IOWA CITY, Iowa — Spring football is a time for growth, development and a chance for players to solidify their roles.
Iowa wants to see all three from every player, but Hawkeyes coaches really need to see it from a select group because of inexperience or a lack of depth at their positions.
Here are five players in need of a big spring when practice begins Tuesday.
WR Brandon Smith
The position where Iowa needs to see the most growth is wide receiver. The offense is handcuffed in what it can do until the team gets better production from its receivers.
The development of Brandon Smith is vital for the Hawkeyes. He is the only natural split end on the roster and provides something no one else at the position does: size.
At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, he’s a natural red-zone target and an option to catch passes over the middle too.
Smith impressed coaches during winter workouts. He must continue to do so in the spring.
OL Keegan Render
The interior offensive line is a sneaky important position for Iowa this season. The Hawkeyes are losing two of their three interior starters in James Daniels and Sean Welsh to the NFL. The third, Keegan Render, returns for his senior season.
Iowa needs him to go from just a cog on the offensive line to the anchor of the interior unit. There are several options to start inside next to Render but no clear front-runners. When Iowa has struggled in recent years, it’s often been tied to the inability of the guards and center to control the line.
Render’s ability to play guard or center makes him versatile. What the Hawkeyes need is for him to become indispensable up front the way Daniels was a year ago.
LB Kristian Welch
Really, this could be any number of linebackers, from Amani Jones to Aaron Mends to Jack Hockaday to Ben Niemann. Or it could be Kristian Welch.
The Hawkeyes are replacing all three starting linebackers. They really need someone to step up and separate himself at one position, establishing himself as a starter and providing an answer at a position group full of question marks.
Niemann is the best bet to do this at weakside linebacker. Teammates were talking him up at the end of last season.
For Iowa, it’s best if the breakout player is a middle linebacker. The position is more important at Iowa than at other programs, and Welch ended last season as the backup to starter Josey Jewell.
CB Manny Rugamba
Manny Rugamba looked like the next Desmond King as a freshman in 2016, a potential four-year impact player capable of developing into a shutdown cornerback.
Instead, he went through a sophomore slump. He was suspended for violating team rules for the opener, and injuries kept him from playing as he did as a freshman.
He lost his starting spot last season, but he could get it back. Iowa needs a starter to replace likely first-round NFL pick Josh Jackson. Rugamba’s ceiling is as high as any cornerback on the roster. If he reaches it, the defense will have found its next star defensive back.
OT Tristan Wirfs
On the surface, Iowa seems fine at offensive tackle. Tristan Wirfs comes back after a successful debut season, and all indications are that fellow starter Alaric Jackson is in position to return following his suspension for violating team rules during the Pinstripe Bowl.
Both are sophomores with plenty of upside, but Iowa can’t afford either to stagnate or take a step back. Iowa needs them to anchor the line, especially with the uncertainty on the interior.
Wirfs is extremely athletic for an offensive lineman. He must improve his technique and his ability to identify defenders to block in pass protection. If he does so, Wirfs will become the next standout offensive tackle under coach Kirk Ferentz.
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