IOWA CITY, Iowa — A few months after an 8-5 finish and an Outback Bowl loss to Florida, the Iowa Hawkeyes will conclude spring drills with a game at 7 p.m. CT Friday at Kinnick Stadium.
The Hawkeyes are all smiles in some areas and all grimaces in others this spring. They return 5 players with at least 7 starts on the offensive line, plus 1,000-yard rusher Akrum Wadley. All 3 starting linebackers and 3 high-caliber defensive ends come back.
But Iowa must find a successor to quarterback C.J. Beathard, ignite some magic from its wide receivers and replace first-team all-Big Ten defenders Desmond King and Jaleel Johnson.
BTN will air the game on tape delay beginning at 8:30 p.m. CT Friday.
— Tevaun Smith (@TevaunSmith) April 19, 2017
Time to scrutinize Iowa’s quarterback candidates
It’s too early to panic when it comes to Iowa’s quarterback competition, but it’s the perfect time to start scrutinizing the candidates. True sophomore Nathan Stanley and junior Tyler Wiegers are locked in a battle that apparently will not conclude until at least August.
Wiegers was C.J. Beathard’s backup in 2015 and often ran the first-team offense when Beathard was nursing a groin injury. He played in 4 games that season. Stanley came into camp last August and earned the No. 2 job as a true freshman. Stanley played in 7 games, throwing 9 passes and completing 5. Wiegers did not see action last year.
“It’s pretty even. It’s been well-documented,” Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said. “No one has really separated, and I think it’s good. Again, it goes back to there are no incumbents. Nobody is owed anything. No one deserves this or is entitled to this. Everyone has to earn a spot and earn playing time. They’ve both competed hard for that job, and neither one of them has pulled away.”
Well … how do you judge the wide receivers?
There’s no other offensive position — future health notwithstanding — that could determine Iowa’s place in the Big Ten quite like wide receiver. It was a unit that struggled to compete last year, and this spring it’s been devastated.
Only 2 scholarship wide receivers (sophomore Devonte Young, junior Adrian Falconer) are healthy and going through practices. Senior Matt VandeBerg still is dealing with the aftermath of breaking his left foot, an injury that sidelined him last fall. Junior Jerminic Smith is withheld from competition because of academics. Young and Falconer have combined for no catches. According to Brian Ferentz, the best receiver is walk-on Nick Easley.
If VandeBerg can revert to past form and if Smith returns and if Easley, Young or Falconer become a vital piece and if at least 1 of the incoming 4 freshmen are productive, then the unit has a chance to dramatically increase. But that doesn’t mean anything Friday night.
Can the defensive tackles compete at Iowa’s spring game?
Iowa has 2 interior offensive linemen who will be selected in a future NFL draft and probably will start in the league. I’d put senior guard Sean Welsh up against any other guard in the Big Ten — or anywhere — right now. Likewise, junior center James Daniels has more athletic ability than most linemen.
The Hawkeyes lost 2 of their top 3 defensive tackles from last fall. Jaleel Johnson likely will be taken in the top of the third round in the 2017 NFL Draft, and Faith Ekakitie will play professionally in Canada or the NFL. Last year’s other starter, senior Nathan Bazata, remains in a walking boot on his right ankle after dealing with a significant high ankle sprain last season.
That leaves true sophomore Cedrick Lattimore and sophomore Brady Reiff as the primary interior defensive linemen. For Iowa to thrive on defense, it needs its defensive tackles to stalemate the line of scrimmage, tie up blockers and allow the linebackers to flow to the football. There are plenty of times the starting defensive tackles will get beaten on Friday night. But can they hold their own?
Who figures it out at free safety?
Junior safety Brandon Snyder’s torn left ACL hurts the Hawkeyes in multiple ways. He is a cerebral, ascending player who was making strides. Snyder also is a vicious hitter with a team-high 3 forced fumbles and 3 interceptions last season. Chances are, he would have been much improved this year, too.
That leaves junior Jake Gervase and true sophomore Amani Hooker as the primary contenders for the free safety spot. Gervase has played the position more extensively throughout his career, while Hooker moved from strong to free after the injury to Snyder. Right now it’s Gervase’s job, but Hooker oozes athletic ability, which could tighten the competition.
“So somebody’s going to have to come up and help us out,” Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker said.
Who will spell Josey Jewell?
The stalwart middle linebacker has started 30 consecutive games, and he finished second in the Big Ten in tackles last year with 124. Jewell was a Butkus Award finalist last year and returns for his senior year.
Iowa coaches are trying to spell Jewell throughout camp, and his backup still is undetermined. True sophomore Amani Jones has taken snaps there as has Angelo Garbutt. Last year’s backup, Jack Hockaday, has missed time. So who rotates in with the first unit might have the first crack at replacing Jewell in 2018.