IOWA CITY, Iowa – Even with the best of the best Iowa football teams, the scouting report is almost always the same in one respect.
Lose two or three starters, or just one starter at a key position, and the Hawkeyes become vulnerable.
That describes the current Iowa team, which barring injuries could be a force again this season.
Take senior quarterback C.J. Beathard out of the mix, though, and suddenly Iowa looks average on paper.
It is hard to think of an Iowa player whose health has meant more to his team’s performance on the field and to its perception off it than Beathard.
Take one or two key defensive starters out of the lineup and the same thing happens, Iowa becomes vulnerable on paper.
That was the message that came from the Kids Days practice on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
Unfortunately, injuries were the hot topic in the wake of Beathard suffering a knee sprain in practice on Tuesday when an unidentified linebacker rolled into his leg.
Fortunately, it was a disaster avoided as Beathard only missed two days of practice.
He wasn’t pleased with having to wear a bulky knee brace on Saturday as a precaution. But that’s a small price to pay for protection.
In addition to Beathard’s close call, starting tight end George Kittle missed the Kids Days practice because of an undisclosed injury, as did starting cornerback Greg Mabin, starting offensive lineman Sean Welsh and starting linebacker Ben Niemann.
Sophomore receiver Jay Scheel also didn’t practice because of a hamstring injury, while backup tight end Jon Wisnieksi is out for at least four to six weeks with a knee injury and backup defensive tackle Jake Hulett is out indefinitely with a leg injury.
That’s a long list of walking wounded for a developmental program like Iowa to overcome on game day.
“It’s probably a bigger group than we’d like to have,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz acknowledged on Saturday.
The good news is that Saturday wasn’t game day and that Beathard would’ve played if it were game day.
And it’s likely that some of the other injured players would’ve played, too.
Football is a violent sport in which you hope for the best when it comes to injures. Nothing can alter the course of a season more than injuries and there is only so much you can do to avoid injuries because you can only be so careful.
Beathard wears a red jersey in practice that tells his defensive teammates that he is not to be hit. But there are times when collisions are just unavoidable when you have a bunch of large and motivated young men playing a contact sport.
Beathard had another scary close call this past spring when he injured his shoulder after being hit in practice by mistake.
“Everybody at every level has that issue and concern,” said Ferentz. “At the end of the day, you still have to practice hard. You can’t have a guy in a bubble back there. You have to cross the street, right? You can’t live without crossing a street.”
Former Iowa coach Hayden Fry used to like his team’s chances against almost anybody if it came down to starters versus starters.
Fry was mostly responsible for breaking the stranglehold that Michigan and Ohio State had on the Big Ten in the 1960s and 1970s. His teams stayed competitive throughout most of his 20-year reign at Iowa from 1979 to 1998 except for when injuries happened.
Fry said quality depth in most cases was probably the biggest thing that separated Ohio State and Michigan from the rest of the Big Ten during his time with the Hawkeyes.
Quality depth means the backup is almost as talented and ready to play as the starter and the third-team guy isn’t far behind.
Ohio State won the 2014 national title with backup quarterback Cardale Jones leading the way.
It comes down to reloading or rebuilding when injuries occur, and Iowa sometimes is forced to do the latter and has suffered from it as a developmental program.
There were lots of factors that contributed to Iowa finishing just 7-5 in 1997 despite having a lineup that featured Tim Dwight, Tavian Banks and Jared DeVries, but probably none bigger than injuries to starting quarterback Matt Sherman and linebacker Vernon Rollins.
Iowa was undefeated in 2009 when starting quarterback Ricky Stanzi injured his ankle against Northwestern in the 10th game of the season. Iowa lost that game 17-10 at Kinnick Stadium and lost the following game at Ohio State a week later, 27-24.
Stanzi returned for the Orange Bowl in which Iowa defeated Georgia Tech 24-14 to finish 11-2 overall. But you’re still left wondering what if Stanzi had stayed healthy for the entire season?
Iowa fans already were paranoid about Beathard because he was hobbled by injuries for most of last season. The fact that he overcame the pain and suffering to start all 14 games became a popular storyline last season and a big part of Beathard’s appeal.
And there he was again on Saturday leading his team in its first live scrimmage this preseason, much to the delight and relief of Iowa fans.
“It’s good to see some live work out here and get some real looks,” Beathard said Saturday. “It’s the first time we’ve done it, and I think we got better today.
“Now, we just have to keep getting better.”
Injuries will have much to say about that.