Iowa football practice takeaways: Offense’s new look, defensive thoughts, scholarship numbers


IOWA CITY, Iowa — With temperatures hovering in the low 40s and the wind chill knocking the real-feel air down at least 10 degrees, Iowa’s final football practice this month didn’t deserve any part of spring attached to it. So outside of a direct quote, that word is scratched from the rest of this story.

The Hawkeyes competed at Kinnick Stadium in a lengthy scrimmage that featured some quality competition at multiple positions. But nine starters and several key reserves did not participate, which made sweeping evaluations — if you’re into that for a scrimmage (this time of year) — more nonsensical than usual. But there are aspects of what we saw that are worth compiling, discussing and storing away for future use.

Here’s what we learned about Iowa from its final workout until summer conditioning:

Optimism on the offensive front

From mixed formations to heavy motion, Iowa’s offense has a completely different look. With about 85 percent of his playbook installed, offensive coordinator Tim Lester didn’t show everything, but he didn’t hold back, either. The Hawkeyes largely employed either 11 personnel (three receivers, one back) or 12 personnel (two tight ends, two receivers, one back) throughout the day. There was motion on just about every down, and it ranged from pre-snap to through the snap.

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There were some decent carries by multiple running backs, especially Kaleb Johnson in a reduced role and Kamari Moulton, who appears to have bulked up but maintained quick feet. The constant movement has disrupted run fits and left holes open in Iowa’s defense, defenders and coaches grudgingly admitted.

“Obviously, you’ve got a veteran O-line coming back,” returning All-America linebacker Jay Higgins said. “Then just with the offensive mindset they have now, there are so many weapons, so many people can get the ball in certain ways, and there’s a lot of situations where it’s like, we can’t be right. You’ve just got to rally and make the tackle and live for another down. Hopefully, they don’t keep running that same play.”

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The offensive players can spot uncertainty among defenders, which has helped the unit gain confidence after a rough past three seasons.

“I think the backers play a different way than they used to,” left tackle Mason Richman said. “So that’s definitely exciting. We can play a little faster, a little more aggressive and take advantage of some of the things that they’re doing. No cut blocking, but I think on the backside, we’re doing a good job of being aggressive.

“We’ve ran the ball pretty well all spring. We’ve started to have some glimpses throwing it, but I think we’ve got to get some of the timing down.”

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Iowa running back Terrell Washington Jr., left, scores in front of the Hawkeyes’ defense during Saturday’s practice. (Julia Hansen / USA Today)

Stalemate on the offensive front

There are multiple ways to feel about the passing attack. The schematic strides are obvious. There was much better spacing on routes and receivers used the entire field. There were open receivers at the second and third levels, which rarely happened last year. It’s obvious tight end Luke Lachey and receiver Kaleb Brown are the two most critical pass catchers in many concepts.

But we know where we need to go. On an early series, Kaden Wetjen ran in motion and took off up the field on a go route at the snap. He had inside positioning on cornerback T.J. Hall and the safety was too far away to shut down the route. Quarterback Deacon Hill had enough time to connect deep — that’s a focus of this offense now — but stalled and checked down.

The quarterbacks made some decent throws and some good decisions. Inaccuracy remains a major issue. It’s something even coach Kirk Ferentz brought up.

“We were down in the red zone, and we missed, I think it was Wetjen (who) was open out there on the right side,” Ferentz said. “The throw was off by about 2 feet, something like that. And that to me is kind of where we’re at right now. In the fall, we’ve got to make that play. The play is there; you’ve got to make it.”

Hill and Marco Lainez III were about even in their passing. Hill tossed a few gems, including a 25-yard pass down the field to Brown, an out to Lachey and a crosser to Dayton Howard. Lainez ripped a nice pass off an RPO to tight end Cael Vanderbush and ran the ball well. But neither showcased enough to enter a conversation for No. 1 quarterback.

QB1

Quarterback Cade McNamara wore a brace on his left knee after tearing his ACL last Sept. 30 on a non-contact play. He largely throws flat-footed passes in seven-on-seven and individual drills with perhaps a shuffle but very little leg movement. Despite his limitations, McNamara’s accuracy stood out over his peers.

“He can’t drop back, roll out, all that stuff, but he’s throwing the ball well,” Ferentz said. “He’s been into it 100 percent. Maybe in some ways it’s easier for him because he’s not practicing so he can just process things mentally. He doesn’t have to worry about the physical aspect as much, but he’s an eager guy. Most quarterbacks I’ve been around that are good quarterbacks can’t wait to learn something and that certainly seems to be his mode of operation.”

McNamara, a sixth-year senior, expects to return full go in June for summer workouts. He’s the top quarterback on Iowa’s current roster, followed by Hill, then Lainez. Hill, a junior, processes defenses faster than Lainez, but the redshirt freshman is by far the group’s best runner. If Lainez’s mental game catches up, he’s likely to become the No. 2 based on the current quarterback room.

Numbers game

With receiver Jacob Bostick hitting the transfer portal this week, the Hawkeyes sit at 89 scholarships. While there are more deadlines and visibility in transferring now than in the pre-portal world, players typically evaluate their situations after this practice period.

“It’s going to work itself out,” Ferentz said. “I feel pretty good about that.”

