IOWA CITY — Stepping on the practice field for the first time this spring Wednesday, the Iowa football team was encouraged to “cut it loose.’’
After watching a competitive spring re-energize the Hawkeye program a year ago, Kirk Ferentz wanted to see more of the same as Iowa held the first of 15 practices that conclude April 26 with the annual spring game at Kinnick Stadium.
From three linebacker positions that will be filled by first-time starters to quarterback, where Jake Rudock returns after starting 13 games last season, Ferentz wants his players to be tested and to push the limits of their abilities.
“Every one of our guys on the roster, basically, is in a competitive situation outside of maybe (long snapper Tyler) Kluver and we’ll have somebody in there this fall, too,’’ Ferentz said. “To me, it’s a good thing.’’
Ferentz watched a competitive atmosphere last spring create the foundation for a turnaround season that led Iowa to an 8-5 record and an Outback Bowl berth.
The work starts with replacing lost starters. The Hawkeyes have six spots to fill on defense and three on offense with vacancies at each of the linebacker positions the most visible openings.
The depth chart at the linebacker positions begins with senior Quinton Alston at middle linebacker, sophomore Reggie Spearman on the weakside and junior Travis Perry listed on top of the depth chart on the outside.
“The biggest thing, especially in the initial stages, is to encourage guys to play aggressive, not be afraid to make a mistake,’’ Ferentz said. “We’re not going to lose a game this spring, so it’s not a crisis situation if somebody blows an assignment or a coverage at this point.’’
With that in mind, Ferentz simply wants to watch Iowa linebackers develop.
“We want to identify guys as they cut it loose a little bit and see what they look like,’’ he said. “Most players look different in each phase. They ought to look different now than they did in December. The big thing is to cut it loose and we’ll worry about the detail work later on.’’
Iowa also has two openings in the secondary, where experimentation is likely this spring. Jordan Lomax has shifted from cornerback to free safety and Maurice Fleming and Sean Draper currently share the top line on the depth chart at a cornerback spot opposite returning starter Desmond King.
At quarterback, Rudock and returning backup C.J. Beathard join redshirt freshman Nic Shimonek in what Ferentz expects to be a competitive situation.
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“Our expectation level for (Rudock) is going to be different than for a guy who hasn’t played,'' he said. "For the guys who played, and Jake did a lot of good things last year, obviously, we want them to be better players this year.
“We expect the same thing out of (returning left tackle Brandon) Scherff. We expect him to be a better lineman than he was a year ago. If they’re not, then we’re probably not doing our jobs right and they’re not doing theirs right.’’
Iowa has depth and options to consider for two vacancies on the offensive line, where senior Andrew Donnal at right tackle and Sean Welsh at left guard currently top the depth chart.
There are also options at tight end, where all-Big Ten performer C.J. Fiedorowicz is now preparing for the NFL draft, and Hawkeye coaches are sorting through a number of options at receiver and running back positions as well.
“The most important thing for our players to understand is that we’ve got a lot of work to do,’’ Ferentz said. “There’s nothing we can assume. … Every step is so important right now and right now, we’ve got to worry about what we do in the next four, five weeks.’’