Leistikow: Previewing Iowa's final spring practice, with focus on the backups at 5 positions
In spring practices at Iowa, it’s common for the first-teamers to demonstrate significantly more polish on the field than the second- and third-teamers. It’s the dichotomy of veterans who have been training and learning inside the Hawkeye program for a while vs. those who are relatively new and raw.
This is the time for starters to take the next step toward stardom; and for the backups to develop so they can perhaps make a run at September significance.
That’s why during Saturday’s final Iowa spring practice of 2021, my eyes will largely be on the backups.
After five weeks and interviews with 12 coaches, we know who the leaders are. But where does Iowa have growing depth? Where might the weak spots be? How much overall progress has been made this spring?
Here are the (free) practice details: It’ll resemble what took place April 17, with about two hours of activities (the majority being 11-on-11 scrimmage situations). Kinnick Stadium gates open at 8:30 a.m. Saturday; practice kicks off at 9:30 a.m. Iowa men’s basketball player Luka Garza will be honored with the Naismith Trophy at 9:20, and Caitlin Clark and the Iowa women’s team will be celebrated after the practice, at around 11:30.
Now, on to five areas of backup focus.
The running backs
The expectation pre-spring was that Iowa might look at bolstering its backfield through the NCAA transfer portal. But … not so fast?
While Tyler Goodson is the unquestioned starter, don’t forget that former starter Ivory Kelly-Martin is expected to return this summer after December knee surgery. But with Kelly-Martin out for the spring, new running backs coach Ladell Betts has a chance to get an eye on freshmen Gavin Williams and Leshon Williams.
“I definitely would feel comfortable putting those guys in,” Betts said. “They’ve earned my trust over the last four weeks.”
Betts described Gavin Williams (6 feet, 213 pounds) of Dowling Catholic as a “rhythm runner” who gets stronger with more carries and has a businesslike approach. Betts said Leshon Williams (5-10, 208) of Chicago “is the life of the room” with his humor and praised how his feet were much quicker than he originally thought.
With one injury to Goodson and if Kelly-Martin is slow to recover from his ACL tear, one Williams or another might be pressed into duty.
The tight ends
Sam LaPorta is the clear No. 1 with NFL potential. He was Iowa’s leader in receptions a year ago (27), but as we know, the Hawkeyes frequently rely on two tight-end sets. So the need to find a reliable No. 2 (and No. 3, as insurance) is imperative.
At the first open practice, freshman Luke Lachey (6-6, 237) got those No. 2 reps with Josiah Miamen (arrest) and Elijah Yelverton (injury) unavailable.
Lachey capitalized on some of those opportunities, but as offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz pointed out, the results were mixed.
“He makes a big catch on a third down in a fairly competitive period, then he comes back on the next play and goes the wrong way and kills a run play,” Ferentz said. “These are important steps for guys like Luke.
“The best part of spring is the skill development, where every day we can go out and put these guys in a little tougher situation. We don’t expect it to be perfect. … Improvement is slow and can be painful at times.”
Lachey might have the lead at No. 2, but it's far from settled at this important Hawkeye position.
The offensive line
Iowa’s philosophy is always to put “the best five” in the starting lineup, and it’s pretty safe to say that four names have moved to the front of the pack — Tyler Linderbaum at center, Jack Plumb at a tackle position (probably left) and Kyler Schott at guard; plus, Cody Ince (out for the spring) is reliable at all five positions.
So the eyes are on guys who can challenge for a “best five” role. Walk-on Nick DeJong of Pella has been rolling at No. 1 right tackle, but Ince is the listed No. 1 there. Justin Britt is another leading guard candidate who was sidelined April 17. And out of the bevy of recently recruited linemen, one name has kept coming up — freshman Mason Richman.
The Kansas City-area native was the No. 1 left guard on April 17, and offensive line coach George Barnett echoed Schott’s Tuesday comments that marveled at the athleticism Richman (6-6, 289) possesses. Barnett said they’ve begun sliding Richman to tackle, perhaps indicative of where coaches see him in the future.
“He’s very smooth and natural and athletic,” Barnett said. “He does a lot of things well for a young kid.”
The last hyper-athletic lineman at Iowa — Super Bowl champion Tristan Wirfs — worked out amazingly well. Richman’s play bears watching.
Sorry, still stuck on the offense here. That’s probably a reflection of confidence in defensive coordinator Phil Parker. Odds are the architect of perennial top-10 national defenses will put a strong 11 on that side of the football.
Quarterback remains a high-interest position for Iowa. Based on interviews with several offensive coaches and Kirk Ferentz, it’s become pretty clear that junior Spencer Petras would have to take a catastrophic turn to lose the No. 1 job. If that's the case, who's No. 2? Is that competitive? And is the leading backup a viable QB if anything happens to Petras?
During the first open practice, redshirt sophomore Alex Padilla seemed to have a pretty significant lead over redshirt freshman Deuce Hogan, who didn’t really get a chance to run the first-team offense. It’ll be interesting on Saturday to see if anything has changed on that front. Remember, this is not only our last chance to see these guys on a practice field until August … it’s the coaches’ last chance, too. This is the 15th and final spring practice.
Recalling Brian Ferentz’s words, does Hogan get thrown into some uncomfortable situations Saturday so coaches can see how much he’s progressed in his first spring at Iowa?
Iowa has had remarkable health at the starting quarterback position in the past decade, with only one missed start due to injury (Jake Rudock in 2014). One of these years, Iowa won’t be so lucky. Having a trusted backup can be the difference between keeping the ship afloat vs. crashing into the iceberg.
The defensive line
Defensive tackle still seems like a position that Iowa could use some transfer-portal help, but maybe seeing youngsters Yahya Black, Logan Jones and Logan Lee on the field — all three were sidelined or limited by injuries April 17 — would alleviate that thought. Not sure if they’ll practice or not Saturday, but there should be comfort in what defensive line coach Kelvin Bell said recently about Black (a giant freshman, at 6-5, 279).
“When the pads come on, he has an intent that is different from most first-year players that we see,” Bell said. “He doesn’t even know it, but he is a hostile player on the interior. … But the thing that I’m most impressed with is just his maturity about the game. He is a note-taker. He’s a great question-asker. He really wants to be good at it.”
The coaches seem pretty happy with the top three at defensive end in Zach VanValkenburg, John Waggoner and Joe Evans. But can they put pressure on the quarterback?
I’m not sure Iowa has an Anthony Nelson or A.J. Epenesa or Chauncey Golston or Daviyon Nixon who can establish residence in the offensive backfield. So a key to QB pressure might be an abundance of fresh legs. Parker has talked about having a D-line rotation of 10 players. That’s why my eyes on Saturday will be on redshirt freshmen defensive ends such as Deontae Craig and Ethan Hurkett — names that assistant D-line coach Jay Niemann addressed a few weeks ago — and Lukas Van Ness.
If Iowa can show D-line depth, this defense can be a real force in the fall. Because the back seven should be fantastic.
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.