But Iowa might need more than four departures to enter preseason camp with the roster Ferentz wants. The Hawkeyes likely will seek another quarterback in the portal to compete for No. 1 or at least fill the backup role. The Hawkeyes also are bare-bones at receiver with eight scholarship receivers for the fall after redshirt freshman running back T.J. Washington switched positions in March.

“We’ll do anything we can to help our team,” Ferentz said. “If there’s an opportunity that presents itself and makes sense, we’ll consider it.”

Defensive thoughts

Unlike the offense, Iowa’s defense has few major concerns. The same system has been in place for more than 25 years, and the defense remains one of the nation’s top units. In the secondary, all five starters return from late last season (after All-America cornerback Cooper DeJean broke his leg), every key linebacker comes back, and the line depth is in good shape.

The line has seven rotational pieces ironed out with perhaps one or two spots up for grabs. Seniors Deontae Craig and Ethan Hurkett are the starting ends with senior Yahya Black and junior Aaron Graves opening at tackle. Tackle Jeremiah Pittman, a junior, rotates inside while junior Max Llewellyn and sophomore Brian Allen are the top backups on the perimeter. Developing another tackle or two to eat some snaps is on the offseason to-do list.

The secondary is set at four spots with Quinn Schulte and Xavier Nwankpa manning both safety spots and Sebastian Castro keeping the cash role. Jermari Harris is a returning starter at corner but was out on Saturday. He should return in June. The other spot features a three-way competition among sophomores Deshaun Lee, T.J. Hall and John Nestor. Lee started six games last year, but Hall redshirted last year because of an injury after playing as a true freshman in 2022. Nestor has made the most noise during this practice period and perhaps is slightly ahead of his colleagues.

Special teams update

True freshman punter Rhys Dakin is on track to replace beloved All-American Tory Taylor, but there are plenty of differences between the two Australian natives. At 6 feet 4, Taylor is 4 inches taller than Dakin and outweighs him by around 35 pounds. Also, Taylor entered Iowa at age 22, while Dakin is 18. But in warmups, Dakin showcased some of the same backspin on multiple punts inside in the 10-yard line like his predecessor.

Kicker Drew Stevens perhaps had the day’s most impressive singular play. Despite a swirling wind, Stevens drilled a 56-yard field goal toward the south end zone He also hit a 51-yarder from the left hashmark.

Rising stars

Offense — Moulton and Wetjen. Moulton, a redshirt freshman, appears to have bulked up from last year but has the unit’s quickest feet and doesn’t fear running inside. He turned the corner for about a 20-yard touchdown run in which he changed direction smoothly and then burst past the defense.

Wetjen, a walk-on senior, will become a valuable piece to this offense. He’s the team’s fastest player and often motions either before or during the snap. At this stage, Wetjen and Brown are the Hawkeyes’ top receivers.

Redshirt freshman to watch: Guard Kade Pieper.

Defense — Nestor has received plenty of comparisons with Riley Moss, the 2021 Big Ten defensive back of the year. Nestor has wheels, tenacity and can hit. Nestor made two big plays on Saturday. The first came on a backside blitz in which he disrupted Hill, who then threw a pick-six to Sharar. Nestor’s second big play came after he popped Wetjen on a reverse.

Redshirt freshman to watch: Safety Zach Lutmer.

Lineups

Despite missing at least six offensive starters and at least three others on defense, there were enough quality players to cobble together some lineups.

First offense: LT Mason Richman; LG Beau Stephens; C Tyler Elsbury; RG Connor Colby; RT Nick DeJong; TE1 Luke Lachey; TE2 Zach Ortwerth; QB Deacon Hill; RB Kaleb Johnson/Kamari Moulton; WR (3) Kaleb Brown, Kaden Wetjen, Jarriett Buie.

Starters out: C Logan Jones; RT Gennings Dunker; TE2 Addison Ostrenga; QB Cade McNamara; RB Leshon Williams; WR Seth Anderson.

Second offense: LT Jack Dotzler; LG Kade Pieper; C Jeremy Chaplin; RG Leighton Jones; RT Trevor Lauck/Cannon Leonard; TE1 Johnny Pascuzzi; TE2 Hayden Large; QB Marco Lainez III; RB Jaziun Patterson/Max White; WR (3) T.J. Washington, Alec Wick, Dayton Howard; FB Eli Miller/Rusty VanWetzinga.

First defense: RDE Deontae Craig; RDT Jeremiah Pittman; LDT Aaron Graves; LDE Ethan Hurkett; MLB Jay Higgins; WLB Nick Jackson; OLB Karson Sharer; LCB T.J. Hall; RCB John Nestor; NB Sebastian Castro; FS Quinn Schulte; SS Xavier Nwankpa. Others: DE Max Llewellyn, DE Brian Allen.

Starters/subpackage players out: OLB Kyler Fisher; DT Yahya Black; RCB Jermari Harris; S Koen Entringer.

Second defense: RDE Kenneth Merrieweather; RDT Jeff Bowie; LDT Will Hubert; LDE Caden Crawford; MLB Jaden Harrell; WLB Sharer; OLB Jaxon Rexroth; LCB Deshaun Lee; RCB Deavin Hilson; FS Kael Kolarik; SS Zach Lutmer; NB Nestor. Others: LB Jayden Montgomery; LB Ben Kueter; DT Maddux Borcherding-Johnson.

(Top photo of Deacon Hill, left, and Tim Lester: Julia Hansen / USA Today)





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