IOWA CITY, Iowa — Rarely in the past would a Kirk Ferentz-coached team list an incoming freshman in its two-deeps, especially before Iowa’s season opener.
But with the unveiling of the Hawkeyes’ depth chart for its Saturday game against Wyoming (11 a.m. CT, BTN), seven freshmen new to Iowa’s campus are listed. That’s one of many observations with the inaugural two-deep.
Fresh and talented
There’s nothing more striking than seeing seven first-year freshmen on the inaugural depth chart. That’s an incredible number for Iowa. In 2015, there were two first-year freshmen listed. Last season there were four.
This year, all seven are named as backups at different positions. Wide receiver Brandon Smith is the second-team split end behind senior Matt VandeBerg. Tristan Wirfs is at right offensive tackle behind senior Ike Boettger. Iowa lists Matt Hankins at left cornerback behind junior Joshua Jackson. Defensive end A.J. Epenesa is at right end behind junior Parker Hesse. Free safety Geno Stone is behind junior Jake Gervase. Punter Ryan Gersonde currently is behind sophomore Colten Rastetter. Running back Ivory Kelly-Martin is listed alongside Akrum Wadley as a kick returner.
“Ivory has done a nice job,” Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said. “I can tell you that much. He has demonstrated the ability to catch the ball. He has demonstrated the ability to run it. He has been pretty good in blitz pickup and showed some physical toughness there. Then he’s demonstrated some value on special teams as well, and I always think that’s always a big thing for young guys on getting them closer to the field. If you are going to have a limited role on offense, then shoot, you better have a lot of special teams value, and right now he’s in the process of doing that.”
All of these players expect to contribute this year and beyond. Wirfs and Epenesa are rare talents. With the graduation of Desmond King and Greg Mabin, plus the loss of Brandon Snyder to a torn left ACL, a few first-year defensive backs are expected to contribute as well. Stone has been solid and Hankins is a tremendous athlete. With a legitimate Big Ten body, Smith was likely to play from beginning. Kelly-Martin saw action in the slot as well as returning kicks during Iowa’s open practice on Aug. 12.
Don’t be surprised if other freshmen see the field, such as receivers Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Max Cooper, cornerback Josh Turner or linebacker Djimon Colbert. Since 2008, the most first-year freshmen Iowa has used is 10 (2011, 2016). The Hawkeyes could exceed that number this year.
Iowa quarterback settled for now
After a nine-month competition, sophomore Nathan Stanley beat junior Tyler Wiegers for the starting quarterback role. Stanley, who earned playing time last fall as the No. 2 quarterback, will be Iowa’s fourth sophomore quarterback to open a season. The others were Drew Tate (2004), Jake Christensen (2007) and Jake Rudock (2013).
Stanley, a 6-foot-5, 235-pound quarterback from Menomonie, Wis., did not redshirt in his first season.
Change at kicker
Miguel Recinos, a junior walk-on from Mason City, Iowa, edged sophomore Keith Duncan for the kicking duties. Last fall it appeared Duncan had secured the job long term, especially after kicking a game-winning field goal against then-No. 3 Michigan. Duncan was 9 of 11 in field goals last year and 38 of 39 for extra points.
Recinos made only 1 of 3 field goals, but all were longer attempts. When they competed against one another in an open practice Aug. 12, Recinos made all 9 attempts, while Duncan hit just 5 of 9.
Wide receiver shakeup
Unlike the last two seasons, Iowa lists only two starting wide receivers instead of three. Entering the fall, VandeBerg and junior Nick Easley were listed as starters. That hasn’t changed. Neither has sophomore Devonte Young’s role behind Easley.
“Devonte has really improved,” Brian Ferentz said. “The thing you always want to try to remember with Devonte is a year ago, he was a true freshman. He’s hardly a seasoned guy. He’s really just finished his first 12 months in our program. We saw a lot of improvement in the spring. As we went through the summer, and then into this fall period, we saw more improvement. Simple things like maturity, and I don’t mean he’s immature, but you grow up a little bit and you start to figure things out and stuff doesn’t come at you quite as fast. I think that’s happened with him. Physically, he’s matured, too.”
But at split end, Brandon Smith is now behind VandeBerg. Also, recent transfer Matt Quarells was given an “or” next to Young. Adrian Falconer, who was the second-team split end entering camp, does not appear on the depth chart.
Hawkeye defensive line jambalaya
Epenesa’s emergence has led to shuffling along the defensive front. Matt Nelson, who started all 13 games last year at left defensive end, has moved inside as the No. 2 right defensive tackle behind Nathan Bazata. Epenesa is the No. 2 end behind Parker Hesse. Left defensive tackle remains unchanged with sophomore Cedrick Lattimore as the starter and Brady Reiff as a backup. Sophomore Anthony Nelson, who played an equal number of snaps at defensive end with Matt Nelson and Hesse, now starts at left end. Sam Brincks is the No. 2 left defensive end.
“I think it’s the best we have been up front as a whole since I’ve been the coordinator here,” said Iowa defensive coordinator
Phil Parker, who has led the defense since 2012.
Graduate transfers to see action
Iowa welcomed Quarells and fellow graduate transfer running back James Butler into the program this summer. Butler rushed for 1,336 yards and 12 scores last year at Nevada. He also caught 37 passes for 381 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Quarells played at run-heavy New Mexico last year. He caught 11 passes for 180 yards and 1 touchdown. The Lobos completed just 96 passes all season.
Butler was named the No. 2 running back alongside Akrum Wadley. It’s likely Butler sees similar carries.
“James has come along pretty quickly,” Brian Ferentz said. “It’s a little easier if you are a running back. I don’t want to oversimplify it, but it’s pretty much run right, run left, block left, block right. I think that has been a little easier.
“Matt, he wasn’t with us at the beginning of camp as we were working through some admissions issues. Once we got him in, he has progressed very nicely. Again, there is just so much volume for a receiver. I think he is still coming along and James has done a nice job. I would expect James to step in right away and play for us.”
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