Football is back, baby! Well, sort of. Not really. But close enough for me.
Things got kicked off last Thursday as we saw the NFL return to the spotlight. The annual Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio featured the Baltimore Ravens and the Chicago Bears. It was an almost entirely non-descript game, which is what you expect in the preseason, with more discussion surrounding the NFL’s helmet rule than the contest itself. But it was still football. And damn is it good to have football back!
(The Ravens won 17-16 for that one guy who cares, but somehow didn’t watch or find the score in the last 3 days.)
But you’re not here to hear about the NFL (unless it’s Hawkeyes in the NFL, and while the Bears have James Daniels and the Ravens have Marshal Yanda, neither played as Yanda is still recovering from last year’s fractured ankle and Daniels was spared any work like a number of planned contributors for the Bears), you’re here to hear about the Hawkeyes. Fortunately, they’re back in action too!
No, it wasn’t a game or even a scrimmage, but Iowa football kicked off fall camp last Friday with their first practice of the year. We won’t get our first real look at the team until Kid’s Day this Saturday, but for now we’ll have to get by on what little photos and video the program puts out into the ether.
As those tidbits start to trickle out, here’s a look at what I’ll be watching for.
One of the things I always find interesting (insert caring is creepy jokes here) as we get the first glimpses of players in camp photos or a 20 second hype clip is the physical changes. We all know Iowa tends to recruit more developmental players and that’s worked well for Kirk Feretnz because he has Chris Doyle. Seeing the progress Doyle and the strength staff has made with guys is pretty cool. I’m interesting in seeing how guys like Tristan Wirfs, who was a physical freak as a true freshman, or AJ Epenesa, ditto, have changed physically with an offseason under Doyle.
In the same realm, I like seeing the freshmen in an Iowa uniform for the first time. For those of us who follow recruiting somewhat closely, it’s always interesting to see how those guys look relative to their new peers. Getting reports on how they stack up is even more interesting. I think this year’s group of incoming freshmen has a number of guys who could contribute early, including Tyrone Tracy, Jayden McDonald, Dallas Craddieth, DJ Johnson and Julius Brents. I’ll be looking to see if they can hold their own early.
With the recent departures from the secondary, there is room for some new faces. While the loss of Brandon Snyder isn’t ideal, I feel pretty good about the safety spot given the depth there. Amani Hooker and Jake Gervase played most of last year without Snyder and they have a chance to build on that. You’ve also got a great backup in sophomore-to-be Geno Stone. And behind that trio, you’ve got a couple of really talented freshmen coming in at the position so safety should be solid for years to come.
Corner is a little more of a question. While Manny Rugamba wasn’t a starter a season ago, he was slated to be in a battle to start this year. His departure all but assures Hawkeye fans they’ll see Michael Ojemudia and Matt Hankins as the week 1 starters. But behind them there are a lot of unknowns and not a lot of sheer numbers.
Former corner Cedric Boswell also left this offseason so the Hawkeyes only have 6 cornerbacks on the roster (I’ve seen other outlets refer to Julius Brents as a corner and he may be able to slide there, but he’s a safety and that’s where he spent almost all his time at the high school level), including the two starters. Two of the remaining four are incoming freshmen DJ Johnson and Terry Roberts. Both look like they could be very good, but they’re still true frehsmen. The other two are redshirt freshmen Josh Turner and Trey Creamer. Again, they look to have a lot of potential, but behind the two starters you have a grand total of zero players who have played a minute at the collegiate level. How do they look in camp? Are they phsyically ready? Do we get an pics or video of them holding up or are they getting burned? I’ll be watching.
The Changing Guard
The old guard is out and the new guard is in. No, not the actual guard, though both of those will be new too. I’m talking about the linebackers. All three of last year’s starters are gone, including All-American and general bad ass Josey Jewell. The last time Iowa was forced to replace all three starting linebackers, the 2014 Hawkeyes went 7-6 and was destroyed by Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl. Not ideal.
Can this group make the adjustment faster than that group? I hope so. I really like what I see of Amani Jones. That kid looks like a refrigerator with a jet pack strapped to the back. He’s not going to be Josey Jewell, but he’s very physically gifted.
At weakside linebacker, it sounds like Christian Welch is making it impossible to keep him off the field. I’m curious to see how many of the photos we get have him on the field with Jones and the starters in the secondary. And we all presume Nick Niemann will get the nod at OLB, but I want to see if there’s anyone pushing him.
