As I sit here this Monday morning, we are exactly two weeks away from game week in Iowa City. We’re two weeks away from Northern Illinois previews, mid-week media availability and the first really meaningful depth chart in months. Football fever is here.
Thank the football gods we got a taste of what’s to come over the weekend as the Hawkeyes held their media day on Friday and followed that up with the annual Kids Day open practice (it will never be a scrimmage) Saturday. In short, we have actual football stuff to talk about!
Media Day Takeaways
Media day is what it is, and that’s not seeing players on the field. However, all the Iowa staff was made available for interviews and questions on Friday and there were some nuggets in there that are worth validating.
Let’s start with the head man, who didn’t really say much in his opening statement, but did take the opportunity to call out a couple newcomers by name. Kyle Groeneweg, the RS senior transfer from the University of Sioux Falls and Mekhi Sargent, the RS sophomore from Iowa Western Community College, got the honors.
And then beyond that, we’ve got a group of newcomers, be it first-year players that are just out of high school or guys like Kyle Groeneweg, who was ineligible last year because of a transfer, to see him be able to mixing out there with our first and second offense, a guy like Mekhi Sargent, the same way, who’s a little bit older, newcomer still, but guys that I think have a chance to really help our football team.
There’s not a lot there, but when KF throws out a name, I pay attention. If nothing else, those are guys to watch for when we get glimpses of what’s happening in practice and in the early part of the season. Can they break through? Does contribute mean spot duty or are these guys who will play a key role down the stretch?
When it came to the Q&A, the conversation varied some but seemed to continue to come back to one lingering topic, a proverbial elephant in the room (though in this case, the proverbial elephant was four human beings who are literally the size of an elephant when take together but were not at all in the room): the game one suspensions for Tristan Wirfs, Alaric Jackson, Brady Rieff and Cedric Lattimore. And while we didn’t learn anything new about the cause of the suspensions, I think it’s a good time to put things in context.
Nearly half the questions in the media availability were spent discussing the punishments Kirk Ferentz handed down for players who have reportedly had issues ranging from drinking and driving, drinking and trying not to drive, and violating team rules. Those punishments, individually, deserve some varying degree of praise and criticism. They also, to some level, raise concerns about the Hawkeyes potentially struggling or even losing to Northern Illinois in the opener.
As blasphemous as it sounds, the line has moved down from -13 to -10 Iowa and Sutton Smith is licking his chops at the thought of attacking a new starter at offensive tackle. But those suspensions aren’t going anywhere.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the conference, Ohio State’s head coach is on administrative leave for knowingly keeping an assistant on staff after numerous reports of assault on his wife, then lying about knowing about it publicly. Maryland’s DJ Durkin is on administrative leave, along with a number of his strength coaches and trainers, for abusive treatment of players (and while there’s been no direct connection made, there are reports the death of Terrapin Jordan McNair from heatstroke back in June fit in the pattern that’s at issue). Michigan is now under investigation for potential violations related to players selling school-issued shoes. And we all recall the track record up in East Lansing.
I feel like I’m kicking a dead horse at this point, but in times like these we really should take a moment to appreciate that The Captain is holding guys out of games that could legitimately be in question to teach them life lessons. We’re here for the football, but it’s about more than that for him (as we’ve seen over and over again over the years from the players to the Children’s Hospital donations and on and on). I’ll take all the 8-5 seasons in the world to not have our collective name dragged through the proverbial mud.
[slowly steps down from soap box]
The last thing worth noting from Kirk’s remarks was the response to the final question. When asked if there was anyone from the group of freshmen he’d like to see contribute, Kirk said the following:
Yeah, I think there is, and we’ll know more probably next time we get together. I alluded to it. The secondary is wide open right now. I think there’s an opportunity there, perhaps at linebacker, and especially with this redshirt rule, it gives us a chance to get some guys on the field, maybe get a look at them, when in other years we couldn’t. I doubt the receiver position, but you never know. Running back we’ve got an open mind. And maybe a guy or two on the defensive line. I think that’s a possibility. I don’t think that would be a stretch.
I don’t think it’s a major shock to hear that there may be some guys in the secondary who contribute early given the lack of depth at corner and the incredible talent the staff has recruited there. The major surprises to me were the comment at running back. I love what I’ve seen on film of Henry Geil (and Samson Evans was great as a high school QB), but with three sophomores atop the depth chart, I wonder where a freshman RB finds his way onto the field. And the fact he doesn’t seem to think a freshman WR will be a contributor is a bit of a shock given the need for answers on the outside and the hype surrounding Tyrone Tracy. This is certainly something to monitor going forward.
If you’re interested in catching the entire Q&A, you can view that here, courtesy of Tom Kakert at HawkeyeReport.
You can also read the full transcript of KF’s opening remarks and the Q&A here.
