HawkeyeGameFilm shares his observations from Iowa’s open Spring Practice related to the offensive side of the ball. If you missed his thoughts on Iowa’s defense, you can read that at this link as well as some quick hitter notes from the open practice at this link.
James Vandenberg looked about the same as he did last year: very good arm strength and sound mechanics. The new system definitely had some noticeable differences from what JVB was asked to do last year. There were more rollout looks and much more emphasis on the short passing game. They didn’t ignore the intermediate or deep routes but it was a more west coast inspired passing game. It looked like the RB’s can expect to see quite a few targets in Davis’ system as well. JVB looked to be a little off target on some of the throws he made on the move and it’s something he’ll have to become more consistent with. A lot of the plays they were running rely on timing and will take some repetition to get down.When he was in the pocket he looked very comfortable and got the ball out on time most plays. The offense as a whole is clearly still adjusting to the play call verbiage and some of the new concepts they’re implementing.
Jake Rudock saw action with second team offense during the scrimmage portion and I got a better look at his overall arm strength. He looks to have added some weight to his frame and his throws had a bit more zip than I remembered seeing last fall. While improved in that category I’d say he’s a couple of notches down in terms of overall velocity compared to JVB. During 1 on 1’s his throws were accurate and he had clean and easy mechanics. He had some footwork issues during the scrimmage while dropping back from under center and seemed to be stumbling on the artificial turf. He did throw an interception during the scrimmage portion and it was a play where he threw into traffic down the field when the defense was in good position. Looked like one of those plays where he was trying to fit a ball into a very tight window way down the field and probably learned his lesson. Later in the 2 minute drill he opted to pull it down and run rather than throw into traffic on a couple of occasions. He showed some pretty decent foot-speed and is a couple of notches better in that category than JVB.
Cody Sokol looks to be a mobile and fairly athletic QB. At this point he has a bit of a slinging delivery style and throws with a fairly low release point. Despite being a bit raw in terms of mechanics he was fairly accurate on the throws I saw him make during the practice. Didn’t get to see a lot of him in live action but looks like he’ll provide solid depth at the QB position. Doesn’t look like he’ll challenge Rudock for the backup job at this point.
The big question mark at running back took a little more shape at the Spring practice with only two running backs carrying the ball in the live segments: Sophomore Damon Bullock and RS-Sophomore DeAndre Johnson. There was no sign of walk-on Andre Dawson. Neither guy is real big and they aren’t bruising types but both broke a few tackles in the live portion.
Damon Bullock looks to be a slashing type runner and showed some decent lateral agility navigating to cut-back lanes. He broke a big TD run after following some very good blocks and accelerating through the hole and bursting to space and he wasn’t going to get caught from behind. A couple DBs gave chase but weren’t making up any ground on him. Bullock hit top speed very quickly on the play which makes him a good fit for what Iowa does. He looks to be a capable receiver in addition to fitting the zone running scheme pretty well. The time spent last season between WR & RB seems to have paid off. He was catching passes off the jugs machine with the WRs in warmups and I liked what I saw from him. He caught the ball away from his body cleanly and reacted very quickly when the pass was outside his body. Pass protection & communication on blitz pickup appeared to be a issue for Bullock. I would guess some of that is the new system and some of it just being a young player. He’ll need to improve in that area in fall camp.
DeAndre Johnson had some success running with the ball in the scrimmage. He’s quicker than fast and has a very low center of gravity. He can get lost in piles and will come darting out at times. He seems to have a pretty good grasp of the zone scheme and picked his seam decisively and found the cutback lane a couple of times. He shows good lateral agility and isn’t afraid of contact. His natural low pad level can make him hard for defenders to get him solidly wrapped up. Like Bullock, pass protection and communication seemed to be an issue. It’s something he’ll need to firm up to get reps week in week out. He also put the ball on the ground which is never helpful when you’re trying to earn carries. As long as it doesn’t become a trend he should fine in that category.
Very little to look at from the FB perspective during this year’s scrimmage. Iowa ran a lot of 2 TE, 1RB sets with Brad Rogers in a red jersey. Jon Gimm stepped in with the 1s during most of the day, but didn’t see a lot of action. Rogers is the clear cut starter at fullback and is a guy who can be an offensive weapon. He’s a capable receiver and has pretty good skills when carrying the football as well. In addition to his ability as a receiver and a runner he’s excellent in blitz pickup. It will be interesting to see how Greg Davis puts Rogers skill-set to work this coming season.
Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley are the pretty clear cut 1 and 2 WR but after that it gets a little blurry. Don Shumpert, Jacob Hillyer and Steve Staggs all saw reps with the first team offense as the 3rd & 4th WR at times.
