THE HAWKEYES INVADE WEST DES MOINES SUNDAY. For the first time in program history, Iowa will hold a spring practice in West Des Moines. The gates at Valley Stadium open at noon and practice kicks off at 1:30 pm. I've been to a few of these in Iowa City and while I'm not in Ferentz's head, I think I know what to expect. The team will get their warm-up in, stretching and running across the field. They'll break into individual drills. From the individual drills they will start to work together. The QBs will throw balls to wide receivers and linemen work as partial units. From there, they go to a skeleton look (7 on 7) while linemen work as a whole unit on the opposite side of the field. Finally, there's a full scrimmage from the middle of the field that finally moves to goal line and then kicking work. It's not the most exciting thing in the world but still, there's things to learn.
IF YOU CAN'T MAKE THE PRACTICE IN DES MOINES, DON'T FRET. Iowa will host a final open practice on April 27th at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. The practice takes the place of a "Spring Game" and I assume the format is similar to what I described above. Can't make that either? Don't worry. The Big Ten Network has us covered.
The Iowa Spring Football practice will be live on BTN2Go at 3 PM ET on Saturday, April 27.— marcmorehouse (@marcmorehouse) April 9, 2013
Iowa's spring game will air on BTN at 8 PM ET on Sunday, April 28.— marcmorehouse (@marcmorehouse) April 9, 2013
WHICH QUARTERBACK WILL LOOK THE BEST? It will be interesting to see which of C.J. Beathard, Jake Rudock or Cody Sokol gets the first nod to run with the first team. Ferentz has said they will get equal work. You can bet that at this point Ferentz won't give the nod to any of the three as the leader for the starting position. In fact, don't be surprised we won't find out until the first series of the first game against Northern Illinois. Still, we'll get to see which quarterback has the best handle on the offense this early in the process and which, in our eyes, could be tabbed the starter.
The knock on Rudock has been his arm strength. In seven-on-seven drills we'll see if he can get the ball to the receiver on the out route with velocity. There will also be plenty of deep balls to gauge his down field accuracy.
Sokol might be the most mobile of the quarterbacks but there might be an issue with grasping the playbook. Watch for a quarterback keeper when he's on the field.
Beathard is a bit of a wildcard as we haven't had the chance to see him much. Rumblings around the rumor circuit say he might be the best of the three.
Like Rudock, arm strength of the other two is something to watch. Along with footwork and which QB just seems to handle himself the best in the scrimmage. The defense will run blitzes at the offense, so, perhaps, this will be a good chance to see decision making and mobility in the pocket.
WHAT IS GOING ON AT RUNNING BACK? There's a fullback, there's not a fullback. Which is it? New running back coach Chris White is on Twitter bragging up his tandem of Damon Bullock and Mark Weisman. How often will they see the field simultaneously? Also, where does Jordan Canzeri fit in the mix? Will Canzeri and Bullock spend time as a slot receiver and if so, will it motion from the backfield from an I-formation look?
Bullock and Weisman are now known commodities and Ferentz doesn't like his starting running backs getting hurt. In the past, Marcus Coker or starting running back "X" typically wore a red jersey to mark "not too much contact." Bullock and Weisman, by all accounts, are healthy (or healthier than they finished the season), so, don't expect a ton of heavy lifting. That being said, there's a lot to work on to fix last season's terrible offense. And, there's mention (by Jake Rudock in interviews) of a few new "tweaks."
Enter Jordan Canzeri. As the second string back, expect him to get a lot of work. Michael Malloy had an ankle issue and Barkley Hill is still working back from a torn ACL. They might get some carries too. There's also Adam Cox who is nothing more than a scout team running back/fullback and may eventually become Iowa's second string fullback if the two-deep ever reverts to its old self.
What are the options here? Is there really depth? Can anyone of these guys pose as a receiving threat? Which will AIRBHG take out first? I don't expect a ton from this group considering the practice format but maybe we'll see some breakaway speed from Canzeri. Something Iowa has lacked from the running back position over the last few years.
WHAT ABOUT THESE WIDE RECEIVERS? This might be the weakest position on the current roster. We know what Iowa has in Kevonte Martin-Manley and Jordan Cotton. Beyond those two is a handful of players with a tiny bit of experience. Tevaun Smith saw his playing time increase as the season progressed but passes didn't seem to head his way. He could work his way into a starting role this season and allow KMM to play in the slot, a position that fits his skill set. Smith is a big wide receiver, as is Jacob Hillyer. If both have the speed to spread the field deep remains to be seen.
Beyond those four is where you'll really need your pocket roster. Don Shumpert returns for a final season so you'll recognize him. After Shumpert there's Cameron Wilson, a red-shirt freshman and is a complete unknown at this point. There's also a mix of walk-ons that include Riley McCarron and Blake Haluska. Don't fall head over heels when one of these guys makes a diving catch. They're likely place holders for the five true freshmen Iowa recruited in the 2013 class. But, McCarron might have a real chance at playing. We'll get a good feel for his ability as a slot receiver Sunday.
THE INTERIOR OF THE OFFENSIVE LINE. Austin Blythe takes over the center position and in early practice sessions that often means bad snaps and fumbled quarterback exchanges. With three quarterbacks rotating in this might be a problem.
One guard position might be set in stone as Connor Bofelli has paid his dues in the program. Sophomore Jordan Walsh could push Boffeli for his starting spot and has appeared in practice pics working with the first team. Andrew Donnal is back from his season-ending injury and working at the right guard spot. Donnal is a big body that's maybe better suited for tackle. Red-shirt freshman Ryan Ward, senior Drew Clark and red-shirt JUCO transfer Eric Simmons are also battling for playing time.
The tackles, Brandon Scherff and Brett Van Sloten, are set in stone too. Ryan Ward is probably the heir apparent to the left tackle spot. Scherff was lost due to injury and it was a mishmash of a starting line the rest of the 2012 season. Iowa needs to develop Ward or either fellow red-shirt freshmen Cole Croston or Mitch Keppy to provide depth. Nolan MacMillan is still on the roster but hurt, yet again.
THAT DLINE. Where will the pass rush come from? The team scrimmage will give us a great chance to see Iowa's defensive ends work. They'll compete against Brandon Scherff and Brett Van Sloten, two veteran and skilled tackles. Drew Ott and Dominic Alvis are listed as the starters. Alvis may be better suited for defensive tackle as he lacks speed on the edge. Alvis was a year removed from a torn ACL last season so we'll see if he picked up a step or if he's the same Alvis that got murdered at Northwestern last year.
Darian Cooper really came on strong towards the end of 2012. For now, it appears the staff is sticking with Carl Davis at number one on the defensive line depth chart. Cooper and Davis together give Iowa a lot of size in the middle of that Dline. Factor in Louis Trinca-Pasat this fall and you have an experienced trio, at least.
Of the three linemen Iowa added last season, Drew Ott was the one to burn his red-shirt. He's still, perhaps, undersized, but maybe he's added the girth necessary. We'll want to see if Jaleel Johnson and Faith Ekakitie live up to their recruiting hype and if they, in anyway, can help this defense this year.
There's also Bud Spears, Riley McMinn and Daumantas Venckus-Cucchiara that will work their way in the mix. Each, maybe a project when recruited. Spears is a converted linebacker, McMinn and DVC needed to add lots of weight. They're in year three on campus so now is the time if any of the three are going to make a contribution. You can say the same for Mike Hardy.
WHERE'S THE DEPTH AT LINEBACKER? Quinton Alston got his shot against Michigan last year and that was a bloodbath. The middle linebacker position is all but his next season after James Morris graduates. Alston will be a team leader of special teams and will be a Morris injury away from leading Iowa's defense.
Marcus Collins isn't listed in the two-deeps but he's made an appearance in several practice pictures. Like Alston, Collins will be a fixture on special teams and in line for a starting role in 2014.
