By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The annual Kids Day practice this past Saturday at Kinnick Stadium was the one chance to see the Iowa football team live and in person before the 2021 season starts on Sept. 4 against Indiana.
This year’s event saw the script flip as the offense actually outperformed the defense for a change.
But in fairness to the defense, some of the drills weren’t full contact, and obviously, that makes a difference.
Saturday’s practice lasted about 2 ½ hours, so there isn’t a lot of information or video to use for ranking each of the positions on the team by order of strength.
But I ranked them anyway from top to bottom, realizing that these rankings are fluid and subject to change. It’s impossible to know how an unproven player will perform on game day, and that shows in the rankings.
- Defensive backfield: Five players return with starting experience, including senior and Texas native cornerback Matt Hankins, who has started 28 games at cornerback.
Senior Jack Koerner has 19 career starts at free safety and was named second-team All-Big Ten by the media and third-team by the league’s coaches last season.
Senior cornerback Riley Moss has 14 career starts, while junior Kaevon Merriweather started five games at strong safety last season, and also started the 2019 season opener at strong safety.
Junior Dane Belton started all eight games last season in the cash position, which requires him to shift between playing safety and linebacker. Belton also started four games a true freshman in 2019.
So that’s a combined 79 starts for Iowa’s top five defensive backs. And with those starts come experience, knowledge and confidence.
Hankins has shown flashes of stardom, but his ascent has been derailed by injuries.
Assuming the top five defensive backs can stay healthy, this could be one of Phil Parker’s best units, and that’s saying a lot.
Merriweather injured his right shoulder early in Saturday’s practice, but Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said it wasn’t serious.
As for the younger defensive backs, Ferentz seemed less than pleased with how some of them performed, especially during full contact drills.
“Some of them didn’t get the memo that we were playing live football,” Kirk Ferentz said. “It looked like they just…I’m not sure what they were thinking, quite frankly.”
The good news is that Iowa’s younger defensive backs should have time to grow and learn from the five veterans, who along with junior cornerback Terry Roberts, will form a solid foundation.
2. Running back: Iowa has the makings of a dynamic one-two punch at this position with junior Tyler Goodson and fifth-year senior Ivory Kelly Martin both healthy and both with starting experience.
Goodson started all eight games last season and made first-team All-Big Ten. The Georgia native also became the first freshman to lead Iowa in rushing in 2019. Goodson makes defenders miss in space, but will also put his head down and gain the tough yards inside.
And he can also catch out of the backfield.
Kelly-Martin has been hampered by injuries, including a knee injury that required surgery this past December to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
But when healthy, he is similar to Goodson in that he is elusive and a dependable receiver.
Goodson is clearly Iowa’s featured back, but Kelly-Martin also has the trust of the coaches and should play a key role if he stays healthy.
There’s a chance that Goodson and Kelly-Martin could even play at the same time due to their versatility.
Redshirt freshmen Leshon Williams and Gavin Williams both had their moments during the Kids Day practice, especially Johnson, who ripped off several long runs.
“We knew what we had certainly with Tyler and Ivory,” Kirk Ferentz said. “We feel really good about both of those guys. We’ve seen them play a lot of good football.
“And then Leshon starting back in the spring, he plays better when he’s got pads on. He’s one of those guys who plays a little bit better when it’s full speed. And I think he’s just continued to improve and really has impressed us in the first week. So today, he had a good day, and Gavin has been steady really since he showed up here a year ago.”
However, Williams also lost a fumble in Saturday’s practice, which didn’t sit well with his head coach.
“You better be rushing for 300 if you’re going to put the ball on the ground,” Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s tough to balance that out. So that’s just youth. He’ll get that down.”
Junior Monte Pottebaum is the latest in a long line of tough fullbacks whose main responsibility is to block. However, Pottebaum also had three catches for 39 yards last season, so he might bring more flexibility to the position.
3. Linebacker: There isn’t much established depth at these three positions, but the top three linebackers – Jack Campbell, Seth Benson and Jestin Jacobs – are all solid.
Campbell and Benson are both full-time starters, while Jacobs will start when Iowa uses a 4-3 defensive alignment.
“When we finished spring practice, I felt like we had three guys who pretty much could start in any position out there for us,” Kirk Ferentz said. “And we play well with those guys in the game.
