Tomorrow we’ll all scramble to figure out how to access BTN2GO in order to watch Iowa’s spring game that’s really just an open practice. In actually consuming the spring game, we’ll fawn over the breadcrumbs the Iowa coaching staff is going to feed our disgusting maws, starving for anything Hawkeye football-related as our bones still thaw from the harsh cold that was the Iowa basketball season.
This year’s version of the spring game seems slightly less exciting than last year’s simply because Iowa isn’t in the middle of a quarterback competition like it was a year ago between Nate Stanley and Tyler Wiegers. In fact, save for the entire linebacker corps, it feels like we have a pretty good idea who’s going to be lining up and where for Iowa this year.
And that brings me to my first point.
Who the heck is playing linebacker?
Phil Parker actually answered that question with conviction while addressing the media earlier in the week. I’ll let him take it from here:
Q. At linebacker if you had a game Friday night instead of a scrimmage, who would be your two guys on the inside right now?
PHIL PARKER: I would say right now we’d start off with Amani Jones and Aaron Mends. I think they are two guys right now that we’d probably start off with. It varies every day. Sometimes one guy might be better than the other, but right now that’s who I’d start.
So there you have it. Expect to see a lot of Amani Jones in the middle, Aaron Mends on the weakside and Nick Niemann along with Barrington Wade at the Leo. There will surely be a a healthy sprinkling of Kristian Welch and Jack Hockaday on the interior as well.
So, I guess we have the who and where nailed down in regards to linebacker. Now, we just have to see if these kids can play. Aaron Mends is the most proven commodity, and he’s probably the newcomer I’m most excited for this year. The rest of Iowa’s linebackers, however, have played so little I’m not even willing to make an ignorant statement on them here.
The popularity contest
As I mentioned above, this year’s spring game isn’t as dramatic as last year’s mostly because there’s no QB1 battle involved. But there’s still a QB battle! True freshman Spencer Petras is duking it out with redshirt frosh Peyton Mansell to be Nate Stanley’s backup, and though Mansell has the advantage of being in the Iowa system for a year, we know Kirk Ferentz isn’t afraid to burn a redshirt on a backup if his hand is forced — look no further than Stanley coming in for a few plays as a true freshman when CJ Beathard had to miss some snaps against North Dakota State in 2016.
Petras, by all accounts, is the most decorated high school quarterback Iowa has had since Jake Christensen came in. Mansell is no slouch either given his success as a QB in Texas, and while I really don’t think we’ll see that much from either of these guys Friday, it’s still fun to keep an eye on the future and see who’s going to be running the show once Stanley leaves Iowa City.
The only other quarterback on the Iowa roster is walk-on Ryan Schmidt. We’ll see if he can sneak in a play or two Friday.
Receivers who can ... receive
The Brandon Smith Hype Train is officially one year old now, and while I don’t think we’ll learn enough in the spring game to make a decision on whether to buy or sell his stock, I do think we could learn quite about Ihmir Smith-Marsette.
With Akrum Wadley gone, ISM is the first player that comes to mind who could fill Wadley’s waterbug slottish receiver role, only to a larger degree since he’s, you know, actually a receiver. ISM more or less got put in a drawer after the Iowa State game last year, but how he’s used this year could dictate what changes (if any) Brian Ferentz is implementing in the offense. Also, he’s my peg to be Stanley’s second-most reliable receiver (tight ends excluded) after Nick Easley, so I’d like to see big things out of ISM.
And of course, I’d like to see Brandon Smith catch a pass or two and get my first glance at Kyle Groeneweg and Nico Ragaini — but since this is Iowa, and since this is Iowa’s spring game, methinks we’re not going to learn anything about a passing game we didn’t already know.
Three’s a crowd
I’ve gone on record multiple times that my expectations for the running back tandem of Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin are SKY HIGH for this year. From what very little we’ve seen out of them, I’m ready to declare them the best thunder and lightning duo in an Iowa backfield since ... LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley.
What will still be interesting to me is who gets the No. 3 RB slot. Kyshaun Bryan has really impressive high school credentials, as does true freshman Henry Geil. Toks Akinribade seems like he may be out of football, so that leaves ... just Bryan and Geil, really, after moving Camron Harrell to defensive back. With that kind of youth behind Young and IKM, I’d bet Bryan and Geil get around 10 percent of this year’s carries combined, but running back is a very fluid position at Iowa and it’s always fun to see who can be a playmaker on the ground.
I’m going to lump offensive line in here briefly because we’re talking about running backs, but to me the OL seems pretty set — and I’m really not worried about it. Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson should make significant leaps after another year of Doyle, while Keegan Render has proven he can play. The guards are a little bit dicey, but I have full faith in both Paulsen’s and Cole Banwart, along with Brian Ferentz and Tim Polasek to develop these guys. No one is likely to jump out at us during a spring game, but I think we could be pleasantly surprised.
Three’s ... still a crowd
Iowa has another good problem to have in possessing three legitimate starting defensive ends in Anthony Nelson, Parker Hesse and AJ Epenesa (four really if you count Matt Nelson who moved inside last year). We’ve heard a couple times this offseason that AJE is going to get unleashed a little more in his sophomore campaign, but that will come at the expense of snaps for Hesse or Nelson, both of whom have proven time and again they belong on the field.
Though I don’t think we see a situation where one of these guys starts making regular appearances at DT, (unless the injury to Matt Nelson proves to linger) it’s going to be fascinating to see who lines up where in what situation and what they’ll be asked to do. I’d love to have AJE pin his ears back every passing situation, but Hesse could be one of the smartest players on the field for Iowa next year and Anthony Nelson had 7 1⁄2 sacks, so there’s huge tradeoffs when you take one of the three defensive ends off the field.
Brady Reiff, Garret Jansen and Cedric Lattimore will be the guys on the interior while Nelson recovers from the injury he sustained in the Pinstripe Bowl. I think we’re going to learn quickly how under-appreciated Nathan Bazata was last year, but Reiff and Lattimore have some really good size and they could sneak into opposing backfields while teams try and plan for Iowa’s three-headed defensive end situation.
So, that’s that. What are you guys looking forward to seeing in Iowa’s spring game?