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IOWA CITY — The final open practice at Kinnick Stadium will conclude what was a much-needed spring football season for Iowa.
Many questions about starting lineups still will be left unanswered, or left for speculation, but, if anything, Saturday is another day to familiarize everyone with the current and future players who will take the field in the fall.
Starting with the position coaches and players we spoke with this week, here’s what to look for at Iowa’s final spring practice.
Running backs under Betts
New running backs coach Ladell Betts said little has changed about the offense since he last ran at Iowa, but he wants the running backs to hone all the skills that make them versatile.
“There's running backs all over the country who know how to run football right, so what, what can you do to elevate your game and start to separate yourself from everybody else that runs the ball?” Betts said. "That’s what it’s going to come down to. Can you catch the ball? Can you pass block? How well do you run routes in the backfield? How multi-dimensional can you be?“
Tyler Goodson will be playing on Saturday, but senior Ivory Kelly-Martin will not. Kelly-Martin, according to Betts, is rehabbing an injury, but has been present at meetings and helping out the younger players like redshirt freshmen Leshon Williams and Gavin Williams and sophomore Nolan Donald, a wide receiver who recently switched to the running backs group.
“Gavin is probably the bigger body in the room, more a rhythm runner, so the more carries he gets, the more effective he will be,” Betts said. “Leshon is deceptively quick, I didn’t realize how good his feet were until I got here.”
Donald, he said, has more opportunity in the running back position group to add depth. He believes all have potential to see game time, and hopes competition will fuel Kelly-Martin when he returns.
His coaching philosophy, as described in three words, is alignment, assignment and effort, which do not require athletic ability. If the backs know where to be and put in the effort, he can coach them through the rest.
“I told the guys: ’Your job as a player is to make my job very difficult,’” Betts said. “’I want you to perform at such a high level in practice that you make it hard for me not to play you.’”
Offensive line returns depth
Iowa loses star left tackle Alaric Jackson, along with starting right guard Cole Banwart and right tackles Coy Cronk and Mark Kallenberger, but returns starting junior center Tyler Linderbaum. Junior backup center Noah Fenske also recently transferred to Colorado.
While Linderbaum has been the staple of Iowa’s line for three years, fans can expect consistency on either side of him. The Hawkeyes went 6-0 in games junior Jack Plumb played on the line. Senior Kyler Schott, despite missing three games because of illness, received all-Big Ten honorable mention honors, starting twice at left and right guard.
Junior Cody Ince, listed at right tackle ahead of sophomore Nick DeJong, did not suit up in the last game, but is another returner with honorable mention accolades.
“He's with us in the meetings and actually on the field helping younger kids,” offensive line coach George Barnett said of Ince on Wednesday. “He's a five position player, so he has the ability to speak to a lot of different kids.”
The depth chart shows the starting lineup as follows, from left to right, Plumb, Schott, Linderbaum, Justin Britt and Ince. Since Britt and Ince did not play in the last game, it might be safe to assume fans will see younger faces like redshirt freshman Josh Volk, DeJong and possibly early enrollee Connor Colby.
Junior Matt Fagan and redshirt Mason Richmond also saw the field during the last open practice.
Passing plays that will help Spencer Petras
Last week, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said while he’s happy to have practice, he’s glad the team is not playing an actual game soon.
But when it came to addressing quarterback Spencer Petras’ accuracy, he said don’t expect him to be throwing deep that often.
“Accuracy on a deep ball is easier said than done,” Ferentz said. “It's not like we're playing Madden. A lot of them are landmark throws and I think the desire for accuracy can sometimes hinder a quarterback’s ability to push the ball down the field. A lot of times when you have a guy downfield, trying to be too accurate is a problem. Those aren’t high-percentage throws, so we're not going to complete those at as high of a rate.”
Ferentz emphasized the key to getting the ball down field is those shorter out-route throws since those spots are often left uncontested. Then, the quarterback can put receivers in more chances to extend the play.
Those throws are also much easier to make.
“When you're talking about those shorter and intermediate throws, now your percentage of completion should go up,” Ferentz said. “The level of difficulty is not quite as precise. But when we don't throw those balls accurately, we're leaving yardage on the field. We have to place that ball and extend plays for the receiver.”
So far, players and coaches have looked to Petras as their leader on and off the field. Although, it’s reasonable to expect to see Alex Padilla and redshirt freshman Deuce Hogan on display this Saturday.
Defensive line and beyond
Last week, defensive line coach Kelvin Bell commended the leadership he has up front on the defensive line in senior Zach VanValkenburg, and juniors John Waggoner and Noah Shannon.
All will be in play on Saturday. Expect to see VanValkenburg and Waggoner on the ends, and possibly some junior Joe Evans.
Shannon will anchor the interior, but with sophomore Logan Lee sidelined last game, maybe it’s redshirt freshman Logan Jones who will stand alongside him. Redshirt freshman Yahya Black was out last game and might still be out, but Bell sees him as a threat on the interior this fall because he’s been willing to try to make the most of spring ball.
“He's a hostile player on the interior and he was hostile in camp and that hostility carried on to when he got here,” Bell said. “He’s a note-taker. He came in and met with me Monday and Wednesday, twice a week from when we started back school in January until we started spring ball. Not every guy did that. And I made sure that when he came in, don't come in unprepared, come in with questions, so we can be productive in this half-hour, 45-minute session that we had.”
“All of these guys have three years minimum left of eligibility,” linebackers coach Seth Wallace said last week. “When I say a lot of them were young, at least some of them were afforded the opportunity through the COVID year to save another year. And I think they're going to benefit from it and as a team, we’ll benefit from it.”
Wallace said juniors Seth Benson and Jack Campbell, in addition to sophomore Jestin Jacobs, are leading the pack as three starting linebackers.
The defensive backfield is led by fifth-year senior cornerback Matt Hankins and junior Kaevon Merriweather, who grabbed an interception on Petras during the previous open practice.
Neither Hankins nor senior safety Jack Koerner appeared in the previous open practice.
Other returning letterwinners include senior safety Riley Moss, sophomore Reggie Bracy and junior Terry Roberts. Roberts also did not appear in the last game.
Some young faces fans can keep their eyes out for in the secondary are sophomore Jermari Harris and Cedar Rapids Xavier grad Quinn Schulte.
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