It’s go time for next generation of Hawkeyes
IOWA CITY — They remember the long days on the practice field.
They recall scout-team situations, their patience being tested on a regular basis by older teammates who were bigger, faster and stronger.
There were the quiet moments alone, a chance to contemplate just what they had gotten themselves into.
“Coming out of high school, it’s tough to take that next step,’’ Iowa linebacker Amani Jones recalled. “There were nights when you wonder if you can get the job done at this level, if you have what it takes to be a Big Ten football player.’’
Jones isn’t alone.
“When you get here and look around, you’re no longer the ‘guy.’ There are so many guys who were that ‘guy.’ You gotta be strong, keep working,’’ Hawkeye running back Ivory Kelly-Martin said. “You gotta keep believing.’’
Receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette has found the support of teammates invaluable.
“When you have a rough day, you find out pretty quickly your teammates are there for you,’’ he said. “Everybody deals with it. It’s all part of the process.’’
Together, they get through it.
They’ve gone from scout team to reserve to putting themselves in a position to be in the lineup when Iowa kicks off its 2018 football season Saturday at Kinnick Stadium with a 2:40 p.m. game against Northern Illinois.
For a new generation of Hawkeye playmakers, it’s go time.
Jones will be the anchor of a group of three first-year starters at the linebacker positions in the heart of the Hawkeye defense.
All three find themselves in a similar position as Iowa begins game-week preparations.
Last year’s senior starters, Josey Jewell, Ben Niemann and Bo Bower, rarely came off the field.
“Here, you earn your playing time and those three guys, they earned it every day they stepped on the field,’’ Jones said. “They were all playing at the level that we’re all working to get to. They were great examples of what we need to bring to the field, how to get after it, and now that the time is here, you want to be ready to go.’’
The Hawkeyes return seven starters on each side of the football, but the suspension of four linemen, including three starters, for violations of team rules will add additional newcomers to the lineup for the opener against one of the preseason favorites in the West Division of the Mid-American Conference.
For Kelly-Martin, who is expected to share ball-carrying responsibilities with Toren Young and Mekhi Sargent, the opportunity is one he has worked to achieve.
The trio of sophomores will work to accomplish what Akrum Wadley did while topping 1,000 rushing yards in each of the last two seasons.
Kelly-Martin and Young prepared by filling a reserve role last season, combining for 377 yards, while Sargent was earning all-American honors while rushing for 1,499 yards at Iowa Western Community College.
“Those experiences, even if they came late in a game, they’re valuable,’’ Young said. “It’s one thing to be standing on the sidelines, watching Akrum run. It’s another thing to be out there in Kinnick, seeing the game in front of you and knowing that you have a job to do.’’
They won’t be doing it alone.
Quarterback Nate Stanley returns after throwing for 2,437 yards and 26 touchdowns, intercepted six times while completing 196-of-351 passes.
The junior is working to improve his 55.8-percent completion rate in his first season as a starter and Iowa will work to put the ball in the hands of its playmakers in new and different ways.
Tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson return after combining to catch 54 passes a year ago.
Nine of those receptions came during the Hawkeyes’ 55-24 rout of Ohio State, a game when Iowa’s plan centered around production from the tight end position where Iowa’s depth is as good as depth gets.
Fant, a junior who led all tight ends in the Football Bowl Subdivision with an average of 16.5 yards per receptions, will likely be utilized out of the slot position as a receiver at times this season as Iowa works to grow the ways it moves the football.
“Tight end is a position that’s unique, just like the linebacker and safety positions that have to cover them,’’ Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “If you get a guy like Noah Fant, who’s a tight end but has receiver-like skills, it poses some problems and forces you to make some decisions defensively how you want to defend the guy.’’
The Hawkeyes hope to put his quickness to use, much in the same way they look for growth in what Brandon Smith and Smith-Marsette can bring the offense from the receiver positions.
Their abilities to stretch a defense only help the Hawkeyes maximize the abilities of personnel throughout the offense.
“I learned tons last year,’’ Smith-Marsette said. “Every good thing, every bad thing, I learned from it. It will all help me now.’’
Those moments, in games, in a reserve role, on the scout team, they all contribute to a body of work that prepares players to make the most of expanded roles.
Jones, with 10 tackles on his resume, counts on it as he prepares to make his first start at linebacker, the first time he has started a game since taking the field for Chicago Phillips in the 2015 Illinois Class 4A state championship game.
“If we bring the effort and toughness and execution, if we bring the boom, we can do good things,’’ Jones said. “We don’t care that nobody knows who we are. They’ll know who we are after they play us. We’re ready.’’
A long time coming, after all, has these Hawkeyes ready for go time.