IOWA CITY, Iowa — Every March when Iowa football opens spring practice, coach Kirk Ferentz praises a player or two who took a jump during the bowl preparation period.
Last December, it was Brady Reiff, the younger brother of former Iowa and current Minnesota Vikings left tackle Riley Reiff. Brady Reiff shifted inside to defensive tackle from defensive end. During the 15 practices earmarked for the Hawkeyes’ Outback Bowl trip, Reiff impressed Iowa’s football staff so much he became a rotational player this fall.
In 2015, it was Brady Ross, who moved from linebacker to fullback during Rose Bowl prep. The previous year it was the improvements made by defensive tackles Nathan Bazata and Jaleel Johnson. Before that it was Louis Trinca-Pasat. Before that it was … you get the picture.
When Iowa shifts from training camp mode to game preparation in late August, there’s a clear line between those who will contribute and those who run the scout team. Usually, players shift from prep team to Iowa only if there’s a significant injury situation. Otherwise, there’s little to no movement. Third-teamers and redshirts try to beat Iowa’s offense and defense, not be like them. Maybe they impress their coaches and teammates during those drills, but in most cases they lack the repetition and experience within Iowa’s system to compete for the Hawkeyes on Saturdays.
Iowa’s backups had little chance for upward mobility at several spots this season. The Hawkeyes had three starting senior linebackers with more than 100 combined starts. Other positions such as tight end featured a mix of young talent and grizzled veterans who weren’t relinquishing their roles. Likewise, cracking the two-deep on the offensive and defensive lines was challenging for several younger players.
That all changes during bowl preparation. It’s back to training camp mode. Many of the veterans engage in light workouts but often stay clear of the team’s hard-nosed physical practices. The younger players work in Iowa formations running Iowa plays. How they compete in December translates to their depth-chart positioning in March.
Perhaps no position group this month is more important than linebacker. Current juniors Jack Hockaday and Aaron Mends and current sophomores Kristian Welch and Amani Jones have a chance to take a step ahead at either middle or weak-side linebacker next spring. On the outside, Nick Niemann could secure a starting spot for next season while replacing his brother, Ben Niemann. Or younger players such as Barrington Wade, Nate Wieland or Djimon Colbert could get their chance to turn heads this month.
Iowa’s wide receivers were inconsistent this season, and freshmen such as Max Cooper and Brandon Smith played sparingly. Perhaps this is their chance to make a move. Same with redshirt freshmen Henry Marchese and Cam Harrell. Iowa loses its top two running backs in Akrum Wadley and James Butler. Freshmen Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin logged some carries as backups. But perhaps Toks Akinribade, who played as a freshman in 2016 before redshirting this season, or redshirt freshman Kyshaun Bryan gets a look. In the secondary, freshmen Trey Creamer or Justin Turner could make a case for playing time in 2018.
Quarterback Peyton Mansell will run the Iowa offense for the first time since August. Drew Cook moved to tight end late in spring practice and can now showcase his athletic ability at that position. The same goes for line-of-scrimmage players, although those big jumps happen in the spring after the intense building mode from January to March.
Iowa will resettle into traditional game-week preparation within a week or so of the bowl game. Until that happens, the next few weeks are essential for all players but vital at several positions. Whoever Ferentz references in February about strides in bowl preparation will contend for playing time to 2018. That’s why the next few weeks are as meaningful as any this fall for Iowa’s younger players.
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