Caption: Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz talks to players during practice at Kinnick Stadium on Wednesday, March 28, 2012, in Iowa City, Iowa. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette-KCRG)
This is the time of year in college football when there are more questions than answers. This spring with the Iowa Hawkeyes, there seems to be as many questions as blades of plastic grass in the Kinnick Stadium turf.
In the four months since Iowa’s 31-14 defeat to Oklahoma in the Insight Bowl, head coach Kirk Ferentz has hired two new coordinators, two Generation Y position coaches and has moved his offensive line coach of nine years to defensive line coach.
The quarterback is veteran, but the passing game will be new under first-year offensive coordinator Greg Davis. Iowa has a new defensive line, but it will line up in the old 4-3 defense, with a few twists, under first-year defensive coordinator Phil Parker, who is the old defensive backs coach.
Everyone is on a learning curve. Don’t expect anything definitive to be unveiled Saturday.
1. Check out the coaches — Maybe the best part of the spring scrimmage is seeing the coaches coach. This is hands-on stuff that’s different from the game day environment. You might be close enough to hear what the coaches are yelling, if the Kinnick Stadium music is at a human volume.
Expect Davis to spend most of his time with quarterback James Vandenberg. Playbook is one thing for Vandenberg next season, but communication with the offensive coordinator is up there, especially with the coordinator in the press box for the first time in at least 13 seasons.
Where will Parker spend most of his time? He said he likes to roam. Will he spend a lot of time with the defensive line, Iowa’s most inexperienced position group with first-year D-line coach Reese Morgan, who moved over from O-line in February?
Kirk Ferentz knows what to expect because he hired them (maybe not technically in the case of his son), but LeVar Woods and Brian Ferentz aren’t that far removed from playing the game. They are acutely aware how chain of command works, but this will be their first public appearance in Iowa gear and it will be interesting to see them in that role.
1.1 — During his interview last week, Morgan seemed downright giddy about the challenge that Kirk Ferentz put out there for him. You know Ferentz isn’t a man who acts on hunches. It’s an unorthodox move, and Morgan is totally into it. The raw material is, well, raw, so Morgan has work to do.
1.2 — Is there a “yeller” on staff? Does there need to be one?
1.3 — One-liner contest, Greg Davis vs. Norm Parker. Who wins?
2. Passing game and pace — They’ve said the passing game will change. Davis and Vandenberg have said it. Wide receivers coach Erik Campbell said it. It’s changing, yes, but will you be able to pick those changes out of a line up?
Senior wide receiver Keenan Davis is out Saturday, but if he ran a different route on a given down and distance, would we know that it was different from last season? Probably not, but maybe. Will routes shorten? That would be noticeable.
Davis talked some about a no-huddle attack. That’s more likely an arrow in the quiver than the rule of the day, but also remember that Iowa coaches want to play to strengths. You could argue the no-huddle, shotgun is Vandenberg’s strength.
Player profiles certainly will change along with this. You’ve already heard Davis hype up tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz. He also talked about sophomore wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley’s role in the slot, a role he called “important.”
2.1 — The pecking order at tight end might be interesting. Senior Zach Derby will have to fight off talented underclassmen Ray Hamilton, Henry Krieger-Coble and Jake Duzey.
2.2 — Davis should return for Iowa’s final three spring practices (there’s more after Saturday’s scrimmage). After Davis and Martin-Manley, how does Iowa wide receiver go?
3. Simply put, running back — Sophomore Jordan Canzeri is out with a torn ACL, so the opportunity falls to sophomores Damon Bullock and De’Andre Johnson.
As you know, opportunity is a slippery proposition for Iowa running back. Canzeri will begin rehabilitation. Freshmen Greg Garmon and Barkley Hill remain incoming freshmen.
The immutable fact is Canzeri was ahead of both Bullock and Johnson. They all had the opportunity to start the Insight Bowl, and Canzeri ran with it. That said, players can improve. The light goes on at different times for everyone. It’s Iowa running back, opportunity is perpetual.
3.1 — Davis made it sound as though there is a plan for fullback and it might be as the lone running back in a four-WR set. Junior Brad Rogers should be a completely different player after missing all of the 2011 offseason with heart concerns. Davis also said Rogers knows fullback and running back. Hmmm.
4. Punter, let’s just get it out there — Of all things to consider, here we are at punter. It’s decidedly unsexy, that is until zero hang time, returnable punts and shanks haunt your special teams.
This spring, it looks as though senior John Wienke has held off sophomore Jonny Mullings. Wienke’s journey is somewhat circuitous. He came here to play quarterback. He kind of wedged his way into backup punter last fall. Now, he’s the No. 1. Running backs and co-special teams coach Lester Erb did remind reporters this spring that Wienke was an all-conference punter during his days at Tuscola (Ill.) High School. He punted 14 times as a senior.
Incoming freshman Connor Kornbrath will be here in August. He’s a true freshman. He’s been told he has the opportunity to win the job, but he’s going to have to do just that. Win it.
4.1 — We won’t see kickoffs Saturday. And remember there, kickoffs are from the 35 this season with touchbacks coming out to the 25. Another caveat, we all will track field goals Saturday, but we need to keep in mind that this is 1/15th of what they’ve done this spring. Don’t run too far with Saturday’s conclusions.
5. Popping the cushion — Parker said Iowa will play more press coverage (or man) this season in order to deploy more defenders in run support. He also threw about a dozen caveats in front of that statement, with third down and the opponent ultimately steering that call.
Iowa has the cornerbacks to fight this fight. Senior Micah Hyde will be a three-year starter. Junior B.J. Lowery played nickel last season and made, arguably, the stop of the year to complete a goal-line stand in the Hawkeyes’ victory over Michigan. Beyond them, senior Greg Castillo has experience and sophomore Jordan Lomax has impressed.
This might have been a better show Saturday with a healthy Keenan Davis, but it’ll put sophomore strong safety Nico Law in the spotlight. He might have some freedom to pursue and punish at the line of scrimmage.
5.1 — This will be redshirt freshman tackle Darian Cooper’s first appearance in front of a crowd since he made a splash in shorts and shoulder pads last August. He’s listed as a starter and he should hold.
5.2 — We won’t see him Saturday because he’s rehabbing a knee that was operated on in January, but sophomore defensive tackle Carl Davis‘ progress has a lot of eyes on it. If the 6-5, 310-pounder is healthy and engaged, Iowa’s D-line might be able to rumble. Does it matter how a player is coached? Pending that knee, we might find out with Davis. He was coached hard by former DL coach Rick Kaczenski. Morgan might be a gentler voice. If Davis responds with meaningful contributions, we might have an answer.