Travis Perry went from walk-on to role player last season. Perry, like Cole Fisher, provides depth on Iowa's outside. They both are better in pass coverage than run defense. We'll get our first look at Laron Taylor and figure out where he fits in. The same goes for 2013 recruit John Kenny, who joined the team at spring semester. Kenny is projected at middle linebacker and is probably still two years away from contributing beyond special teams.
ABOUT THIS SECONDARY. Will anyone unseat Tanner Miller? There's no question Iowa needs more athleticism at the free safety position. Think in terms of basketball for a minute. Syracuse was able to make a Final Four run because of a devastating zone defense led by 6'6" point guard Michael Carter-Williams. His size and speed cut down lanes and covered areas of the floor otherwise left open by smaller/slower defenders. The same, in a sense, is true with Iowa football. The back end of Iowa's 4-3 Under Cover 2/4 scheme needs a free safety that can quickly cover space and fill passing lanes. Tanner Miller had a difficult time doing so in 2012. It should be noted that Darrell Wilson, defensive back coach in 2012, has departed for Rutgers. Phil Parker, while still performing defensive coordinator duties, will resume his long-time role of coaching the defensive backs. That could be key for Miller because play recognition (mental speed) can compensate (sometimes) for athletic ability.
Behind Miller is Johnny Lowdermilk and Anthony Gair. Lowdermilk originally came to Iowa as a linebacker but has since moved to the secondary. He's played on special teams and had some spot duty on defense when Miller left the field. Anthony Gair took a red-shirt last year and we'll see if he can move beyond the slash with Lowdermilk on the two-deep. There's also Ruben Lile, a red-shirt freshman, who tore his ACL last summer. Lile missed all of last season and is just getting his feet wet. How well do these guys move? That's what to watch with this group.
Nico Law is perhaps the most important member of the secondary. Quarterbacks key on the strong safety in today's college football. QBs approach the line of scrimmage with a package of plays. If the strong safety is deep, they run a draw. If the strong safety is close to the line, they pass. Law has the physical tools to play at the Big Ten level. He's still learning the game though. He'll need to spend a lot of time in the film room so he can master the chess match he'll enter each game with the opposing quarterback. Iowa won't run the pistol or even the zone read option from a shotgun spread (well, maybe?) so don't expect to see the chess match in these scrimmages. Watch to see if Nico can cover ground and not get sucked in by the play action. Also, watch to see if Law appears to be vocal on the field. The back unit needs a leader and maybe Nico is that player.
How good is Jordan Lomax? He could be the best player in the Iowa secondary. Lomax might have pushed B.J. Lowery for playing time last year if not for a torn labrum. He and Lowery will anchor the outside and Iowa returns depth with sophomores Sean Draper and Kevin Buford. There's also Maurice Fleming and Greg Mabin, red-shirt freshmen, who started at wide receiver last fall and moved over to the defensive side. Draper got the nod on the spring two-deeps and one of these four will likely become Iowa's nickle back.
The secondary is facing a very weak set of wide receivers who have a new position coach and spinning heads. Expect the secondary to shine a bit this weekend. If they don't, well, let's not discuss if they don't.
ANYTHING SPECIAL ABOUT SPECIAL TEAMS? Returning starters Mike Meyer and Connor Kornbrath will show off their legs. You can count the number of seconds it takes Johnny Mullings to get a punt off and scratch your head. They'll pick field goals but the job is Meyer's. There will also be a handful that catch punts but it's likely Jordan Cotton's job this season. The second kickoff return man might be Jordan Canzeri unless the coaches want to get a rookie's feet wet. Iowa's kickers will kickoff but they won't practice special teams beyond a few field goals and punts (without a return).
IN SUMMARY. I expect the offense to look pretty terrible. Mostly because it's spring and there's a lot of new faces. Insert cliche: the defense is always ahead of the offense. Add in a new QB fumbling the QB-center exchange, sprinkle in some walk-on wide receivers and ta-dah! Terrible offense gumbo. It's a chance to see the future though and Ferentz doesn't allow these often. And besides, it's fodder for debate because May-August is pretty boring.