116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Football is semi-back.
By that, I mean, it’s the first open spring football practice. It’s been 511 days since fans have been inside Kinnick Stadium for the Iowa vs. Illinois game in 2019 and in 140 days, they hope to return for the season-opener against Indiana.
For them, it’s coming home. For me, it’s my first time.
We never know what we’ve got until it’s gone, and I remember watching Iowa football games when I interviewed for this job thinking about what I would give to be one of the few media members allowed inside a football stadium.
Even as I watched the mid-afternoon games at Texas on TV, I thought: I will never again complain about standing in 100-degree heat, sweating off all my makeup and hair products, taking a swig of a cold tallboy that wets my mouth just enough to shout profanities at my team again.
I digress, but I’m sure Iowans feel the same.
It won’t be completely normal. We’ll be masked up, but there’s still football to watch, and that can make what in other years may seem like a monotonous open spring practice, a true gift.
As a new writer with three weeks of spring football under my belt, I’ll be focused on five things during my Kinnick debut.
Are the early enrollees going to be early playmakers?
This is my own bias shining through, because I’ve spoken with and written about the six early enrollees at Iowa. Watching sports is always more enticing when you know the players on the field.
There’s been a lot of talk about Keagan Johnson and Arland Bruce IV impressing the veterans at practice. In the April 6 news conference, senior cornerback Riley Moss said:
“I know Keagan just got here a couple months ago. He's been making a really good push. He’ll be pretty good with time, but he's been a standout for sure for the younger guys.”
Senior safety Jack Koerner also was asked about the younger players that day.
“Arland and Keagan both have some very obvious athletic traits,” he said.
But there’s also Justice Sullivan, Zach Twedt, David Davidkov and local star Connor Colby, from Cedar Rapdis Kennedy. Sullivan may not be the next man up on the defensive line, but given the three open spots, it’s likely he will take snaps at practice.
There is less room for players like Davidkov and Colby, since the offensive line returns six letterwinners and three redshirt freshmen waiting in the wings, but how will they stack up against the big guys? Especially someone like Davidkov, who lost his senior football season due to COVID-19.
Twedt, who played tight end in high school, might be in the same boat at linebacker, which returns five letterwinners.
Lions and tigers and wide receivers, oh my!
There’s a lot of them, and veterans like Tyrone Tracy Jr., Nico Ragaini, Charlie Jones and Max Cooper have been waiting to take over.
There’s no doubt Iowa could experiment with true freshmen Bruce or Johnson during the regular season, but receivers like Ragaini and Tracy are primed to take the main stage and Jones is hoping he’s not just returning punts this year.
Desmond Hutson also is a young name that came up this week. He was one of four redshirt freshmen named to the 2020 leadership group this year. During his three-year varsity career at Raytown High School in Missouri, Hutson caught 119 passes for a school record of 1,940 career yards.
Reloading the defensive line
Who will replace Daviyon Nixon, Chauncey Golston and Jack Heflin?
So far, the depth chart lists junior Noah Shannon, redshirt freshmen Logan Jones and Yahya Black and sophomore Logan Lee as tackles and senior Zach VanValkenburg, sophomore Chris Reames, and juniors John Waggoner and Joe Evans as ends.
“We don't deviate a lot from year to year,” Iowa assistant defensive line coach Jay Niemann said on Wednesday. “You may have a guy whose name is new to the lineup, but he's been through a lot of the very same things in terms of his development.”
VanValkenburg, Shannon, Waggoner and Evans all are returning letterwinners. Evans played in all eight games last year, recording three solo tackles, four assists, two tackles for loss, one sack, four quarterback pressures and one pass breakup. Shannon recorded 11 tackles, including six solo, with a shared tackle for loss and one sack.
Waggoner played in four games, collecting three assisted tackles and one quarterback pressure, but Niemann said he sees him in a prominent role as an end or tackle.
“He's got the length, and enough mobility to play outside, but he's also got enough size and strength to play inside,” Niemann said. “While most of his reps have been on the edge, and so far this spring, particularly in passing situations on third down, I think there's there's still a potential for him to play inside.”
VanValkenburg returns as a second-team All-Big Ten defensive player, who tied for a national best with four fumble recoveries, recording 30 tackles, including 14 solo, 8.5 for loss and 3.5 sacks.
“Last year, as far as the All-Big Ten stuff goes, you wouldn’t know that,” Niemann said. “You’d think he’s coming in here with a chip on his shoulder and lots to prove. That's because that's just how he approaches it. No matter what the circumstances are.”
Is the quarterback competition real?
Junior Spencer Petras, sophomore Alex Padilla and redshirt freshman Deuce Hogan have all been taking reps at quarterback this spring, but Petras seemingly has command of the team on and off the field.
In addition, teammates like Tracy have said that he’s made improvements in accuracy this offseason.
“Y’all can remember Spencer wasn’t super accurate last fall, but right now he’s putting the balls on the money,” Tracy said on Tuesday.
Who are the options for the No. 2 tight end spot?
It’s been a while since we’ve talked about tight ends, but with Shaun Beyer leaving, there’s room for one more to split the game action with junior Sam LaPorta.
LaPorta, an honorable mention All-Big Ten team member, started in five games last year, collecting a team-high 27 receptions and second-most 271 reception yards. His first career touchdown came against Illinois late in the season. Before that, he was one of eight true freshmen to see game action in 2019.
The competition behind him includes 6-foot-6, 237-pound redshirt freshman Luke Lachey, who saw action in one game before redshirting last season. Lachey was listed on the spring football depth chart at the opening news conference.
But there’s not a lot of experience otherwise. The roster includes walk-on seniors Bryce Schulte, who played in all eight games last year and one game in 2018, and Tommy Kujawa, who has yet to see game action. Redshirt freshman Elijah Yelverton also has yet to see game action.
Sophomore Josiah Miamen was recently arrested, but no official statement has been made by coaches, so it’s unclear where he stands with the program right now.
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