IOWA CITY, Iowa — Grading a team against itself in spring football is like judging ingredients in a bowl of chili.
The last thing a cook wants is for one element to negatively overpower the taste. The same goes for a football coach in a spring football game. For every big play by the offense, there’s a demerit against the defense and vice versa. If one area grades too high, is it because that unit is strong or the opposite unit is weak? That’s a point of which head coaches concern themselves every practice.
Friday’s spring finale at Kinnick Stadium consisted mostly of steady, not spectacular, plays. Only three touchdowns total were scored in the Iowa defense’s 63-47 victory, and one was on a 59-yard interception return by Jake Gervase. There are plenty of questions remaining for the Hawkeyes this offseason, and head coach Kirk Ferentz will scrutinize those areas over the next three months.
Until then, we’ll grade Iowa’s spring-game performance (1-5 stars) using the primary ingredients in a bowl of chili as a baseline:
Touchdown run by Toren Young pic.twitter.com/R8Nx5FoKXp
— Blair Sanderson (@BlairRIVALS) April 22, 2017
Offense/chili powder (2 stars)
Iowa’s offense missed so many contributors Friday it’s mildly surprising the team even held a spring game. Running back Akrum Wadley was withheld from contact this spring after January knee surgery. His absence didn’t slow down the running game, however. Backup Toren Young impressed with his toughness and physical running style. He scored the game’s only rushing touchdown on a 14-yard scamper. Toks Akinribade, who splits time with Young, also showed good burst, quickness and power.
If one considers Young’s performance electric, Iowa’s passing attack was without power. The only positive was quarterbacks Nathan Stanley and Tyler Wiegers picked up experience in front of a crowd. The receivers struggled to separate, which also could be said of the quarterbacks in their competition. Stanley tossed a 2-yard screen pass to wide receiver Devonte Young for the only passing touchdown. Iowa’s tight ends are young but ascending and were more involved in the passing game than the wideouts. Without top receivers Matt VandeBerg (foot injury) and Jerminic Smith (academics), the passing game can’t look much worse in the next public viewing this August.
Defense/beef (5 stars)
Benefitting from Iowa’s passing game struggles was free safety Jake Gervase, who replaced spring ACL victim Brandon Snyder. Gervase picked off a combined three passes from both quarterbacks, including one from Wiegers that he took 59 yards for a score. He also made a strong hit on a third-and-1 play and broke up some passes. Backup safety Amani Hooker was active in run defense and pass coverage.
Iowa middle linebacker Josey Jewell — a 2016 Butkus Award finalist — was withheld after only a few early snaps. That gave the public extended looks at multiple inside ‘backers. Kristian Welch, Amani Jones and Aaron Mends, who were active at middle and weak side positions. Iowa’s defensive ends applied pressure on several passing downs with starter Anthony Nelson and backup Brandon Simon standing out.
Pick No. 2 of the evening for Jake Gervase, and Jake takes this one to the crib: https://t.co/fc6DCJGHYv
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) April 22, 2017
Special teams/beans (3 stars)
Iowa kicker Keith Duncan connected on his extra points, while punter Colten Rastetter was decent. The Hawkeyes rotated several punt returners who fair caught every punt. A neutral grade is most applicable here.
Coaching/tomatoes (3 stars)
Iowa remains in the midst of installing a new offense and there are plenty of growing pains associated with it. With only two scholarship wide receivers on the field this spring and an assortment of young tight ends, it’s too early to apply a grade to the coaching associated with the passing game. We’ll see how it unfolds throughout the season. Defensively, the secondary was a complete overhaul with new starters at nearly every position. Each of Friday’s first-team defensive backs appeared representative enough to take the field and play winning football this fall. This could be an ascending unit with a typical boost from secondary coach/defensive coordinator Phil Parker.
Overall/the taste (3 stars)
Many of Iowa’s best players were withheld or injured so it’s challenging to grade the team’s overall performance. How would the passing game have performed with a healthy VandeBerg or a full-service Wadley? Had Jewell competed every down at middle linebacker, would Young look as good? Same goes for defensive tackles Nathan Bazata and Brady Reiff, who are out with ankle injuries.
But to grade on what we saw Friday alone, the passing game has a long way to go. The other units have a chance to play at a high level (running game, pass rush off the edge) early in camp or get there (run defense, pass defense) quickly.
So if Iowa football was a bowl of chili this spring, it would be thick, meaty and without a lot of flavor. Here’s hoping Iowa’s incoming freshmen provide a little spice — along with the extras.