Howe: The To-Do List for Hawkeye Football This Spring
IOWA CITY, Iowa – No, this isn’t the official to-do list. And you can bet Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz and his staff have a lot more on theirs than I do on mine.
Spring practice kicked off Wednesday and will run through April 26. At a developmental program, every day, every rep matters.
The Hawkeyes have plenty of holes to fill. This next month serves as a proving ground for the candidates hoping to fill them.
Here’s a look at some of the hot spots I see:
-The interior of the offensive line needs sorting out. We start spring with Cole Banwart listed as the No. 1 center, and twins Landan and Levi Paulsen showing up at the starting left and right guards, respectively. Those are written in pencil.
The coaches moved a valuable piece of their defensive line plans from tackle to center during bowl prep. That meant Tyler Linderbaum, a redshirt freshman from Solon, would be pushed hard this spring.
“He did a nice job in December but we’ve got to get him up to speed where he can play in a game. If he can do that, then he’s got a chance to compete for a starting job. Luckily, we have a lot of time between now and then,” Ferentz said on Tuesday.
Linderbaum emerging at center would allow for Banwart’s return to right guard, where he started seven games last season. It also would improve the depth along the interior.
Iowa boasts a pair of future NFL players at tackle. Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs have a combined 44 college starts.
The settling of the inside positions will determine how good this line will be. A big part of that happens during the next month.
-Like the offensive front, questions exist on the opposite side of the trench. Iowa will be replacing four starters on the defensive line.
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We know it’s in good shape at one starting end spot with A.J. Epenesa, an all-Big Ten performer despite never having started a college game. Chauncey Golston’s steady progress and production bodes well for the other edge spot. Inside, senior Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff have played plenty and should be ready for more snaps.
The Hawkeyes have become comfortable with an eight-man rotation on the D-Line the last few years. While it might not go that deep this fall, they need to find dependability behind the starters.
Tackle Daviyon Nixon should be ready to help inside after sitting out last season to focus on academics. The staff has high hopes for redshirt freshman Noah Shannon on the inside, along with his classmates, John Waggoner and Nathan Nelson, on the outside.
It’s a very important spring for that foursome and others. Iowa is at its best when its strong up front on both sides of the ball.
-You have to go back to Marvin McNutt in 2011 to find the last time a non-slot receiver led the Hawkeyes in receptions in a season. Kevonte Martin-Manley, Matt VandeBerg, Riley McCarron and Nick Easley are the guys who produced from the inside.
Easley’s graduation means Iowa is again looking for a guy to carry the load in there. Redshirt freshman Nico Ragaini begins the spring atop the depth chart.
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“It’s a very important position. We’ve been behind the scenes seeing guys that you don’t get to see. Nico Ragaini is one of the guys, you talk about what we thought we were getting when we recruited him, he’s proven to be that. Once he got his feet on the ground and comfortable, you could see him really grow and play better,” Ferentz said.
“If we were handicapping it right now, he’d be the first guy in. But that’s going to be fun to watch this spring. We’ll see what a guy like (redshirt freshman) Tyrone Tracy can do.”
The coach also mentioned Max Cooper as a candidate. He’s scheduled to be miss the spring with an injury.
“I think we have enough guys. Now it’s just a matter of someone stepping up and doing it,” Ferentz said.
-Amani Hooker changed the way Iowa played defense. The versatile Minnesotan stepped up when injuries hit at linebacker last season and moved down into the box from strong safety. He called it the “Cash” position. It also was referred to as the “Star.”
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Both terms fit Hooker, who was named the Big Ten’s defensive back of the year. He then declared for the NFL Draft following the Outback Bowl.
Defensive coordinator Phil Parker said in December that cornerbacks Michael Ojemudia and D.J. Johnson were candidates to replace Hooker. Ferentz indicated that the 4-2-5 alignment was now part of what the Hawkeyes do.
The question now becomes how much they rely on the new formation. It should be determined by how guys like Ojemudia, Johnson and others look at the hybrid spot combined with how a now more veteran linebacker corps practices.
Nick Niemann, who was slowed by injury a year ago, gives the coaches a guy capable of playing the LEO in the 3-4 and MLB in the 2-5. WLB Djimon Colbert also offers flexibility. Time will tell how young guys like Dillon Doyle, Seth Benson and Jayden McDonald advance this spring. Projected starting safeties Geno Stone and Kaevon Merriweather also possess versatility.
It’s going to be interesting watching how the back seven comes together for the Hawkeyes. A lot of possibilities exist for matching up with various offenses.
-You have questions about punter and kicker. While this spring serves a purpose in settling those positions, the real competition begins when Arizona State transfer punter Michael Sleep-Dalton and walk-on kicker Lucas Amaya arrive on campus this summer.
-Replacing all-American tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant also ranks high on the priority list. Some progress surely will be made this spring, but top candidate Shaun Beyer could be less than full speed for at least a week or two of the period. Further more, incoming freshmen Logan Lee and Josiah Miamen figure to receive a look when they show up in June.
-Development at quarterback behind two-year starter Nate Stanley is important this offseason. That said, I wouldn’t expect backups Peyton Mansell, Spencer Petras or Alex Padilla to see meaningful game reps unless Stanley goes down. Next spring will be huge for that trio.