Iowa Football

Iowa Next: Combine Hawkeyes pass the baton

Outgoing players' thoughts on who their replacements might be

Iowa Hawkeyes running back Toren Young celebrates with fans after a touchdown over Ohio State Buckeyes at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017.. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Iowa Hawkeyes running back Toren Young celebrates with fans after a touchdown over Ohio State Buckeyes at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017.. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — There’s graduating from school and then there’s graduating to the NFL. Five Hawkeyes did that this week at the NFL combine.

Five pretty great Hawkeyes jumped into the world of professional football. Running back Akrum Wadley gained almost 3,000 yards at Iowa and ran a 4.54-second 40-yard dash. Offensive lineman Sean Welsh will take what fellow former Hawkeye Josey Jewell called “the grip of a bear” with him into the league.

Jewell’s 4.83 40-yard dash time might’ve moved him a round down. Time will tell. Offensive lineman James Daniels continued his rise in the eyes of draftniks with his performance. With Daniels and cornerback Josh Jackson, the Hawkeyes might have two first rounders on April 26.

They’re in the NFL chute. And we’ll see where they end up in about a month.

One common question the combine Hawkeyes fielded this week was who they might see as their replacements for the 2018 Hawkeyes.

Keep in mind, this isn’t hard-core scouting. These guys have been prepping for the combine, some in Iowa City and some in Florida. Basically, they’ve been tending to their business. It’s time to get paid and make the game a career. That takes everything.

Still, they’re freshly graduated and know their teammates well. So, let’s get their takes.

Linebacker

The Hawkeyes lost three senior multiyear starters with Jewell, outside linebacker Ben Niemann and weakside linebacker Bo Bower graduating.

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Another element adding a bit of intrigue is defensive coordinator Phil Parker talking about perhaps totally hybridizing the outside linebacker spot, making it more of a place for a safety body. Niemann gave Iowa the luxury of having a linebacker-sized body play more like a hybrid safety. These kinds of players are difficult to find. Iowa has basically considered itself a 4-2-5 defense the last few years, trying to combat the proliferation of spread concepts in the Big Ten West Division.

Rather than finding another Niemann — they do have one of those and don’t be surprised if Nick Niemann, Ben’s younger brother, pushes his way in there (Ben did say Nick was a step or two faster) — the three open spots might give Parker some room to experiment this spring.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen. You never know,” Jewell said. “You’ve got (safety) (Jake) Gervase back there. You never know what’s going to happen with him or (safety) (Brandon) Snyder. So, you could always bring one of those guys down, make him a little heavier and it will probably work out.”

As for the inside linebacker spots, Jewell knows who’s in play there. First, Jewell acknowledged he has no idea on the plans for the four linebackers Iowa signed — Dillon Doyle, Jayden McDonald, Logan Klemp and Seth Benson — during recruiting.

“I think there’s a couple guys that I know of that we left behind after this year, not like transfers or juco guys that I really honed into after the season,” Jewell said.

There are four upperclassmen who probably have the best shots at winning spots on the inside.

“There’s Jack Hockaday, Kristian Welch and then Amani Jones and Aaron Mends,” Jewell said. “Those are the four guys I look at when I look back on the inside. But there also are some other guys who can always come up. It just depends on what kind of spring ball they have, what kind of effort they want to put into it.”

Running back

Going into spring practice, which begins March 21 in Iowa City, Iowa has five running backs on scholarship — sophomores Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin, sophomore Toks Akinribade, redshirt freshman Kyshaun Bryan and incoming freshman Henry Geil. Head coach Kirk Ferentz mentioned during the February signing news conference that incoming freshmen Tyrone Tracy and Samson Evans also could chip in at running back.

Iowa is a bit thing and definitely inexperienced here. One thing to consider: Young and Kelly-Martin are likely the front-runners. Their skills are different enough to give defenses something to change up to. Young is a burly, one-cut 220-pounder. Ivory-Martin is Wadley-like, with quick feet and a few more moves.

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The two rushed for virtually the same amount of yards in their first seasons (45 carries for 193 yards and two TDs for Young; 20 carries for 184 yards and three TDs for Kelly-Martin). Obviously, their averages show Young might be a potential grinder (4.29 yards per) and Kelly-Martin might be a big playmaker (9.20 yards per).

“(Iowa strength and conditioning) Coach (Chris) Doyle, he’s probably the best trainer,” Wadley said. “He’s going to train guys like Toren, he’s going to be a master. You’ll see Ivory and Toks.

“Those guys have the potential to do it, and I really think they’re going to be better than me. I wish them to be better than me.”

Offensive line

Iowa will be a year older here, but it was hit by the departure of Daniels, a 20-year-old who got a second-round draft grade and decided to declare a year early for the NFL.

This probably puts senior Keegan Render at center. He started there in the season opener last season, when Daniels sat out with an injury.

“He’s another one of those guys who’s really bright. He’s very smart,” Welsh said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you see him at center. I don’t know what plans they have in store, but he’s really bright.”

Tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs will be sophomores. They should cash in on the mountain of experience they had in 2017. Junior Levi Paulsen and senior Ross Reynolds are probably in line for the guard spots.

“Tristan made huge strides this past year,” Welsh said. “He kind of had to grow up quick. I thought he had a great year in terms of his growth. I think they’ll be all right. They’ve got a lot of great heads in that room.”

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Iowa was held to less than 100 rushing yards in five games last season, all losses. The Hawkeyes’ inability to count on a consistent running game marked 2017 (3.76 yards per carry was the worst since 3.65 in 2012, a four-win season). Injuries to senior offensive tackles Boone Myers and Ike Boettger were immeasurable setbacks, especially considering the fact that their replacements were freshmen, Jackson and Wirfs.

“I’m counting on our offensive line to take a big step,” Ferentz said in January. “... I think we have the potential to take a big step in that whole enterprise. I think improvement up front will get us there. And can’t guarantee it, but I’m confident that it’s going to happen.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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