116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
JOHNSTON — After all of the sweating and running around on the Johnston Middle School field, it was time for the youth football campers to ask Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz some questions.
It had to have been a little intimidating for the first 8- or 10-year-old to throw out the first question. It was a good-sized group and Ferentz was surrounded by mostly seniors. To a middle school football camper, these guys look like giants.
So, the first question.
'Do you guys play Nebraska?'
'Yep,' Ferentz responded. 'Every year.'
That will work going into the final few months before the season begins. We all have questions and they will remain questions until the opener on Aug. 31. Even then, some questions will remain. That's how this goes.
Since the Hawkeyes ended spring practice last week, the program has made a hire. Jay Niemann, former Rutgers and Northern Illinois defensive coordinator, will replace Reese Morgan on the Iowa staff, serving as assistant defensive line coach and assistant recruiting coordinator.
Morgan, who announced his retirement March, held the important role of recruiting the state of Iowa. Morgan was hired at Iowa in 2000 after an amazingly successful run as an Iowa prep football coach at Benton Community and Iowa City West.
The 'oh yeah' with recruiting Iowa is around 20 percent to 25 percent of the roster is players from the state of Iowa, including scholarship athletes and walk-ons.
Niemann has Iowa in him. He is a native of Avoca. Niemann was head coach at Simpson College from 2002-07. He coached at Northern Iowa and Drake. He's an Iowa State graduate and played linebacker for the Cyclones from 1979-82.
His Iowa bona fides are having sons Ben and Nick play linebacker at Iowa. Ben started for three seasons and is now with the Kansas City Chiefs. Nick is a junior linebacker.
'We got to see the personal side of him while recruiting his sons,' Ferentz said. 'On top of that, he has a nice Iowa connection, being an Iowa State grad, playing high school football in the state. Simpson, UNI, Drake ... the only negative I could find was the Iowa State thing.'
He's kidding, guys.
'Dan Gable overcame it, so I think Jay is in good shape that way,' Ferentz said, continuing the joke. He was kidding, guys.
Speaking of the Cyclones, though, staying first in the hearts and minds of the Iowa prep football community is a big deal. Iowa doesn't win the Outback Bowl without wide receiver Nick Easley and safety Jake Gervase.
Ferentz said the Iowa program will have four coaches recruiting the state, with Niemann holding the biggest part of it.
'He's very comfortable with that,' Ferentz said. 'Having grown up here and having played high school football here, he's coached in the state so much, I think there's a real comfort level there. He understands the state of Iowa and the importance of it within our program.
Special teams coordinator LeVar Woods will recruit western Iowa (he's a native of Inwood). Defensive line coach Kelvin Bell will be a presence in northeast Iowa. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz will have recruit Eastern Iowa.
'... We can't just recruit it like maybe we would Dallas or Tampa Bay or something,' Ferentz said. 'It's a whole different deal for us.'
• Ferentz was asked how he felt about the offensive line. He said 'uncertain, but optimistic, if that makes any sense.'
Ferentz feels good about tackles Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson. He also likes Tyler Linderbaum at center. He's not worried about the guard spots. Ferentz believes competition will produce starters.
'There are a lot of scenarios that could play out in terms of who ends up winning starting jobs or we could end up rotating guys,' Ferentz said. 'It's really too close to call at this point.'
The 'uncertain' part was this. He mentioned Wirfs, Jackson and Linderbaum and then ...
'I could see those three guys be starters in the first game,' Ferentz said, 'after that, I wouldn't even want to predict right now. But it's not a situation where 'uh oh.' I think we have a lot of good candidates.'
• Senior linebacker Amani Jones is probably more like senior defensive end now.
He lost his job at inside linebacker early last season. He contributed on special teams. This spring, he switched to defensive end. He doesn't have optimum size for the position at 5-11, 245, but he has explosion and the Iowa staff is moving some linebacker bodies into a standup rush end position.
Jones, who suffered a high-ankle sprain and should return to full speed this week, has a chance to carve out a role.
'We're working him in a role that we think will maybe fit him,' Ferentz said. 'It's unfortunate he got injured. This development would've been really critical. He'll be playing some catch-up this summer. At least he got a taste of it and he can work on some things until August.'
• Tight end is going to be different. Obviously. The group of players that visited Johnston was mostly seniors, which did include tight ends Nate Wieting and Drew Cook.
The fact with Iowa tight end 2019, you can't play the compare game with the two tight ends who were just drafted in the first round. T.J. Hockenson went to the Lions at No. 8. Noah Fant went to Denver with pick 20.
So, Iowa TE 2019 probably won't produce two first-round draft picks, but even when Iowa TE doesn't do that, it's still pretty good. This one will be interesting and, with recency effect in full effect, there will be lots of eyes on the position.
To kind of bring a comparison into focus, Ferentz said Wieting could perhaps become a Henry Krieger-Coble, a former Iowa tight end who graduated in 2015 and will begin his third NFL season with the Los Angeles Rams.
'I'd compare him (Wieting) to Henry Krieger-Coble,' Ferentz said. 'I felt like Henry was a really good player who maybe didn't have blazing speed. The two guys who just left (Fant and Hockenson) were really exceptional that way. I think he's got the skill set to be a versatile, all-around tight end for us.'
• Redshirt freshman running back Henry Geil was not with the team for a few weeks recently. Ferentz said Geil would rejoin the team in the fall, when the Hawkeyes will have six running backs in competition.
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