IOWA CITY, Iowa — Whenever Iowa”s offense battles its defense in an offseason scrimmage, the defense nearly always wins. Many times it’s a result of the Hawkeyes’ defensive prowess or the offense’s inability to get into rhythm.
I’ve seen springs where Iowa’s offense can’t gain a rushing yard or complete a pass. This wasn’t one of them. Sure, the first team didn’t get into the end zone, but it moved the football adequately. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any questions on offense, however.
Iowa still has to figure out its backup quarterback situation and find depth at running back. Is wide receiver a mirage or an oasis? Can the interior offensive line elevate its level of play? Are there enough snaps for all of the Hawkeyes’ talented tight ends?
Here’s a breakdown of the questions lingering following Iowa’s spring practices:
Think back to March 2016. The Hawkeyes had four quarterbacks vying to replace C.J. Beathard as the starter: Nate Stanley, Tyler Wiegers, Ryan Boyle and Drew Cook. By the end of that spring, Stanley and Wiegers separated from the pack and Cook moved to tight end. Stanley eventually won the job and had a solid season.
This spring, Wiegers left for Eastern Michigan as a graduate transfer. Boyle is not on the team, will graduate in May and also transfer. That leaves Stanley as the only experienced quarterback this spring. Peyton Mansell, who redshirted last year, competed as the backup, while signee Spencer Petras joined the competition after enrolling in January. Ryan Schmidt, a junior walk-on, also could step in if necessary.
If something should happen to Stanley, say a lineman steps on his foot or his helmet comes off, they’re OK with someone taking a snap or two. But if he has a high-ankle sprain and misses a few games, could Mansell step up and keep the offense running? Does Petras take over? That’s a highly important question with an answer unknown until the situation arises. But Iowa needs to prepare for that situation and have confidence in the backup, and I’m not sure it does.
Running back depth
Throughout Kirk Ferentz’s tenure, running back depth has straddled the line between decent and catastrophic. Remember 2004, when Iowa was down to its fifth running, a walk-on named Sam Brownlee? Or in 2010 when the trio of Jewel Hampton, Brandon Wegher and Adam Robinson ended up either injured, in Ferentz’s dog house or both? Even in 2015 with the nicknamed Four Deadly Horsemen — LeShun Daniels, Jordan Canzeri, Akrum Wadley and Derrick Mitchell — all of them sat out with ankle or other injuries. Plus, there’s AIRBHG (Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God), which of course was coined by Black Heart Gold Pants. That era was marked by insane attrition and injuries.
Iowa lost its top two rushers from last year in Wadley and James Butler. Sophomores Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin appear capable of assuming the running game responsibilities. But undoubtedly someone will get dinged up. There were only two other running backs in spring practice — freshman Kyshaun Bryan and former receiver Cam Harrell. Iowa needs four running backs capable of competing in games. It’s possible Bryan could develop into a No. 3 this year. As for No. 4, it could be Harrell or an incoming running back such as Henry Geil or Samson Evans.
I’ve never seen a worse receiver situation at any school than last spring at Iowa. With only two scholarship receivers — neither of whom had caught a pass (and still haven’t) — it was painful to observe. Their on-field weaknesses contributed to the lack of separation between the quarterbacks last year.
This year, the talent is much improved — but is it good? The passing game hardly was dynamic against Iowa’s first-team defense, which usually is the case in spring football. Senior Nick Easley caught 51 passes last year so he’s proven, but sophomores Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette need to show consistency to match their hype. Max Cooper made a handful of catches in the spring scrimmage last week but can he step in and provide quality snaps? Does the position look decent now simply because last year was so bad, or is the growth measurable?
The Hawkeyes appear set at left tackle with Alaric Jackson and right tackle with Tristan Wirfs. Both are ascending players with NFL potential.
Keegan Render has 21 career starts and has slid over to center, where he opened one game last year. It’s probably his best position and a good move for Iowa. Guard is a concern, however. Ross Reynolds rotated at guard last year so he has some experience. Levi Paulsen has two career starts and could land at the other slot. Neither competed in the scrimmage Friday, and Paulsen has missed most of the spring with an injury.
Landan Paulsen — Levi’s twin brother — and Cole Banwart worked with the first team on Friday and had their moments. Mark Kallenberger has developed into a solid backup at both tackle spots and could shift inside, too. If two solid guards emerge from Reynolds, both Paulsens, Kallenberger and Banwart and the others provide quality depth, that’s not bad. But if it’s by default, we’ll know it at some point this season.
We know Iowa has talent with Noah Fant, T.J. Hockenson, Shaun Beyer, Nate Wieting and Drew Cook. Fant is the nation’s top returning tight end, and Hockenson isn’t far behind. Wieting is a terrific blocker, while both Beyer and Cook have immense potential.
The question is, can the Hawkeyes get them all adequate playing time in quality situations without putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage?