Iowa Football

Iowa hopes to break out of 'survival' mode this week with injuries

Offensive tackle Alaric Jackson will return and, maybe more importantly, the secondary will have a few more bodies

Iowa Hawkeyes offensive lineman Alaric Jackson (77) and Iowa Hawkeyes defensive end A.J. Epenesa (94) practice during Kids Day at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Iowa Hawkeyes offensive lineman Alaric Jackson (77) and Iowa Hawkeyes defensive end A.J. Epenesa (94) practice during Kids Day at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — The Hawkeyes started their No. 5 cornerback on the road at Iowa State. Also, their No. 3 safety and their No. 3 offensive tackle who also happens to be one of their better guards.

And a starting defensive tackle also was out. Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz referred to this Tuesday as “survival.”

“Any time you can survive injuries to starters and guys can go in and play and hopefully not just get by but play well, that’s a positive certainly because that’s how you build depth,” Ferentz said. “There’s no better way than game competition. You can’t substitute that.”

No. 14 Iowa (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) found a way to win by the narrowest of margins in Ames. Last week was not a competitive situation. This week, it’s No. 19 Michigan (3-1, 1-1). It’s go time and the Hawkeyes should have a few more bodies available.

— Offensive tackle Alaric Jackson will return this week. The 6-6, 320-pounder from Detroit, Mich., suffered a sprained knee in Iowa’s opener and hasn’t played since.

Senior Levi Paulsen slid to right tackle. Junior Tristan Wirfs has surfed between right and left tackle, while sophomore Mark Kallenberger also has soaked up some of that “game competition” Ferentz mentioned.

Yes, the Hawkeyes have started the same O-line just twice this season. You’ve seen between seven and eight players rotate every week. In last week’s 48-3 blowout over Middle Tennessee State, Iowa played 11 offensive linemen.

This is the upside of injury. Sort of. The show goes on and the replacements figure it out.

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“The whole trick is surviving it, and I think the offensive line has done a pretty good job of managing the bumps through the first four weeks, and getting A.J. (Jackson) back will certainly help us, and hopefully we’ll be a more diversified group now,” Ferentz said.

— Senior defensive tackle Brady Reiff (knee) hasn’t practiced this week and likely is out. That probably means a three-man rotation with senior Cedrick Lattimore, junior Austin Schulte and sophomore Daviyon Nixon.

— The news is mixed with the secondary.

Junior cornerback Matt Hankins (hamstring) hasn’t practiced this week and is likely out. Free safety Kaevon Merriweather and corner Julius Brents will return this week.

Merriweather started the opener before suffering a foot sprain. He was replaced by sophomore Jack Koerner, who now has three career starts compared to Merriweather’s one.

“Koerner has got a 3-1 edge in experience,” Ferentz said. “Kaevon came in as the starter, but he came in and played one game. It’s not the same discussion as Jackson, who’s played two years for us now. We know who he is and what he is.

“But you’ll see both those guys playing, and the way it’s worked out, I think everybody is going to have plenty of opportunity.”

Merriweather should add depth and probably will see time on special teams. That’s probably the same deal for Brents, who hasn’t played in a game since Purdue on Nov. 3 last season.

But bodies are good, too.

“It would be nice to have some options at least,” Ferentz said. “I guess that’s the deal, but I really see him (Brents), hopefully, helping out on special teams this week, and maybe in some sub packages, things like that.”

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Redshirt freshman D.J. Johnson started the season as Iowa’s No. 5 corner and starter in the 4-2-5 cash package. The 5-11, 183-pounder from Indianapolis, Ind., has been the starter since Hankins left the Rutgers game in the fourth quarter.

With so many injuries in the secondary, Iowa has been limited in what it could do with personnel. Against Iowa State — a super-close, competitive rivalry game on the road — Iowa used just 13 players on defense, with nine going the entire way.

The 4-2-5 was used once at Iowa State and a few more times last week. Michigan is finding its way on offense under first-year coordinator Josh Gattis, who head coach Jim Harbaugh brought to implement an Air Raid passing game with RPOs.

Granted, the Wolverines faced No. 8 Wisconsin and got pinned, but total offense and rushing game are ranked 10th in the league in average yards per game. There is a mound of talent in the receiving corps with Ronnie Bell, Tarik Black, Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones.

This might be a week where the 4-2-5 comes in handy.

“I’m not sure that’s going to be a staple this week, but we have been doing it a little more in practice,” corner Michael Ojemudia said. “With guys coming back, it’s going to be a lot better for us on the back end.”

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

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