Iowa football held its annual media day Friday, about a week later than usual (commonly, it was scheduled for the afternoon of the first official practice of August). The later date added some substance to the otherwise news-light proceedings, as coaches could actually answer questions about player performance and depth chart issues.
Here's what we learned from yesterday's Kirk Ferentz press conference:
- Amani Jones is your starting middle linebacker, and Nick Niemann (brother of Ben Niemann) will start somewhere, most likely outside linebacker. The third spot, probably weakside linebacker, has traditionally been the catch-all for the best linebacker left, and is unsurprisingly still up for grabs. Junior Kristian Welch has been at the top of the depth chart since July, but senior Jack Hockaday and redshirt freshman Djimon Colbert are in the mix. There is a scenario where Iowa moves Niemann to weakside and plays sophomore Barrington Wade on the outside, as well.
- Obviously, Iowa is planning on Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs returning at tackle following their first-week suspensions. In their absence, senior Dalton Ferguson, junior Levi Paulsen and redshirt freshman Mark Kallenberger will likely get the call. "Anybody that's eligible" could play tackle against Northern Illinois, though.
- Running back will likely be a committee of three sophomores: Toren Young, Ivory Kelly-Martin, and junior college transfer Mekhi Sargent. That is, until two of them are taken out of action by a virulent case of nuclear gout. #AIRBHGLIVES
- As we expected, junior Michael Ojemudia and sophomore Matt Hankins are your starting cornerbacks. No idea who will back them up or play nickel corner at this point.
- It's Jake Gervase and Amani Hooker at safety, with Geno Stone as a swing backup at the moment. Again, not much of a surprise, especially following the departure of Brandon Snyder.
- Backup quarterback is a dead heat between Peyton Mansell and Spencer Petras, according to Brian Ferentz.
- We're not at August 2008 yet, where the coaches started practice not knowing who would play halfback but figured out in the first week that they had the nation's best halfback in camp. But Ferentz had some serious praise for JUCO transfer back Mekhi Sargent. He's "really heating up," which in my book means he made two baskets in a row in NBA Jam, but for Ferentz means he's a viable option at a position that can be taken by a new guy.
- The Week One suspension makes it two games in a row missed by Alaric Jackson due to disciplinary action, but Ferentz took great pains to avoid saying his most recent transgression -- an undescribed violation of program rules -- was the second strike in a three-strikes policy. "I think he's going to have a great career here, and he's a tremendous young guy," Ferentz said.
- But that doesn't mean it's not his second strike, and Ferentz has typically been playing the discipline game with slow pitch softball two-strike strikeouts for the last decade, so there's certainly some risk to Jackson here.
- He's telling NFL scouts to watch center Keegan Render, and is expecting a good season out of guard Ross Reynolds. Otherwise, the line is a work in progress, which I think he's said in every Media Day over the last twenty years. If Jackson and Wirfs get back in good standing and improve as expected, and Render and Reynolds provide experienced play on the interior, this could be a solid Ferentz offensive line.
- Ferentz expects some freshman to see action at running back, defensive back and potentially linebacker. The new redshirt rule should facilitate some additional freshmen seeing limited playing time. Ferentz didn't mention wide receiver as a place where a freshman could play, and said it was unlikely in a follow-up question. He might be fine with what they have.
The biggest question on the minds of Iowa fans, of course, is punter. And with Ry--
Oh, right, A.J. Epenesa.
Mongo was finally able to talk to the press Friday (Iowa freshmen are off limits, even if they are 270-pound five-star He-Men). The takeaway: He's quiet, thoughtful, humble. He's exactly what you would expect from Eppy's kid, and he's going to wreck shop and punch a horse this fall. Who was the last Iowa football player you would expect to say something like “Respect and love can kind of achieve more than being an aggressive, demanding type of person” in a press conference? Epenesa was also interviewed by Rivals.
Another monster from the 2017 recruiting class that was available for the first time: Tristan Wirfs, who won't play against NIU due to mopeding while intoxicated. Dude had to call Kirk Ferentz AND his mom to tell them what happened. That's way worse than blocking any edge rusher.
Let's state the obvious: Iowa goes nowhere in 2018 if it doesn't find three competent replacements at the linebacker spots. Barrington Wade, a high school running back converting to defense, could be a key part of that effort. Rivals interviewed him on how the position change was going, after Ferentz mentioned him specifically as a potential starter.
We don't hear much about JUCO recruiting, mostly because Iowa doesn't get that many JUCO transfers, but Mekhi Sargent detailed how he picked Iowa over Louisville despite the Cardinals offering a scholarship earlier. "I just wanted to be here."
COACHSPEAK! Tim Polasek on Wirfs' "knuckleheaded" mistake! Cranky Phil Parker crankily giving cranky praise to the young guys! Reese Morgan with so many toys! Seth Wallace talkin' linebackers and not shrugging even once! And this:
Kelton Copeland on Ihmir Smith-Marsette: "Hes one of those kids that you just like being around. Theres never a dull moment with him. He has a great sense of humor, almost sometimes too much of a sense of humor, but thats my job is to control that a little bit."
— MarkEmmert (@MarkEmmert) August 11, 2018
Iowa put all four suspended players front and center to answer any questions the media had, and Ferentz didn't shy away from the issue. Howe writes that it's a stark difference from places like Michigan State and Ohio State, but frankly, it's a stark difference from Iowa circa 2011. Remember EVERYONE IS ON DRUGS? Remember rhabdogate? These are smaller issues than those, but they're being handled in a far more proactive manner this fall. That was probably the biggest takeaway from Friday: That, at least on damage control, Iowa has turned a corner.