I think a lot of Iowa’s early success or failure is going to depend on how quickly this group can figure things out. Here’s hoping.
The Men in the Middle
OK, now we’ll talk about the actual guards. And the center. All of them will be new this year as well. That’s a bit concerning. We all know Iowa wants to be able to run the ball. And run it some more. And if things are going as planned, just keep on running it until there isn’t anywhere left to run. That’s tough to do if you don’t have solid line play and in particular, solid play in the middle of the line.
James Daniels was a hell of an athlete and the captain of the line at center a year ago. Now he’s with the Bears and the Hawkeyes are starting Keegan Render, who has spent a good portion of his career at guard. His primary backup came in as a defensive lineman. Beside him appears to be Ross Reynolds and Cole Banwart. At least, that’s how the most recent depth chart appeared. Banwart is only a sophomore and at one time he was a candidate at center. Reynolds, meanwhile, has some starting experience and has always been a guard.
We expect Iowa’s young duo at tackle to be very good as they grow and develop (and after Wirfs returns from his suspension), but the offense will only go as far as the interior of the OL takes them. I’ll be keeping my eye on the health of this group as an injury could pose a problem. And I’ll be looking for any tidbits we get about how they’re progressing with their chemistry in the run game.
Speaking of the running game, there’s another major component behind the offensive line: the running backs. Iowa graduated a dynamic duo last year with Akrum Wadley and James Butler, both of whom are on NFL rosters at the moment. Wadley was perhaps the most dynamic back we’ve seen under KF in terms of pure ability to make people miss. How does Iowa replace what walked out the door?
Sophomores Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin were slated to be the next dynamic duo. But a few weeks ago, the Hawkeyes added another sophomore to the mix in JUCO All-American Mekhi Sargent of Iowa Western. I’m anxious to see how Sargent fits into the mix.
We think of Young as the banger, between the tackles back. IKM is more in the Wadley mold with the home run ability and more wiggle. Sargent appears to be somewhere in between. He’s not as big as Young, but he isn’t afraid to mix it up inside. He isn’t as fast as IKM, but he can get the corner and be gone. Can Iowa actually have a dynamic trio? Do we start to see footage of him working with anyone other than the second or third string? Inquiring minds want to know!
Answers on the Outside
In the passing game, we all know how special the tight end group is. The connection Nate Stanley had a year ago with Noah Fant, as well as TJ Hockenson, was incredible and I wouldn’t expect it to change much this year. But teams will certainly be focusing more attention on those tight ends, I want to see who’s going to step up at receiver.
We know Nick Easley is going to be a staple, but beyond that I’m looking for a couple of guys to show consistency. We got flashes of what Ihmir Smith-Marsette can bring last year, but we didn’t see the consistency. We aren’t going to see that in camp photos either, but do we see someone else working with Easley and Stanley and the ones?
Brandon Smith is the X factor for me. He’s a physical freak and the guy that could really open up this offense. We have the stellar tight ends, we have the reliable, though not as physically gifted Nick Easley and we have the burner in ISM. Can Iowa find their big, physical target to work the middle and intermediate routes, to go up and get balls in the red zone and to take this offense to another level? I want to see Smith doing some of those things in the pics and videos that surface. Is he catching balls in the endzone? Is he battling with linebackers and safeties over the middle? I’ll be watching.
Punting Is Winning
Finally, it wouldn’t be an Iowa blog if we didn’t talk punting.
Last year, we all saw the punting game and it certainly wasn’t winning. It was a problem. There was an injury situation with Ryan Gersonde, who is the more traditional punter. I want to see him healthy this year. Iowa needs a guy at punter who can punt for distance, but with some hang time. That’s what Gersonde can do.
Nothing wrong with Colten Rastetter, he is solid at what he does. The problem is what he does is rugby punt. That’s great in certain situations, but not what the Hawkeyes need as the every day punter. If we can punting pictures or video, I hope to see Gersonde out there.
If you’re looking to get your first glimpse, the Hawkeyes did release their first album of camp photos yesterday. Presented for your browsing pleasure.
And finally, we’re now 24 days away from the start of football season. We’re 26 days from the return of the wave.
The Hawkeye Wave is back in 26 days. pic.twitter.com/A2gGbvWFIf— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) August 4, 2018
The interest isn’t going anywhere and that’s awesome.
Happy Monday ya’ll. Football is back and we’re less than a month from college football games back in our lives. The grind is almost over.