By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Big Network made its annual trip to Iowa City on Monday to get an up-close look at the Iowa football team, and with exception to the weather, all seems to have gone well.
Studio host Dave Revsine and analysts Gerry DiNardo and Howard Griffith all spoke optimistically about the Hawkeyes, which is hardly a surprise.
DiNardo said Iowa’s offensive line is better than he anticipated and the defensive line is deeper than he remembers in past years.
He also said that with the presence of quarterback Nate Stanley and big-play tight end Noah Fant, a good offensive line, improvement at receiver and being three deep at running back could point to some new formations and tweaks.
And he said it will be a great X and O watch this fall.
But DiNardo wasn’t finished.
He threw Hawkeye fans a major bone on Twitter by saying that he isn’t buying into the thinking that Wisconsin has separated itself from both Iowa and Nebraska.
DiNardo based that opinion on what he has seen from watching all three teams practice over the past few days.
“West will be wild this year. We haven’t been to Northwestern and Purdue yet,” DiNardo said on Twitter.
DiNardo’s job is to give his opinion, but also to promote the Big Ten Network by using a glass-half-full approach.
There is certainly a lot of truth to what DiNardo says about Iowa, and his opinion is highly credible, considering DiNardo’s credentials, which included being the head coach for Vanderbilt, Indiana and Louisiana State.
But even if DiNardo had major concerns about Iowa, it’s unlikely that he would share them under the circumstance.
The most critical thing that was said about Iowa during Monday's hour-long show came from DiNardo when he questioned the depth at cornerback, saying it could be a problem. That's a lot to gather from watching just one practice, but DiNardo and his cohorts make those kinds of statements all the time from a positive standpoint.
Revsine also mentioned Iowa’s inconsistency last season, which included three games when the Hawkeyes scored at least 45 points and six when they scored 20 or fewer points.
Other than that, though, it was a thumbs-up for Iowa football.
The Big Ten Network’s annual bus tour is sort of traveling love fest in which DiNardo and his two sidekicks visit all 14 teams and focus mostly on the positive.
That isn’t a criticism, just a fact that makes sense.
Could you imagine how awkward it would be if DiNardo ripped Iowa, or any of the Big Ten for that matter, while receiving VIP treatment?
The Big Ten Network has a positive narrative that it pushes for each of the conference teams, and it’s important to take that into account when digesting what they say.
The crew did mention Kirk Ferentz’s longevity, and that he is just one victory from surpassing Hayden Fry as Iowa’s all-time winningest football coach.
They also marveled over Iowa having just two head football coaches since 1979, saying it comes down to finding the right fits.
Former Iowa quarterback Chuck Long was part of the Big Ten Network crew on Monday and he singled out sophomore running back Ivory Kelly-Martin and redshirt freshman backup quarterback Payton Mansell for praise.
Long also praised Stanley for how he handled his progressions and reads during practice.
Revsine praised Ferentz for practicing outside despite the wet conditions. Ferentz said he did it in order to prepare for adverse weather, which is likely to occur during the fall.
Griffith, a former Illinois and NFL fullback, predicted a breakout season for sophomore defensive end A.J. Epenesa, and Griffith isn't alone in that thought.
A former five-star recruit, Epenesa showed flashes of brilliance last season while playing as a reserve.
It would have been more of a surprise if none of the Big Ten crew had predicted a breakout season for Epenesa.
Junior linebacker Amani Jones also drew praise from the Big Ten Network crew for his performance in practice on Monday. Jones appears to have locked down the starting middle linebacker position that was vacated by former unanimous All-American Josey Jewell.
Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker told the Big Ten Network crew on Monday that no decision has been made at will linebacker between junior Kristian Welch and redshirt freshman Djimon Colbert.
Junior Nick Niemann is expected to replace his brother, Ben Niemann, as the starter at outside linebacker. Ben Niemann started in each of the past three seasons and is now competing for a roster spot with the Kansas City Chiefs as a rookie free agent.