Keenan Davis didn’t participate in the live session of the scrimmage but will definitely be asked to step up next fall. Davis saw 80 targets a year ago and is likely to see 100 or more in 2012. His success percentage was on the low side in 2011(57.2%) and some of that was due to drops. He’ll need to clean that up in 2012 and should see plenty of targets to show improvement. All the physical tools are there for him to have a big season and he just needs to put it all together in 2012.
Kevonte Martin-Manley will be asked to step outside this year and become a starter. He doesn’t have great size or strength and it showed during at times during 1-on-1s while trying to beat press coverage. He was excellent at working to find holes in zone coverage and was a fairly effective short and intermediate target in 2011. He had a few deeper receptions but his YPC was only 10.4 last season. He doesn’t have elite speed and may struggle to be stretch the field from the outside. He did snag a couple of back shoulder fades during 1-on-1s during the spring practice, so there’s reason to be optimistic about him improving in that department.
Steve Staggs was in a red jersey so he was limited to the walk through and non-live portions of practice. Staggs had limited action last year but made the most of the targets he did see. He caught all 4 passes thrown his way in 2011. He’s not a burner but was a solid route runner who can contribute as a sub package guy.
Don Shumpert flashed some potential but was very inconsistent throughout the day. He dropped several passes and had a stretch of three consecutive drops in pass skele. He had a couple of big plays but the drops were pretty tough to forget. He needs to work on catching the ball while moving at game speed and focus on just catching the ball. Game experience can help with the timing/nerves, but he’ll need to clean up the easy drops first. He’s got solid speed and some burst and could contribute if he gets the hands issues under control.
Jacob Hillyer is a bigger WR who looks to be a legit 6’4. He has a big frame and used it well to box out CBs during 1-on-1s. He doesn’t have much burst off the line and despite his size can be hampered by press coverage. He doesn’t lack strength to fight through it, but he didn’t show the speed and burst to separate after even cleanly beating jams. He doesn’t look ready to be a starter, but should be able to contribute as a sub package guy.
This group looks to be a very strong point for the offense. C.J. Fiedorowicz is set to be a star and there is solid depth behind him. Zach Derby got solid game experience last season and is as guy who can put in quality snaps. CJF and Derby give Iowa two solid pass catching threats with B1G game experience. Neither guy is an exceptional blocker at this point, but both improved noticeably last season. While CJF is the bigger target Derby will be needed as well; especially in cases where teams commit extra coverage to CJF. CJF only saw 14 targets last season and converted 13 of them for catches. I would guess he’ll see 50+ targets this season and Derby roughly half of that. During the scrimmage CJF was targeted on shallow routes quite a few times and Coach Davis has also talked about wanting to get the TEs involved on deeper routes as well. Could be a big year for the Iowa TEs. I’ve mentioned before I’d like to see Iowa take a page from Stanford’s playbook and use some 3 TE sets, and this would be an ideal time to do so.
Depth: There appears to be a pretty good amount of talent from the underclassmen as well. Ray Hamilton is a talented young player and looks like he’s capable of breaking out this coming season if given the chance. Hamilton has solid size and strength as a blocker and is a natural receiver who makes grabs away from his body. It looked to me his physical tools are in place but he’s got some work to do in terms of awareness and recognition. Henry Kreiger-Koble flashed some very impressive receiving skills coming up with some tough catches during the scrimmage. HKK does lack the size and strength to hold up as an inline blocking TE, but he could definitely contribute as a receiver at this point. Both guys look like they’ll push for playing time and have skills that OC Greg Davis can utilize.
If there is one area of the offense that you don’t have to worry about related to depth, it’s on the offensive line. From the scrimmage, there appears to about 8 to 9 starting caliber players and this will be a pretty strong group this year. There were a lot of positives out there during the scrimmage for these guys. Despite all the coaching switches it’s mostly the same system in terms of the run game. It was nearly all, if not all, zone looks out there during the scrimmage and the hallmarks of well coached lineman were visible throughout the day. As a group I was impressed with the display of proper leverage, especially from the younger guys. Pass protection was very good when it was a vanilla look from the defense, but blitzes got home pretty consistently. Not all of it falls to the OL(backs &TEs too) but blitz pickups are more mental than physical in most cases. It hinges on recognition and communication by the whole offensive unit. Handling blitz looks was a sore spot last year at times and it will be something to watch with this unit.
James Ferentz returns for his senior campaign and is a very tough nosed leader on the interior for this unit. He appeared to be roughly the same size as last season(280-285) and he needs to play with good technique and leverage to control defenders at his size. He was improving and becoming more consistent as the 2011 season wore on and is likely to continue his development. If he can, he should be in the running for 1st team All-B1G selection this season.
