<
>

Lessons learned from spring practice: Iowa Hawkeyes

Spring practice is complete. The longest period of offseason waiting is upon us. But we can always look back. This week, we’re talking stock of the lessons learned during the spring for each Big Ten team. Up next is Iowa.

1. The leadership on this team is top notch.

Iowa has historically -- or at least since the turn of the century -- tended to disappoint when expectations rise. After coach Kirk Ferentz’s two most recent 11-win seasons in 2004 and 2009, his teams followed with five-loss seasons. And both times, the Hawkeyes featured a returning star at quarterback.

Conversely, their most successful season out of 17 under Ferentz came last year as negativity outside the program swirled after a 7-6 finish in 2014.

What to make, then, of this year as Iowa enters the summer as a favorite in the West Division? Well, if the spring serves an indicator, there’s no reason to worry about a slip. The Hawkeyes boast the Big Ten’s best offense-defense senior duo in quarterback C.J. Beathard and All-America cornerback Desmond King.

Before his January decision to return to school, King consulted Beathard. The quarterback powered through spring practice while recovering from offseason surgery when he could have taken it easy. King, with his portrait hanging among the Iowa greats inside the football facility, refused to rest on his laurels in March and April.

They are the consummate leaders. And if you don’t think two guys alone can keep an entire team on track, the junior class features a pair of leaders, too, who refuse to accept a dip in intensity. Linebacker Josey Jewell was the first sophomore named a permanent team captain in Ferentz’s time at the school, and Sean Welsh sets an example for teammates with unselfish play as a capable starter at any of four positions on the offensive line.

2. The Hawkeyes are on track to find a big-play receiving threat.

Matt VandeBerg returns as one of the most reliable wideouts in the Big Ten. He led Iowa with 65 catches for 703 yards in 2015, but his 10.8-yard average ranked eighth on the team. So VandeBerg’s role is clear -- when Beathard needs a target to move the chains, he goes to the rising senior.

Still, the Hawkeyes need someone to stretch the field after losing Tevaun Smith to graduation. Who’s it going to be? That’s a good question, though the spring shed light on several possibilities.

The most intriguing possibility is perhaps sophomore Jay Scheel, who has drawn attention since his arrival on campus in 2014 as a former high school quarterback. Scheel fought through rehab from two knee injuries endured before his college career began and appears to have finally found a spot in this offense. Jerminic Smith, who contributed as a redshirt freshman last year, is also a candidate to break out, in addition to junior speedster Jonathan Parker.

And without productive tight end Henry Krieger Coble, senior George Kittle, who caught a team-high six touchdowns, gets a shot to showcase his athleticism as the primary pass-catcher at his position.

Someone among that group is set to make a big jump and give Beathard a home-run option.

3. It takes time, but prospects are noticing Iowa’s 2015 success.

In the wake of its 12-win season and first Rose Bowl appearance in 25 years, Iowa signed a nice class in February. But none of its 24 signees rated higher than a three-star prospect by ESPN.com. The Hawkeyes’ class ranked 49th nationally.

Ferentz suggested the next class of signees would show evidence that Iowa had made progress with more elite talent. And sure enough, among its 10 pledges for the Class of 2017 are defensive end A.J. Epenesa of Edwardsville, Illinois, and running back Eno Benjamin of Wylie, Texas. Both are four-star recruits ranked in the ESPN 300.

Iowa stands to benefit from the upgrade. Despite its landmark season last year, the Hawkeyes placed just one player last week in the NFL draft -- center Austin Blythe, who was drafted 248th overall out of 253 picks by the Colts, avoiding a blank Iowa draft slate for the first time since 1977.

Yes, King is a potential future first-rounder, but spring practice at Iowa did not feature a field full of future NFL talent. Help is on the way soon.