“I look at Ivory as a starter, and I look at Jestin the same way. And technically he is, and even if we’re two linebackers in the game, we could rotate those three guys.”
4. Receiver: Tyrone Tracy Jr., Nico Ragaini and Charlies Jones give Iowa three reliable and proven pass catchers.
Tracy showed star potential in 2019 when he started eight games and finished with 36 receptions for 589 yards and three touchdowns. His numbers dropped last season due to playing behind seniors Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon. But Tracy is now poised to be Iowa’s big-play receiver and he excels at gaining yards after the catch.
Ragaini had 46 receptions for 439 yards and two touchdowns as a sophomore in 2019, and 18 catches for 191 yards in eight games last season. Ragaini isn’t as explosive as Tracy, but Ragaini compensates by running precise routes and by having very few drops.
True freshmen Keagan Johnson and Arland Bruce also have been impressive and should be in the mix for playing time. Johnson already is listed on the depth chart as Tracy’s backup.
5. Specialists: This consists of the punter, kicker and return specialists, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if this group is ranked much higher by the end of the season.
The question is whether sixth-year senior Caleb Shudak can pick up where former 2019 consensus All-American Keith Duncan left off as the starting kicker. Shudak has a stronger leg than Duncan, but Shudak has very little game experience, so it’s hard to judge him.
Iowa has arguably the top punter in the Big Ten in 24-year old sophomore Tory Taylor, who is from Melbourne, Australia, while Charlie Jones is an effective punt returner. This unit could be vastly underrated, but until Shudak performs under pressure, it’s impossible to know.
6. Offensive line: It always helps to have arguably the best center in college football, and Iowa can make that claim, thanks to junior Tyler Linderbaum, whose ascent to stardom after switching from defensive tackle to center as a freshman in 2018 has been extraordinary.
But Linderbaum can’t do it alone, and there are just too many uncertainties to rank the offensive line any higher at this point.
This unit also suffered a blow when starting senior guard Kyler Schott injured his foot while bailing hay back home on his family’s farm. He is expected to miss at least the season opener.
7. Defensive line: Three starters from 2020 have to be replaced, including consensus All-American Davyion Nixon at one of the tackle positions, and first-team All-Big Ten defensive end Chauncey Golston.
Senior Zach VanValkenburg made third-team All-Big Ten last season and gives Iowa a reliable veteran to build around.
Junior defensive end John Waggoner saw action in four games last season, and in 10 games in 2019, while junior tackle Noah Shannon saw action in eight games last season with one start.
But that’s about it for game experience on the defensive line.
Redshirt freshmen Yahya Black and Lukas Van Ness both are competing for a starting position at defensive tackle, and both should at least be in the rotation.
Black played briefly in four games last season, while Van Ness has no game experience.
8. Tight end: Junior Sam LaPorta has been a key contributor since his freshman season, and could be Iowa’s next great tight end. He’s more steady than spectacular, and has shown the ability to make difficult catches in key moments.
After him, however, the level of experience drops significantly.
Redshirt freshman Luke Lachey appeared briefly in one game last season, while sophomore Josiah Miamen has no game experience, although, Miamen did make several impressive catches in the Kids Day practice.
9. Quarterback: Some position had to be last and this ranking is based mostly on what happened during the Kids Day practice.
Junior starter Spencer Petras was clearly the most effective quarterback, but that was almost by default because none of the backups performed well.
Petras made some nice throws on Saturday, but also missed some targets, especially on fade routes in the end zone, while backups Alex Padilla and Deuce Hogan both struggled.
Petras started all eight games last season and was named honorable mention All-Big Ten by the media. He completed 140-of-245 pass attempts for 1,569 yards, nine touchdowns and five interceptions.
He struggled at times with accuracy, and with touch passes, but he also led Iowa to six consecutive victories after an 0-2 start. This low ranking reflects more on Iowa’s overall situation at quarterback than on how Petras played last season.
But Petras still is very much a work in progress.
Padilla saw action in two games last season, completing 1-of-2 passes for 12 yards, and rushing two times for seven yards.
Hogan, a former four-star recruit from Southlake, Texas, was redshirted last season and saw no game action.
The fourth quarterback on scholarship is true freshman and Ohio native Joey Labas.