There are a number of guys who can step in at C and Boffeli & Blythe appear to be at the top of the list. Both guys worked on snapping with the QBs during warm-ups and are currently holding down the starting guard spots. JUCO transfer Eric Simmons looked to be a pretty good fit at center as well. He was getting after it and moving guys off the LOS when working with the 2s. It doesn’t look like there is any depth issues here.
There was a little shake-up at the guard spots this Spring with Connor Boffeli(LG) and Austin Blythe(RG) holding down the starting spots for now. Matt Tobin is pretty clearly the 3rd man in the guard competition after starting at LG most of last season. Iowa has used a rotation of three guards pretty consistently the last couple of years so it’s likely they’d continue that trend.
Austin Blythe: I was pretty impressed by Austin Blythe during 1-on-1 pass rush drills. He was very quick against finesse moves and stout against power moves. He was particularly good at winning the hand fights and disrupting his opponents momentum. You can tell he was a HS wrestler as well with the way he uses his hands to control and drive defenders. For a RS-Freshman he was a very complete player and if he can stay healthy could be a candidate for Freshman All-American honors.
Connor Boffeli is a bit taller than the rest of the interior guys at 6’5 but it didn’t appear to hurt his ability to play with sound leverage. He didn’t look to be exceptionally explosive or overpoweringly strong but he was technically sound and got after his assignments. I didn’t see many obvious big mistakes but he did misjudge a few angles to the second level on run plays. He seemed to be doing fairly well getting his head across when reach blocking and worked his hips around the defender. Looks like another well coached offensive lineman.
Matt Tobin started most of 2011 at LG but did rotate with Brandon Scherff quite a bit. He was a sound run blocker most of the time, but struggled in pass protection in 2011. I didn’t get a real good look at him in pass protection during the live parts of the practice so I couldn’t tell if he’s improved in that category. He had some good games in 2011 and some poor ones as well. He’s got plenty of competition from the younger guys and needs to be more consistent in 2012 to get reps.
There isn’t a real clear picture of the next guys in line beyond the top three but there is no shortage of candidates. Jordan Walsh & Drew Clark look to be capable guys. Walsh looked a bit undersized still and would benefit from some added bulk. Walsh did look good running at RG with the 2s though when I had my eyes on him. He used solid technique and was delivering a good initial pop in the run game.
Iowa will be breaking in two new starters at tackle, but the two who are currently holding down those spots aren’t totally fresh faces. At the scrimmage Brandon Scherff was the starting LT and Brett Van Sloten was the starting RT.
Brandon Scherff has a lot of experience inside where he saw a lot of time in 2011, and he also had a brief appearance at LT. He has a big frame and pretty good feet. He’s a bit bigger than Iowa’s previous two LTs and is already 310lbs at 6’5 as a RS Sophomore. He’s got a lot of inline power and can shove some people around in the run game. Showed the ability to get under a defender and extend his arms and control him during the scrimmage. He’s not especially flexible currently and during 9-on-7 drills fell off some blocks after getting bent at the hips. He’s got good discipline and footwork as a pass protector. I’ve yet to see him matched with a upper tier pass rusher who can threaten the edge so it’s hard to say how he’ll match up when challenged. He definitely has the tools to develop into an excellent starter.
Brett Van Sloten was a relative unknown until last year’s Insight Bowl where he stepped in for an ill Markus Zusevics. Van Sloten accounted for himself very well in that game in both phases and it appears to have given him control of the RT spot. He showed excellent pass protection fundamentals during 1-on-1s and I was particularly impressed by his handling of an out to in spin move from Riley McMinn. McMinn stepped hard to the outside and got Van Sloten going outside and then spun and burst back inside. Van Sloten decisively planted his foot to the outside and in perfect balance shuffled and mirrored back to the inside to kept McMinn in front of him and under control. It looks like he’ll hold down the RT spot to me.
The depth at the tackle position looks to be pretty solid. Nolan MacMillan appears to have gotten through the sports hernia injury that sidelined him all of last season and was taking reps with the 2s at RT. He saw time at guard in 2010 but has OT size and skills. He should only improve as he gets back into things. Andrew Donnal appears to have a firm hold on a spot in the 2 deep at LT. He has filled out his frame quite a bit and looks better handling defenders on his own in the run game. He looked a lot better out in space in pass protection as well. Previously when I had seen him in space he had a pretty narrow base and looked pensive. He seems to have improved there and gives Iowa more solid depth at OT.