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Rick Brown: D-line, receivers show how far Iowa has come

[ 0 ] April 28, 2014 |

IOWA CITY, Ia. – The cautious optimism surrounding the Iowa football program in 2013 has given way to expectations a year later.

And it’s not just a fan thing. You get that positive vibe from the players, coach Kirk Ferentz and his staff. A combination of experience at key positions, a friendly schedule and momentum from a bounce-back 2013 season have set the table for bigger and better things in 2014.

There are unanswered questions, sure. The secondary, the linebackers and the kicking game, to name three. But you only have to look at two positions, defensive line and wide receiver, to see where this program has come in a short period of time.

“Two areas we’ve really made strides in, very clearly, are the defensive line and receiver position from two years ago,” Ferentz said after spring drills concluded Saturday.

The line, thin and experienced in 2012, is now the foundation of the defense with tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat positioned for strong senior seasons and three defensive ends (Drew Ott, Mike Hardy and Nate Meier) rotating at two spots. Meier showed this spring that he deserves every-down playing time.

As the season goes on, look for Ferentz to get Darian Cooper, Jaleel Johnson and Faith Ekakitie as much time on the field as possible behind Davis and Trinca-Pasat, preparing them for their prime-time turn in 2015.

During the 4-8 season of 2012, the first for Greg Davis as offensive coordinator, quarterback James Vandenberg and the receivers were rarely on the same page. Quarterback Jake Rudock and his backup, C.J. Beathard, will have many more options to choose from in 2014.

Iowa freshman receiver Derrick Willies pulls down a pass from quarterback Jake Rudock on Saturday during the Iowa Hawkeyes football team practice at Valley High Stadium in West Des Moines. (Bryon Houlgrave/The Register)

Iowa freshman receiver Derrick Willies pulls down a pass from quarterback Jake Rudock on April 12 during Iowa’s practice at Valley High Stadium in West Des Moines. (Bryon Houlgrave/The Register)

Kevonte Martin-Manley, Jacob Hillyer, Tevaun Smith, Damond Powell and Matt VandeBerg all have experience. So does Damon Bullock out of the backfield, and a four-deep group of tight ends all capable of making catches. The spring sensation was redshirt freshman wide receiver Derrick Willies, who looks like he belongs.

Ferentz said Willies had his best day of spring practice on Saturday. Of course, the coach made the same observation about redshirt freshman Cameron Wilson last spring. Wilson had people buzzing after 12 catches for 134 yards and a touchdown in the 2013 spring game. But he left the program in late summer.

Willies looks to be a difference-maker in the future, a guy with length and a burst after he makes a catch who is not afraid to go up for balls or test the middle.

“He showed he can play football,” Rudock said.

With Rudock and Beathard both experienced and capable field generals, the running back position stocked for the long run, an offensive line anchored by all-America candidate Brandon Scherff and the emerging wide receivers, the offense looks ready for the challenge ahead.

Secondary and linebacker are still works in progress. That experienced defensive line should take some of the pressure off the linebackers. Quinton Alston will lead the linebacker corps from his middle position, starting for the first time in his career.

“I don’t see a huge transition for him,” Ferentz said.

Right corner Desmond King and strong safety John Lowdermilk are experienced. The real key to the secondary could be how Jordan Lomax makes the adjustment from cornerback to free safety. Three players — Maurice Fleming, Sean Draper and Greg Mabin — are in competition for the other corner position.

“It’s a good group of young guys,” Ferentz said. “Clearly there’s work to do. But the potential is there.”

Iowa will likely land in a few preseason top-25 polls, thanks to the experience it returns and the fact that Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State are not on the schedule. Recognition is nice. But it doesn’t get you to bowl games.

In some ways, this team mirrors the new football operations center that will open late this summer.

“It’s exciting to see the progress,” Ferentz said of the new facility.

It’s been a work in progress for several years. Much like his 2014 football team.

Rick Brown, a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year, covers Hawkeye football and basketball for the Register. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.

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ANALYSIS ON BOTH SIDES OF THE BALL

OFFENSE

QUARTERBACK: There is no controversy here. Both coach Kirk Ferentz and offensive coordinator Greg Davis say Jake Rudock is No. 1. Ferentz did say it was likely C.J. Beathard will be inserted for a designated series from time to time, the first time the coach has dabbled with a two-QB system since Kyle McCann and Brad Banks in 2001.

