IOWA CITY — Rise and shine isn’t just a good concept to start the morning.
It’s also the objective for players competing for playing opportunities on the Iowa football team who hope to rise on the Hawkeye depth chart and continue to shine while working toward the start of the 2019 season.
That work that began early Wednesday morning when a group that includes 12 returning starters — six on offense, four on defense and two on special teams — participated in the first of Iowa’s 15 spring practices.
"The key for us over the next five weeks is to realize every opportunity we have, whether it is a meeting or a practice, is important. Otherwise, we wouldn’t schedule it," coach Kirk Ferentz said. "The challenge is to maximize those opportunities so we’re a much better-looking team by the end of April."
The opportunities are numerous, with roles available from one side of the field to the other. Here are five Hawkeyes who have a lot to gain during Iowa’s spring session:
After showing potential as both a ball carrier and receiver, Ivory Kelly-Martin emerged as the Hawkeyes’ opening-game starter at running back a year ago.
A nagging ankle injury allowed him to provide only hints of his abilities in nine games a year ago as fellow sophomores Toren Young and Mekhi Sargent carried the load in the Iowa backfield.
Kelly-Martin finished the season with 97 carries for 341 yards and caught nine receptions for 78 yards when he was healthy enough to get on the field during Iowa’s 9-4 season.
A return to full health — something coach Kirk Ferentz estimates could happen within the first week or two this spring — should only help improve a group of running backs looking to build on the Hawkeyes’ average of 4 yards per carry last season.
Redshirting as a 6-foot-3, 285-pound freshman last season, Tyler Linderbaum moved from defensive tackle to center as Iowa prepared for the Outback Bowl last season, and coaches saw enough potential to keep him there as spring drills begin.
Iowa will start its third center in as many seasons this year, and with four years of eligibility remaining, coaches like the long-term possibilities they see in Linderbaum both from a physical and mental standpoint.
Cole Banwart, a junior who started seven games at guard last season, backed up at the position a year ago and will begin spring drills as the starter.
If Linderbaum continues to develop, Banwart could shift back to a guard spot as the offensive line has interior openings alongside returning junior tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs.
The Hawkeyes must replace center Keegan Render and guard Ross Reynolds this fall, and senior twins Landan and Levi Paulsen open spring listed as Iowa’s starting guards. Levi Paulsen, who has three career starts, has played both guard and tackle.
With Jake Gervase completing his eligibility and Amani Hooker leaving early for the NFL draft, Geno Stone is positioned to move into one of two open safety positions after recording 39 tackles and intercepting four passes.
Sophomore Kaevon Merriweather opens the spring as the frontrunner for the other, positioned on top of the depth chart at strong safety.
The 6-0, 210-pound Michigan native saw action in nine games as a true freshman last season, recording one tackle.
He brings a blend of athleticism and ability to the position that has caught the eye of defensive coordinator and position coach Phil Parker.
Senior John Milani and sophomore Jack Koerner are competing for time at the safety spots as well, looking to complement a group of experienced corners led by junior Matt Hankins, senior Michael Ojemudia and two sophomores who combined for 11 starts a year ago, Julius Brents and Riley Moss.
He’s in, he’s out, he’s in, he’s out and now, he’s 6-3, 306 pounds of exactly what Iowa needs.
Daviyon Nixon has been cleared to participate this spring and is expected to add to a mix the Hawkeyes are looking to improve at defensive tackle, part of a line looking to replace four starters from last season.
The sophomore committed to Iowa in 2017 but wasn’t admitted to school, spending that season at Iowa Western Community College where he caught a scholarship offer from Alabama but stuck with his commitment to return to Iowa.
He was back in Iowa City last fall but redshirted while getting his academics in order. He was allowed to practice part of the season and dominated on the scout team but found himself on the outside looking in when bowl practices began.
After flirting with the idea of a transfer, Nixon is on the field this week with the Hawkeyes.
"We’ve been through quite a road here with Daviyon, but I can tell you my interfaces with him, and I think it’s true with all of us, have been nothing but positive," Ferentz said. "… He likes being out there. He has good enthusiasm, a good vibe."
There is a lot of youth in a position group that, thanks to a healthy rotation in 2018, does return experience in ends A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston and tackles Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff but currently lists as back-ups four players beyond Nixon who have yet to take a snap for Iowa.
As much production as Iowa has enjoyed in the passing game through the tight end position in recent years, the Hawkeyes’ leading receiver in each of the past four seasons has been the slot receiver.
Nick Easley filled that role the past two seasons, catching 52 passes a year ago. Nico Ragaini, who caught one pass for seven yards while seeing action in three games as a true freshman, might be the next guy in the slot role for Iowa.
"Nico Ragaini is one of the guys you talk about who is what we thought we were getting when we recruited him. He’s proven to be that," Ferentz said. "Once he started to get his feet on the ground and get comfortable, you started to see him get better and be more decisive."
Ferentz said at this point, the 6-foot, 191-pound Connecticut native, who set a state high school record with 222 receptions covering 3,345 yards over four seasons, would be the first player to fill the slot role.
Another redshirt freshman, 5-11, 200-pound Indianapolis native Tyrone Tracy Jr., is in the mix as well after catching one pass for 22 yards in four games last fall.