IOWA CITY, Iowa — Kinnick Stadium was abuzz last weekend with the first concert at the venerable, 87-year-old stadium. Blake Shelton, Big & Rich and Tucker Beathard (yes, younger brother of Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard) rocked the college town with more than 50,000 fans in tow.
Yet that event serves only as a curtain-raiser for the main purpose at Kinnick. Iowa might not have much of a test this week against Miami (Ohio), which was 3-9 last year, but there are several story lines entering college football’s opening weekend in eastern Iowa.
1. Receiver retriever
Iowa returns top receiver Matt VandeBerg, who hauled in 65 passes for 703 yards and four touchdowns. But after VandeBerg, only 11 passes combined were caught by returning receivers, including six by true sophomore Jerminic Smith and five by senior Riley McCarron.
The Hawkeyes use 11 personnel (three wide receivers, one tight end, one running back) about 35 percent of their offensive plays. VandeBerg and McCarron are considered starters, while Smith will rotate behind talented (but oft-injured) sophomore Jay Scheel. Iowa needs either Smith or Scheel to emerge as a deep threat to allow VandeBerg and tight end George Kittle to find open lanes in the center of the field.
“There’s a lot of young, new receivers and it’s a lot about getting chemistry with those guys and I think as camp went along, chemistry built through the duration of camp,” Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard said. “It’s only going to get better as the season goes along. We’re all just excited to get out there and play a game finally.”
2. Defensive pass rush
This offseason the Hawkeyes lost starting defensive ends Nate Meier and Drew Ott to graduation, and they ranked first and second, respectively, in team sacks. The NCAA denied Ott’s petition for a fifth year in April after he suffered a torn ACL in Iowa’s sixth game last year. While Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz wasn’t counting on Ott’s return, the team certainly was hopeful.
Their departures left a major gap in experience on the edge. Sophomore Parker Hesse filled in for Ott with two sacks, 44 tackles and picked off a Tommy Armstrong screen pass for a key score against Nebraska. Sophomore Matt Nelson and freshman Anthony Nelson (no relation) are competing for the other defensive end spot. It’s likely all three will rotate for playing time, but Anthony Nelson (6-foot-7, 253 pounds — up 33 pounds in one year) has really impressed coaches during training camp.
“He’s playing against guys I think are pretty decent,” Ferentz said about his offensive tackles. “The guys on our ones aren’t bad, and he’s giving them more than they want sometimes. I mean, he’s just a hard-charging guy. He’s not as mature or big or as developed yet as he will be for obvious reasons. He’s a second-year player. But it’s not like he’s out of place out there, either, when he goes against the ones.”
3. Just for kicks
True freshman Keith Duncan won the kicking job in a three-man race with redshirt sophomores Mick Ellis and Miguel Recinos.
Duncan was a four-year starting kicker at Weddington (N.C.) High School, then elected to walk on at Iowa. As a senior, Duncan had five field goals from beyond 50 yards, and his seven misses all were from 53 yards out or farther.
“I’m not sure how he ended up here,” Ferentz said. “I didn’t know who he was at that point, and we visited for a short while in this room, but they came from North Carolina, he and his dad. I’m not sure what brought them to the Midwest, and he was determined to come here.
“Thank goodness. He’s really done a nice job. He’s just come in and really performed. Seems pretty unflappable at this stage. I really have to compliment him on that.”
Marshall Koehn, who is competing with the Miami Dolphins, was one of the nation’s best long-range kickers last year. He averaged 63.3 yards per kickoff with 47 touchbacks on 83 boots. Koehn connected on 80 percent of his field-goal attempts, including a 57-yard game-winner on the final play against Pittsburgh. But he also missed six extra points and multiple short-range field goals.
4. True freshman watch
Iowa has a chance to play as many as 12 true freshmen this year, ranging from special teams players like Duncan to full-service defensive tackles like Cedrick Lattimore (6-5, 260) . Most will see initial action on special teams, where Ferentz often acclimates his rookies to game speed. Among those likely to see action early on include linebacker Amani Jones, safety Amani Hooker, cornerback Manny Rugamba and wide receiver Devonte Young.
All eyes will be on true freshman quarterback Nathan Stanley (6-5, 212) who is deadlocked with redshirt sophomore Tyler Wiegers (6-4, 225) for the backup slot. Ferentz said the race is too close to call, and Beathard praised Stanley’s maturity that belies his experience.
“I think he’s ahead of where I was as a true freshman, definitely,” Beathard said. “He’s gotten a lot more reps than I did as a true freshman. My mind was going 100 miles an hour and so is his. But when I got hurt throughout (training) camp, he had to step up. Everyone got bumped up a role. He was taking more of those No. 2 reps than I did. I didn’t get any my freshman year.”
5. Empty chair
Legendary local broadcaster Bob Brooks will not occupy a seat in the Kinnick Stadium press box for the first time since World War II. Brooks, who died June 25 at age 89, had covered the Hawkeyes for multiple Cedar Rapids radio stations since 1943.
Brooks was the only person to cover or attend all six Iowa Rose Bowl appearances. As a student, he sat in the old Iowa Stadium knothole bleachers when Nile Kinnick paced the Hawkeyes to a 13-9 upset of Minnesota in 1939. Brooks covered Forest Evashevski in the 1950s when Iowa won or tied for three Big Ten titles and in the 1980s and 1990s when Hayden Fry did the same. Brooks was so revered he asked the first question of Ferentz after every game.
It will be very different without Brooks’ fedora, sport coat and class around Iowa football.