Spring has sprung and with it, college football has come back into the spotlight. At least some version of college football has come into some version of a spotlight. While many fans are focused on the recruiting trail, the recently reopened transfer portal window or even college basketball (men’s and women’s!), spring practice has been quietly taking place across the country.
That’s true in Iowa City, where the Hawkeyes are set to cap off their spring campaign on Saturday when they host an open practice inside Kinnick Stadium. The action is poised to begin at 10:45am with gates opening to the public at 9:45. As with prior years, expect this to truly be an open practice rather than a “spring game” that you might see at most other schools.
Despite the format, there is still often plenty to glean from Iowa’s final practice of the spring. While things will certainly be far from game-ready, that remains true for Hawkeye fans in 2023. Here’s a rundown of the top story lines to watch on Saturday as Iowa closes out their spring practices.
While it has been relatively quiet on the news front from inside the football complex this spring, the one thing that has leaked out is just how banged up everyone is. And I do mean everyone.
Various interviews throughout spring practice have indicated the Hawkeyes opened camp with just six healthy offensive linemen. Notably, Iowa went into the portal and pulled in a pair of offensive linemen this cycle to try and help a unit that was in dire need. While former Miami guard Rusty Feth appears to be getting work in, Saginaw Valley OT Daijon Parker apparently had a procedure done this spring which will leave him sidelined until this fall. While that may mean he is good to go for week one (reports are it was a clean-up procedure), it likely means he will be behind the curve in terms of cohesion with the rest of the unit. That’s been a recipe for disaster in past seasons for the Hawkeyes.
Among the other offensive linemen to miss time at various points this spring: Gennings Dunker, Mason Richman and Michael Myslinski. For those keeping track at home, that would be at least three projected starters spending time on the sidelines.
The pain doesn’t end with the OL, however. One of the key pieces to Iowa’s struggles a season ago was the complete lack of depth at wide receiver after Charlie Jones transferred around this time a year ago and multiple players went down with injury.
Again, the injury bug has bitten the WR corps as Iowa was down to just one scholarship receiver at points during spring practice. Heading into Saturday, the Hawkeyes will at least have the duo of Nico Ragaini and Diante Vines healthy, but Jacob Bostick is once again sidelined while newcomer Seth Anderson has also missed all of spring. Iowa is expected to look for more help via the portal in the current window (and it’s worth noting the staff has been “following” virtually every receiver to hit the portal the last few weeks) and signed a trio of receivers in the class of ‘23 (with at least one other “athlete” capable of making a move to the position), but that won’t help until fall camp and leaning on newcomers with only a few weeks in the system to contribute has been a rarity under Kirk Ferentz.
Making matters worse for Brian Ferentz and his newfound points-per-game minimum, the lone fullback on the spring depth chart, Eli Miller, reportedly tore his ACL. While the Hawkeyes have historically been able to move reserve linebackers into the FB spot, doing so with only a few dozen practices before lining up in a game situation sounds... less than ideal. Asking Brian to mix up his playbook on the same timeline? Well...
Oh, and just for good measure, the defense has also been dinged up, as the head man might say. On the defensive line, a trio of likely starters have missed time. That includes Noah Shannon, Logan Lee and Yahya Black. Phil Parker has earned more leeway in terms of figuring things out despite injury.
While half the fun on Saturday may be just checking to see who is suited up, the other half will be trying to identify the new faces. Iowa added seven players via the portal this offseason, as well as a pair of JUCO defensive linemen from Iowa Western.
The biggest name of the bunch is, of course, former Michigan QB Cade McNamara. New QB1 has been able to participate in practice this spring, but has been held out of live team drills. When he is on the field Saturday, no doubt most of the eyeballs will be on him, his knee and his chemistry with the Iowa receivers and tight ends.
Speaking of tight ends, the Hawkeyes added McNamara’s Michigan teammate Erick All this cycle as well. All has reportedly been highly impressive and a full go despite working back from a back injury while in Ann Arbor. While we never see the full offense on display (I’m going to fight the urge to stop the sentence here) during an open practice, it will be interesting to see how All is worked onto the field. Will we get the Fant-Hockenson playbook with the combination of All and Lachey? Will it be something entirely new? Or will it be more of what we saw a season ago?
As mentioned, tackle Daijon Parker and receiver Seth Anderson will be out on Saturday. Virginia linebacker Nick Jackson will also be missing as he is not set to enroll until this summer. That leaves Miami OL Rusty Feth to keep an eye on up front, as well as former Wisconsin QB Deacon Hill who is battling with Joe Labas for the QB2 role. It will be Hill and Labas on the field during all live drills and reports are Hill has a cannon for an arm, though is much less mobile than Labas.
Then there are the JUCO defensive linemen. DT Anterio Thompson is reportedly demolishing people this spring while defensive end Jackson Filer was a force off the edge for Iowa Western a season ago. Both will be worth keeping an eye on Saturday.
The $850,000 Question
At the end of the day, the one thing all fans will be watching intently is just how the offense performs. After the season we all just witnessed, expectations are low. But it is spring and as they say, hope springs eternal. Hawkeye fans have a history of falling victim to their own hope and rising expectations. It would make some sense to see those rise with the offseason additions.
But this is Iowa and this is Brian Ferentz’s offense. It should be a “prove it” story from the offense this season and Saturday is our first glimpse of whether BF and his new weapons have any shot at keeping him employed another year.
As noted, several of those will not be on display Saturday and of course, the defense is almost always lightyears ahead of the offense this time of year. But if Brian is going to get this unit scoring the 25 points per game he needs to avoid be canned at season’s end, there should be some green shoots we can witness in small spurts on Saturday. Perhaps it’s a big run from one of the talented running backs. Perhaps it’s a spectacular grab from a tight end. Or a big time throw from McNamara during a non-contact period. Or an interesting route combination that sees a receiver getting open against a talented Hawkeye secondary.
Whatever it is, Iowa fans will have plenty to look for, hope for and perhaps wish for on Saturday. And if all else fails, Phil Parker’s bunch is sure to provide plenty of reason for optimism.