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Leistikow: 5 spring storylines facing Iowa football, Kirk Ferentz

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The first of 15 spring practices has arrived for the Iowa football program. Three are planned per week — one each on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday — over the next five weeks, culminating in a May 1 practice that will likely host fans in Kinnick Stadium.

To say this has been a long time coming would be an understatement for Kirk Ferentz, who begins his 23rd season as the Hawkeyes’ head coach. He’s always looked forward to spring practices, but probably never this much.

“As a coach, I’ve always enjoyed this time of year,” Ferentz said Monday, less than 24 hours before Iowa’s Tuesday morning practice. “Because it is pure teaching. It’s about development.”

For many players entering their second or even third year in the program, this is a long-awaited opportunity. Consider the circumstances that unfolded …

After the 2019 regular season, Iowa had its shortest bowl preparation of the Ferentz era — an early Holiday Bowl date that reduced the number of developmental practices to only a few. The rest were devoted to game-planning and beating USC (which Iowa did, 49-24).

That turned out to be the most recent game Iowa has played in front of fans. The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out spring practice, just a few weeks before Iowa’s was set to begin.

Then, after just three days of fall camp — another significant developmental time at Iowa — Big Ten Conference presidents and chancellors canceled the football season. Even though that decision was reversed 35 days later, the revised prep time for an unusual season was reduced and unconventional. For example, Ferentz mentioned that several players who never contracted the coronavirus were quarantined for 28 total days because of contact tracing. It was hard to find much rhythm.

Here's a look at the 2021 Iowa football schedule
Check out the Hawkeyes' 12-game schedule for the upcoming season.
Emery Glover, Wochit

Then, after an eight-game regular season that ended Dec. 12, Iowa had its own program pause for a week after a COVID-19 outbreak sidelined six coaches (including Ferentz). Then, just for good measure, the Hawkeyes’ Music City Bowl game was canceled over COVID issues with opponent Missouri.

So, if spring feels like Christmas to Ferentz, his staff and his players … it kind of is. This is their first true stretch of developmental football together in nearly two full years. And they’re all excited to find out what they're getting from several recruiting classes.

“A lot of new guys, new faces. Quite frankly, a lot of guys we don’t know about,” Ferentz said. “I think this year’s as interesting as any.”

On that note, here are five more interesting storylines to watch this spring.

It always starts with the quarterback, doesn’t it?

Ferentz is eager to see backups Alex Padilla and Deuce Hogan perform, but once again gave a strong endorsement for returning starter Spencer Petras.

“Just the way he operates, the leadership, the ownership he’s taken. This guy just operates how you’d want a quarterback to,” Ferentz said. “I feel really good about the room overall. Those guys (Padilla and Hogan) don’t have the experience (Petras) does, but we’re going to let them all compete this spring.”

Before anyone takes a snap, it’s clear that Ferentz thinks Petras will take advantage of this spring as much as any player.

Ferentz is very happy with Ladell Betts and George Barnett, his two new hires.

In fact, he and the coaching staff interviewed six candidates for the openings created by the departures of offensive line coach Tim Polasek (to Wyoming) and running backs coach Derrick Foster (to the Los Angeles Chargers).

“They all would have been great fits on our staff,” Ferentz shared.

But in the end, two names rose to the top: George Barnett for the offensive line, Ladell Betts for the running backs. Ferentz mentioned multiple times Barnett’s recruiting ties in the Midwest, and he holds Betts in high esteem as one of the best and toughest players he’s coached.

Barnett, in particular, will be tasked with finding two starting tackles.

It seems like one will be Jack Plumb, who was listed as the No. 1 left tackle on Monday's newly released depth chart. He has traits Ferentz likes — detailed, good attitude, well-prepared and easy to coach.

For now, Ferentz lists Cody Ince as the No. 1 right tackle, even though he’ll miss spring practice with an undisclosed injury. “He’s probably one of the few guys in 20-plus years that could play all five positions (on the line) and play them pretty well,” Ferentz said in one of his most eye-opening quotes of the day. “… He still doesn’t know his own strength. He does a lot of things really well. It’s all in front of him right now.”

Iowa football: What did Kirk Ferentz say when asked about Chris Doyle?
Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz spoke to members of the media on Monday, March 29, 2021, ahead of the start of spring practice.
Ben Yoder, Hawk Central

Ferentz wants to move forward on diversity and inclusion.

It can’t be forgotten that the head football coach is among those being sued by 13 Black former players, an issue that got national headlines again last month when former strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle was briefly employed by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Doyle was accused of belittling and bullying players during his 21 years at Iowa. He was removed from the program in a $1.1 million separation agreement in June.

Ferentz said that yes, he provided feedback to the Jaguars about Doyle’s work at Iowa but would not divulge further details. On July 30, Ferentz called Doyle "an outstanding coach" and added, "I know with his next opportunity he's going to do a fantastic job."

On Monday, Ferentz said this in his first comments on the Doyle saga that created enormous backlash for the Jaguars: “I hope everybody is going to move on at some point. But I totally understand. I’m not passing judgment on anybody or anything. It’s unfortunate.

“Pertaining to our program, we’re in a really healthy spot right now. I think we demonstrated that since last June. But our work’s not done. We know that. We’re going to stay vigilant. We’ve been doing that, and we’ll continue to do that. I doubt we’ll be perfect, but we’re working to be.”

Ferentz said the feedback he’s gotten from current players has been positive in how Black players have been treated. Ferentz also confirmed that Raimond Braithwaite, who is Black, has been elevated to the full-time strength and conditioning role and that winter training went well.

Which position groups Ferentz wasn’t asked about are an indication of their (perceived) strengths.

Defensive backs did not come up. Iowa returns every starter there, including Dane Belton at the cash position, Matt Hankins and Riley Moss at corner, and Kaevon Merriweather and Jack Koerner at safety.

Neither did wide receivers nor tight ends. Even with Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette off to the NFL, Iowa’s in good hands (literally) with Tyrone Tracy Jr., Nico Ragaini and Sam LaPorta.

Specialists didn’t come up, either, as Iowa should feel very good about kicker Caleb Shudak and punter Tory Taylor.

The No. 1 point of development this spring, though, will be on the defensive line. Iowa lists 15 defensive linemen among its 108-player spring roster. Of those 15, only Zach VanValkenburg (eight starts) and Noah Shannon (one) have starting experience.

Kirk Ferentz addresses defensive line at Iowa
Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz spoke to members of the media on Monday, March 29, 2021, ahead of the start of spring practice.
Ben Yoder, Hawk Central

What’s next? Iowa hopes for fans and football together.

Over the next five weeks, we’ll get an opportunity to talk to Braithwaite and the 10 on-field assistant coaches, as well as Hawkeye players.

Ferentz teased that there would be two opportunities for fans to see the team, though details have not been disclosed on that front either.

This is just the beginning of spring practice coverage. And, yes, it feels like it's been a long time coming.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.