Kids Day Notables
There’s a lot to unpack from the first open practice in several months and I’m not going to even try to pack them all in here, but let’s start with what we didn’t see. Or more accurately, who we didn’t see.
Devonte Young, Jayden McDonald, Dalles Jacobus, Calvin Lockett and Cody Ince were all present, but not in pads. No news on what the reasoning was for each, but as someone looking for answers at receiver I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a littler disappointed we didn’t get a glimpse of Lockett or the progression of Young. It would’ve also been great to see McDonald in the mix. He seems to be the most physically ready of all the freshmen LBs and given Kirk’s comment on Friday, I would’ve pegged him as one of the possible contributors this season.
Beyond the list of guys present but not in pads, there was a notable absence. Kyshaun Bryan, the redshirt freshman RB from Ft. Lauderdale, was nowhere to be seen. Nothing has been confirmed, but it sounds like he’s not a camp invitee.
Now, he may be gone from the team, or he may not. Schools are limited to 115 camp invitees and given the vast number of walk ons the staff took in this class (you’ll recall Iowa brought in 20 in 2018 - enough to fill the entire scholarship recruiting class expected in 2019, in addition to the guys on scholarship) it’s entirely possible the Hawkeyes opted to have some guys not expected to contribute much this season sit out camp and make room for complete unknowns who are new.
Either way, something to monitor as we transition from camp to practice.
On to the practice itself, where things went kind of as you would expect at this point. The offense looked.... OK... at times. Less so at others. That’s kind of to be expected this early as the offense has significantly more to learn and work through than the defense. So I’m not terribly concerned.
And there were certainly some flashes on offense.
The ones were the ones and it’s tough to take to terribly much away from what we saw. Stanley is going to be damn good. So is Noah Fant. Behind Fant, Hockenson would likely be a first team All-Big Ten tight end if he was the primary target.
I like seeing BF use the speed of Ihmir Smith-Marsett for things like the jet sweet, given it isn’t some special package they have to substitute him in for like they did Jonathan Parker or others in the past. And while I didn’t see a whole lot of Brandon Smith highlights, I’m confident he’s going to be a contributor given his physical abilities. We know what Nick Easley can bring to the table. So I’m confident in the passing game, even with the potential issues we may see in week one without the starting tackles.
In the running game, I think we know what we’ll get out of Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin. They are the thunder and lightning, though Young showed a bit more lightning on Saturday and that’s a great sign. But beyond that, what we saw from Mekhi Sargent lends credence to the words of Captain Kirk. Sargent shows great power and quickness and as he gains comfort with the offense, I think we’ll see the former All-American become even more decisive.
I’m not certain how he’ll work into the rotation at RB with Young and IKM, but he certainly has the ability to make the mix and it sounds like the idea from the staff is to eventually have a three-headed monster. I like it.
Beyond RB, we saw some interesting things on the defensive side of the ball.
While Kirk mentioned in his notes that Niemann and Jones were locked in as starters with the third spot wide open, Kristian Welch ran with the ones on Saturday. Interestingly though, it was freshman Seth Benson who burst onto the scene and made waves on Saturday. While it was only one practice, it’s intriguing. McDonald, who was absent Saturday, is the freshman linebacker I would have pegged as a potential early contributor if nothing else on special teams, but the emergence of Benson could be a pleasant surprise for a linebacking group that’s looking for bodies.
In the secondary, we know the starters by now with Hooker, Gervase, Ojemudia and Hankins, but Geno Stone continues to impress and I wonder if he might steal someone’s job by the end of the year. At corner, I love what Hankins brings and I think the two starters are entrenched, but it was interesting to see freshman Julius Brents out there in nickel packages. He’s a guy who played a lot of safety in high school and that’s where I would’ve pegged him given his size, but his coverage skills may land him on the field as a freshman at corner. RS freshman Josh Turner was with him on the second team with DJ Johnson and Terry Roberts running with the threes. I honestly think we’ll look back in a decade and see a handful of guys who were all clustered in a couple classes but all could’ve played on a LOT of teams around college football.
Lastly, because even I get tired at 2000 words, I think special teams are worth at least mentioning. Miguel Recinos is going to be solid at kicker again. It really is a blessing to not have to worry about any kick inside 45 yards and have a solid shot outside of that range. But the punting game still worries me.
I know, I know, jokes about punting being winning and our new found discovery last week that punting may not be winning aside, this is a concern. It was a major issue last year and I have some hope that Ryan Gersonde can get us back to even mediocre. Bu there wasn’t enough Saturday to keep me from at minimum holding my breath on 4th down come September 1st.
That’s it, that’s all I got... For now. For those of you itching for more info, Google is your friend. At this time of year, everyone is clamoring for info and all the media outlets or pumping out their takes. We’ll have more throughout the coming weeks and so will everyone else.
Happy Monday, people. Only one more of these where you have to put up with me not talking about an upcoming game or one that just happened. There’s light at the end of the tunnel.