In what has been an offseason of firsts for the Hawkeyes—a trip to Des Moines and staff overhaul to name two—Kirk Ferentz opted to hold a true spring game instead of his usual open practice game.
Amazing how a 4-8 season pushes a usually tight-lipped, stoic coach to go the extra yard in order to rebuild a disappearing pool of goodwill among his fanbase.
Regardless, it has all been for the best, and this was especially true of the spring game.
It was not only great from a fan's perspective, but it was also great to see a still-young Hawkeyes team in a real-game atmosphere.
The following will look at what we learned from seeing Iowa in an open competition, though the usual caveat applies: This was only one "game," and when combined with the open Des Moines practice and whatever else has seeped out, it makes for a fraction of what the players have done this spring.
This article by Marc Morehouse of the Cedar Rapids Gazette will get referenced a number of times. It includes the depth charts and the stats from the spring game.
Unless otherwise noted, any mention of Morehouse, the depth chart or stats refers to the linked article.
As Iowa blog Blackheartgoldpants.com recently noted, the coaches have said a lot of things in the past, and it would be foolhardy to take anything they say without a grain of salt.
Nevertheless, it looked like there was a genuine commitment to running a base no-huddle offense at the game.
According to Pat Harty of the Iowa City Press Citizen:
Damon Bullock said the offense will operate exclusively out of a no-huddle next season. Kirk Ferentz said it won't. I know who I believe.
— Pat Harty (@PatHarty) April 28, 2013
Rob Howe of HawkeyeNation.com further commented:
Dare I say #Iowa offense has looked crisp today. Almost all no-huddle. Nice tempo. Impressed.— Rob Howe (@HawkeyeInsider) April 27, 2013
No matter what happens, the offense looked crisper than it did last year. There is still plenty of work to do, but despite the youth and inexperience, especially under center, the offense looked to be on the same page.
The biggest story of the spring game was the emergence of junior defensive tackle Carl Davis.
Morehouse had him with three sacks and two passes defended.
It is true he went up against two new starters in center Austin Blythe and guard Jordan Walsh. Nevertheless, one would be hard-pressed to find a spring game attendee who wouldn't call Davis the MVP.
This ends a spring in which Davis has been talked up considerably by coaches and teammates alike. He will push for All-Conference honors this season if he is for real.
The rest of the line was also much improved. Keep in mind, improved from last season's 13-sack, 4.11 yards-per-carry performance is relative.
The success of this year's defense hinges on how much this group develops, and it looks like—along with Davis—there are five or six linemen who will be ready to make an impact.
Davis, Louis Trinca-Pasat, Darian Cooper, Drew Ott, Faith Ekatakie, Riley McMinn and Mike Hardy all project to get substantial playing and growing time this season, and all of them will be back in 2014.
Unfortunately, they are still probably a year away from being elite, but 2014 could be a return to dominance at the line of scrimmage a la 2003, 2004, 2008 and 2009.
The question is, can Kirk Ferentz wait that long for them to reach that level?
Every starting Iowa cornerback going back to 2007 has been drafted.
That list includes Charles Godfrey, Bradley Fletcher, Amari Spievey, Shaun Prater and recently drafted Micah Hyde.
Senior B.J. Lowery will continue that tradition.
It remains to be seen how high Lowery will go, but according to Ferentz (via Morehouse), Iowa's offense threw away from Lowery this spring.
At the open practice, it was easy to see why.
Meanwhile, the other cornerback will get picked on this year.
Sophomore Jordan Lomax started the spring game, and according to Morehouse, he took two pass interferences and one defensive hold.
Fellow sophomore Sean Draper and redshirt freshman Maurice Fleming will push him.
Expect the opposing offense to mercilessly attack that side of the field no matter who wins the job.
After last year's hot mess of a wide receiver group—what new position coach Bobby Kennedy described (via the Des Moines Register) as a performance they were "probably a little embarrassed about"—hopes were high heading into the spring game.
The receivers were improved from last year. As with the hurry-up offense, they looked to be on the same page with the quarterbacks, and the communication issues were at a minimum.
Still, there were too many drops—three via Morehouse, though I'm pretty sure he missed at least two: one by Tevaun Smith, whose stats he doesn't have posted, and one by Jacob Hillyer.
They also had some trouble getting off the line.
There was one huge bright spot in redshirt freshman Cameron Wilson, who caught 10 passes for 131 yards. Morehouse further commented,
I really liked freshman WR Cameron Wilson. Caught the ball with his hands and away from his body. Excellent body control and made the transition from catching to running seamlessly. Ferentz said it was his best day, so that says he probably hasn’t played his way into the rotation, at least yet.
In the end it was a step forward, but there will still be tons of opportunities for the true freshmen when they arrive at the end of July.
Meanwhile, the tight ends were quiet, and the official starting lineup featured three wide receivers instead of the two tight ends who were on the opening spring depth chart.
This was after a strong showing by the the tight ends at Des Moines' open practice.
Again, this was one showing. Consequently, one won't know the game plan until Iowa opens its season in late August.
Still, tight end is one of if not the most talented and deepest position groups on the team. Yet they didn't receive many targets and didn't have many catches, and there were considerably more three-wide or I-looks than two-or-three tight end sets.
This is despite receivers still being one of the weakest position groups on team. Why put three questionable wide receivers on field when two dependable, versatile tight ends could play instead?
Why the refusal of the coaches to work to their strengths?
...the best offensive skill position player on the team, and unlike the tight ends, early returns indicate the coaches are going to get the ball into his hands.
He had the most carries on the team (13 for 47 yards) and had the top two offensive highlights—a screen pass that went for a 46-yard touchdown and a 22-yard run in which he reversed field.
He is also currently the starting punt returner.
According to Hawkeyegamefilm:
Canzeri has looked great out on the edge with outside zone & stretch looks today; has speed to get corner & has great ability to cut— Hawkeye Gamefilm (@hawkeyegamefilm) April 27, 2013
Redshirt sophomore Jake Rudock, JUCO transfer Cody Sokol and redshirt freshman C.J. Beathard have been in a three-man quarterback race throughout the spring.
Rudock was the top man in Des Moines' open practice.
Before that, Hawkeyes fans had been hearing a lot of good things about Beathard, including this tweet from the Big Ten Network's Gerry DiNardo:
Sokol has quietly remained in the running.
According to Morehouse, it is now a two-man race between Rudock and Sokol, as Beathard looked shaky at the open practice, particularly in the second half.
On the other hand, Hawkeyegamefilm tweeted:
Sokol & Beathard have had some excellent moments today; made some plays with feet & arm. Rudock been most consistent but least flashy IMO— Hawkeye Gamefilm (@hawkeyegamefilm) April 27, 2013
This one is far from over, but according to Kirk Ferentz via Hawkeyesports.com, the decision will be made some time in mid-August, and it will not carry over into the first game of the season.