IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa spring practice is in full swing. The Hawkeyes started on March 21 and are almost two weeks into drills.
Coach Kirk Ferentz, defensive line coach Reese Morgan, linebackers coach Seth Wallace and a handful of players have spoken with the media. There was a lot to digest and some things get overlooked.
Here are five takeaways from the beginning of spring, focusing on some overlooked topics.
1. Brandon Smith is the next Noah Fant
Now, Ferentz didn’t come out and say it, but when talking about Noah Fant’s ascension from lightly used freshman tight end to sophomore star, he mentioned the wide receiver.
“You know, it’s not the same as Brandon Smith, but it’s a little bit like that if you look at his freshman year,” Ferentz said. “(Fant) really didn’t play all that much, and had a huge fourth-down conversion out here in our last ballgame two years ago.”
Comparing Fant and Smith makes sense. Each played in their first year on campus to help prepare them for a larger role the next season.
Fant caught 9 passes for 70 yards in 2016. He developed into Iowa’s most consistent passing game threat as a sophomore, catching 30 passes for 494 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Smith caught 3 passes for 15 yards last season. He opened spring as the starter at split end. He impressed the staff during winter workouts.
A breakout season is possible for Smith. Mentioning Smith and Fant together makes a lot of sense. Iowa wants Smith to follow Fant’s path. It’s best for the offense if he does.
Fant certainly expects big things from Smith. Now, it’s up to Smith to ensure the comparisons with Fant continue throughout the year.
2. Linebacker is wide open
It’s not really a surprise when you consider the Hawkeyes are replacing all three starters. When asked if middle linebacker is a two-man race between Kristan Welch and Jack Hockaday, Wallace didn’t limit it to those players.
“I wouldn’t try to say it’s down to two guys,” Wallace said. “Amani Jones has taken a good deal of reps at that position. … It may not be just three guys like it’s been for the last couple of years. It may be more like the defensive line where there is a rotation. I don’t know.”
Those final sentences are interesting. Typically, Iowa isn’t one to rotate players at linebacker.
It’s early in the spring and the linebacker competition likely won’t be decided until some point in August.
But Wallace sounded more like a coach appreciating the effort he sees, but not necessarily the execution. It doesn’t sound like there are favorites, with the possible exception of Nick Niemann at what Iowa calls the LEO spot.
A wide-open competition is interesting. It potentially allows for someone not on the two-deep roster to claim a starting spot. Time will tell.
3. Who fills out the defensive line rotation?
Morgan liked what he saw rotating eight to 10 players up front last season. He thought it kept his players fresh and wants to do it again in 2018.
“If you look at the NFL and look at colleges, they do it,” Morgan said. “It’s hard, the defensive line. You are asking a 3-technique to take on 600, 700 pounds against Wisconsin in the run game time after time after time. So playing more guys helps.”
Depth isn’t a problem at defensive end. Anthony Nelson, Parker Hesse, A.J. Epenesa and Sam Brincks all return.
Defensive tackle is a different. Matt Nelson, out for the spring after shoulder surgery, will man one defensive tackle spot during the season. Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff are in the rotation as well.
With Daviyon Nixon taking an academic redshirt, who joins them in the rotation? Garret Jansen, who saw limited time in pass rush situations last season, is the favorite. Walk-on Dalles Jacobus is another option.
Finding the eighth defensive lineman is a first-world defensive line problem, but it’s an important one for Iowa. The Nelson injury already shows one missing player creates some depth concerns at defensive tackle. Iowa needs depth to emerge at defensive tackle.
4. Running back health matters
Only four running backs are going through spring drills. Keeping the players healthy and upright over the next month isn’t just vital. It’s mandatory.
Iowa already tried to address the issue by moving Camron Harrell from defensive back for the spring.
Teams typically limit the wear and tear on their top running backs in the spring, especially in scrimmages. The Hawkeyes must balance individual growth at a position without a returning starter with protecting each running back.
There is no reason to wear out any of the running backs in April, and the chance of injury increases if the same couple of rushers are rotating reps.
It’s a tough spot. It’s something Iowa is aware of and Ferentz will monitor over the next few weeks.
5. Leaders wanted on defense
The line is the most experienced defensive unit. That’s why Morgan was asked if the defensive line will replace the linebackers as the leaders of the defense.
“I don’t think we are there yet,” Morgan said. “I just mean right now they are good guys and they are going to have to do more. They are going to have to lead by thinking every snap in practice is the most important snap they are going to take.
“I think they have to do it by example and they have to do it verbally and we don’t have a verbal group of guys.”
It sounds like the defense is in need of a leader (or two). A few will emerge. It will be interesting to see which players do.