IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa has lost four players with remaining eligibility since the end of the season. All of them moved on in the good graces of head coach Kirk Ferentz.
Junior Josh Jackson and James Daniels announced they were foregoing their final years to enter the NFL Draft. Backup quarterback Tyler Wiegers graduated last month and transferred to Eastern Michigan. Noah Clayberg left the program for an opportunity to play offense.
Most observers expected Jackson to leave following a unanimous first-team all-American season in ’17. The cornerback from Texas led the nation in interceptions and is projected as a first-round draft pick.
Daniels’ exit surprised some folks. He’s not been projected as a first-rounder.
Ferentz said the anchor of his offensive line was ready for the next level. He believed Daniels could start at guard for a lot of teams next season.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever coached a more talented center prospect. That includes my time in the NFL,” Ferentz said.
“He’s got some skills that are just really unusual. And he’s a really intelligent guy. And one interesting thing about him, you get the feedback from the NFL folks. That’s strictly off film. They haven’t had a chance to investigate the kind of person he is and his intelligence. All those things, kind of the personality he’s got. So I think both in his case and Josh’s case, those things are just going to elevate their status.”
Wiegers was stuck behind sophomore Nathan Stanley this past season. He played in eight games, completing 4 of 6 passes for 35 yards, including a three-yard touchdown pass against Illinois in October.
Ferentz said he didn’t see Wiegers leaving as a selfish move. Quarterbacks are unique in that most often only one plays.
“We haven’t had a better kid in our program in 19 years than Tyler Weigers,” the coach said. “What a tremendous young man, tremendous family. He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do and I can’t tell you all the things he does, work-wise, like extra work that I’ve seen him do and he does a lot of stuff.
“So I’m happy for him. I’m really excited. I hope he has a great year, and I think he will.”
Clayberg gray shirted during the fall of ’16. He bounced between running back and safety when he joined the team last January and played on special teams in the fall. He wanted to play offense and will have an opportunity to do that at his new school, Dordt College of the NAIA.
“Noah is a tremendous young guy, just wasn’t working for him,” Ferentz said. “It kind of made me rethink whatever we call it the gray shirt thing, like I’m not so sure that’s a great deal. I think it’s better for players to come in be in the flow of things instead of having to be outside looking in I’m not so sure that’s a great idea and other people have probably done better with it. But there’s something about being part of a team.”
BUILDING THE O-LINE: Without Daniels and all-Big Ten guard Sean Welsh, Iowa will have some holes to fill up front.
If it were playing next week, Keegan Render would play center, Ferentz said. The senior-to-be started their in the opener last season when Daniels was hurt and is most game ready at that spot. He started at guard during the other contests.
Cole Banwart was making a move at center before suffering an injury late in the season. Ferentz mentioned him as an option there.
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“He’s demonstrated the traits that we’re looking for, not only as a center but just for a guy that is going to play out there,” the coach said. “So can he do it or not? We’ll find out this spring. But I think he’s demonstrated he’s coachable. He’s a really dedicated guy and really serious about what he does. Great work ethic. I think he’s got an opportunity.”
Ross Reynolds, who rotated in at guard this year figures to be in the starting mix as does Levi Paulsen, who started at right tackle in the the Pinstripe, but also can play guard. Sophomores Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs begin spring as the starting tackles.
Mark Kallenberger, who red shirted in ’17, his first on campus, made progress this season. Ferentz expected the Bettendorf product to push for a spot after working a lot with the second team.
“Physically he’s probably not there yet for obvious reasons; he just got out of high school,” the coach said. “But he’s got the traits we’re looking for, too. He’s a really competitive guy, tough-minded and doesn’t back down from anything. So he’s got a lot of work to do. But, yeah, we really like him.”
HOT SPOTS: Wiegers leaving presents a void behind Stanley. Ryan Boyle, Petyon Mansell and Spencer Petras, a true freshman who arrives Thursday, are the other scholarship signal callers left on the roster.
“It’s wide open. Wide open,” Ferentz said.
The Hawkeyes also say goodbye to their top two running backs, Akrum Wadley and James Butler. Sophomores-to-be, Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin return. Toks Akinribade’s future is uncertain after a December medical procedure and incoming freshman Henry Geil doesn’t arrive until June. Marcel Joly retains eligibility but graduated last month.
“It’s pretty short right now. Flip a coin. You’ve got Toren and Ivory. So those are the two guys. So that’s where it all starts,” Ferentz said. “That’s where it’s at and we’ll have to develop more depth there for sure.”
Matt VandeBerg leaves a receiver group that remains a work in progress. Starters Nick Easley and Ihmir Smith-Marsette return as do Brandon Smith and Max Cooper, who play sparingly as true freshmen in ’17. There are others in the pipeline.
“It’s like anything, things don’t just happen overnight,” Ferentz said. “Counting on Nick stepping up and Ihmir should be a better player and Brandon will have to be a better play and we’ll keep working down the list. But we’ve got to continue to get better at that position. And just gotta work it. Massage it a little bit and work it and utilize our tight ends. Fortunately I think we’ve got some good players at tight end.”
Then, there’s linebacker, where Iowa loses starters Josey Jewell, Ben Niemann and Bo Bower.
“I can tell you right now in my mind at least nobody’s emerged,” the coach said. “We have some favorites and all that kind of stuff but we’ll let that stuff get decided over the next six to eight months.
“I wouldn’t even want to predict who is going to line up where for the first ballgame. But it’s obviously going to be something we look at closely. It’s wide open competition for everybody right now including anybody that comes in.”
RECRUITING ROUNDUP: The Hawkeyes have secured 19 known verbal commitments in the ’18 recruiting class. They’ll look to fill out the group ahead of the signing period that begins Feb. 7.
“We’ve still got a few more to go,” Ferentz said. “I think we’ve got a decent pool right now of guys we’re looking at. And I would imagine over the next two weeks might come up on some other stuff that might be interesting to consider.
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“And there are a couple of positions we still need to address and then I think the other thing we need to do as a staff is to make sure that we’re kind of like the draft, sometimes who is the best guy available. It might not be exactly the need you have right now. But if there’s a really good player out there that’s interested in us, can we find a way to get them into the class.”
Iowa signed 18 players in the early period (Dec. 20-22). They added post-grad receiver Nico Ragaini on Sunday. He was scheduled to arrive no campus Thursday along with Petras and Iowa Western defensive lineman Daviyon Nixon.
10TH MAN: The NCAA cleared the way for programs to add a 10th full-time coach to the staff. Ferentz said he hasn’t settled on who that will be for Iowa.
“I know where we’re going on this whole thing, but I also think there’s no compelling reason to pull the trigger right now or make a decision,” he said. “So we’ll tread water here for a little bit and just see what the landscape looks like and probably do something here mid-month, late month, somewhere in that ballpark, possibly, early February. And we’ll go from there.”
Ferentz hinted last year that he would be giving assistant LeVar Woods, who coaches tight ends, all of the special teams’ responsibilities. He confirmed that on Wednesday. Linebacker coach Seth Wallace had been helping there but will now focus only on defense.
“I think it will help our special teams and I thought LeVar did a great job with that transition this year, he was tremendous. Seems really comfortable in that role,” Ferentz said. “Seems like that’s a really good niche for him, and so, yeah, I’m really excited about that. I think it’s going to be a good thing.”
SUSPENSION UPDATE: Ferentz announced the suspension of two players last month. Alaric Jackson traveled to the bowl but did not play after violating team policy. Safety Brandon Snyder, who was recovering from a second torn ACL, stayed back in Iowa after being arrested for a DUI.
Ferentz said that both players were moving towards being back in the good graces of the staff. Jackson was working out in the facility on Wednesday.
“It’s going to be ongoing for those guys to get back where they need to be and hopefully in the near future that will be the case,” the coach said.
NELSON SIDELINED: Iowa will be without starting defensive tackle Matt Nelson for spring ball. The senior-to-be from Cedar Rapids injured himself in last month’s Pinstripe Bowl.
Nelson missed last spring with a leg injury. This issue was believed to be in the upper body.
“He’ll be fine and is fine, but as far as I know everybody else will be eligible for spring practice. So sorry about that one, obviously,” Ferentz said.