman last season, Nathan Stanley beat out junior Tyler Wiegers for the backup job. This meant Stanley, now a 6-5, 235-pound sophomore, was engaged with the game plan and not running scout team.
Wiegers certainly can reconfigure and improve, but the statement made by burning Stanley’s redshirt last season was strong. It’s hard to imagine him not winning the job. Then again, how will new QB coach Ken O’Keefe view the depth chart?
“No position race is the same as last year, that type of thing,” Ferentz said. “It’s always a little bit different. Just going to let it play out, see how things materialize as we move along.”
4. A Desmond King-less secondary
You really need to add Greg Mabin’s name to this title, too. The duo combined for 86 career starts (King had 51 of those). It’s a new day at Iowa cornerback.
You’ve already caught a glimpse of sophomore Manny Rugamba, and what’s not to like? His first start came against No. 3 Michigan. The 6-0, 185-pounder finished with a fourth-quarter interception, career-high four tackles and three pass breakups, including one on a third-and-8 that forced Michigan to punt and led to Duncan’s game-winner. He was targeted 10 times and allowed just three receptions and shared Big Ten freshman of the week honors.
Rugamba is one corner.
Junior Joshua Jackson (6-1, 192) probably has the inside track at the other side, with sophomore Michael Ojemudia pushing. Incoming freshmen will give this position a bump, with Matt Hankins and possibly Creamer (he still could be a wide receiver) in the mix.
5. We’re not getting out of this without talking about punter, and you know that, right?
OK, let’s get through this part without Iowa and punter jokes.
To paraphrase the famous children’s book, everyone punts. (That might not be a joke, at least technically.)
Ferentz made perhaps his strongest positional statement on Monday when he said this about sophomore Colten Rastetter, “Colten has been here a couple years now. He’s at that point where it’s time for him to go. It’s his job to win right now.”
The light really does have to go on. Usually, Iowa specialists have to go through a period of proving themselves before they’re awarded a scholarship. In January, the Iowa staff went basically coast to coast with the intention of handing out a scholarship to a punter. That ended up going to Ryan Gersonde, a left-footed punter from Australia. Gersonde is now Iowa’s only punter on scholarship.
You took the ride with Ron Coluzzi last season. From the painful punt return with 10 players on the field against Northwestern to the magical and kind of odd night against Michigan, you learned how much an effective punter can mean. Probably double down on that with an offense that out of the gate will have to prove it can do more than run the ball.
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