TAILBACK: Injuries denied Mark Weisman 1,000-yard seasons in 2012 and 2013. Ferentz hinted he may limit Weisman’s carries in 2014 to keep him healthy and at his best. Jordan Canzeri has a burst no one else has, Damon Bullock has a lot of experience and LeShun Daniels looks like the program’s next power back. Redshirt freshmen Akrum Wadley and Jonathan Parker and sophomore Barkley Hill are other options at one of the deepest positions on the team.

RECEIVERS: Tevaun Smith and speedy Damond Powell are the best home-run threats, though freshman Derrick Willies might have something to say about that. Jacob Hillyer could emerge as a consistent threat as the season goes on. And look for Iowa to throw to the tight ends. A lot. Matt VandeBerg looks everything like a possession receiver, capable of keeping drives alive. And keep an eye on walk-on Andrew Stone in that position as well.

LINE: Left guard Sean Welsh, a redshirt freshman, had a good spring and played his way into the starting lineup for now in Conor Boffeli’s absence. Andrew Donnal, experienced at guard and tackle, has replaced Brett Van Sloten at right tackle. Right guard Jordan Walsh, left tackle Brandon Scherff and center Austin Blythe are all returning starters.

DEFENSE

LINE: The strength of the team. Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat are among the best in the Big Ten at the point of attack. Defensive ends Drew Ott and Mike Hardy got a ton of snaps last season and Nate Meier also will be in that rotation.

LINEBACKERS: Quinton Alston has the smarts to man the middle and can pop the pads. On the weak side, Reggie Spearman is a superior athlete who should make a big jump from his freshman season. Outside linebacker Travis Perry fought injury and illness all spring but has earned playing time. Backups such as John Kenny and Josey Jewell should get some snaps, too, along with senior Chad Gilson and junior Cole Fisher.

SECONDARY: A lot of potential, not a lot of experience other than corner Desmond King and strong safety John Lowdermilk. Jordan Lomax was injured in the first game last season and struggled to get on the field. He’s been moved from corner to free safety. The other corner could be Maurice Fleming, Sean Draper or Greg Mabin.

KICKING GAME: Marshall Koehn looks like the leader in the clubhouse to replace Mike Meyer as the placekicker. He’s getting a push from Alden Haffer. Connor Kornbrath is the incumbent punter, but Iowa brought in Dillon Kidd from the junior-college ranks to push him. This competition will carry into August.

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RICK BROWN’S PROJECTED STARTING LINEUPS

OFFENSE

LT: Brandon Scherff, 6-5, 320, Sr., Outland Trophy contender

LG: Sean Welsh, 6-3, 285, Fr., Yet to play college down

C: Austin Blythe, 6-3, 290, Jr., Experienced anchor in line

RG: Jordan Walsh, 6-4, 290, Jr., Started every game last season

RT: Andrew Donnal, 6-7, 305, Sr., Most versatile lineman

TE: Ray Hamilton, 6-5, 252, Sr., Better blocking a must

WR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, 6-0, 205, Sr., Mr. Dependable

WR: Jacob Hillyer, 6-4, 208, Jr., Showed flashes in 2013

QB: Jake Rudock, 6-3, 208, Jr., Must reduce picks

RB: Mark Weisman, 6-0, 240, Sr., Power personified

FB: Adam Cox, 5-11, 230, Jr., Receiving threat, too

PK: Marshall Koehn, 6-0, 195, Jr., Good leg, lacks consistency

DEFENSE

LE: Drew Ott, 6-4, 270, Jr., Breakout 2013 season

LT: Carl Davis, 6-5, 315, Sr., One of Big Ten’s best

RT: Louis Trinca-Pasat, 6-3, 290, Sr., Rock solid inside

RE: Mike Hardy, 6-5, 280, Sr., Five starts in 2013

OLB: Travis Perry, 6-3, 232, Sr., Limited experience

MLB: Quinton Alston, 6-1, 232, Sr., His time to shine

WLB: Reggie Spearman, 6-3, 230, So., Big-time potential

LC: Sean Draper, 6-0, 180, Jr., 20 games, no starts

SS: John Lowdermilk, 6-2, 210, Sr., Returning starter

FS: Jordan Lomax, 5-10, 200, Jr., Moved from corner

RC: Desmond King, 5-11, 190, So., Biggest surprise in 2013

PT: Connor Kornbrath, 6-6, 240, Jr., Dueling Dillon Kidd

Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Rick Brown: Rick Brown covers men's basketball for The Des Moines Register and Hawk Central. He's married and the father of two. He also covers golf for the Register. View author profile.

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