It didn’t take long for Aaron Graves to experience his “welcome to college football” moment.
The highly touted defensive lineman from Southeast Valley arrived on campus in June. He quickly discovered that the pace of a Power 5 program is a big step up from high school.
“The intensity and speed at which we do everything is very different from anything I’ve ever been involved in,” Graves said. “Everything is just great accelerated pace. If they tell you something once, they expect it to be blocked forever, and if you screw it up, they will definitely get back at you. But it’s for the best.”
Freshman running backs Caleb Johnson and Jazion Patterson recall another moment: early fall camp clashes with veterans Kevon Meriweather and Lucas Van Ness that served as a wake-up call. They are a natural part of any incoming freshman’s journey, but the ability to learn and adapt quickly can separate players early on.
“You definitely have to learn fast,” Patterson said. “However, they give you a chance. But you have to learn quickly, especially if you want to play.”
Summer workouts leading into fall camp are the first opportunity for most freshmen to make an impression. Coach Kirk Ferentz has one goal each year: to see where each freshman is entering the program and find a plan for everyone.
“Just let them go to work, see what they can do and see how they rise or not rise through the level of competition,” Ferentz said. “If they can step up and look like they can contribute, we’re all for it. The other guys are a little more transitional. What I tell guys when recruiting is more about your whole career, and it’s not just about this first year.”
As fall camp draws to a close, it appears that several freshmen may find themselves in roles this fall. Some — like quarterbacks TJ Hall, Xavier Nwankpa and Drew Stevens — got a head start by registering early. Meanwhile, summer arrivals — like Graves, Johnson and Patterson — have proven quick learners.
Here’s an update on several Iowa State football freshmen and where they stand:
What were the hardest adjustments?
The answers to this question are different. Graves noted the tempo, Nwankpa the speed of the game. Of course, there is also the obvious physical adaptation. But nearly every Iowa freshman said learning a new textbook was the biggest challenge.
His size alone caught Graves’ attention when he first moved in.
“(Defensive linemen) have a lot of calls, I’ll say that,” Graves said. “My piece is probably about four inches tall, and it’s not even the biggest. Some guys have a six-inch (play), like a whole Bible. They are quite big.’
Iowa had five first-rounders this year: Hall, Nwankpa, Stevens and defensive backs Brian Allen and Kaden Crawford. Those extra months on campus allowed them to learn the basics in the spring and work on it over the summer.
Playbook subtleties vary by position. Running backs are hard to learn in pass protection. For receivers like Jacob Bostick, it’s learning the route tree in multiple spots. In middle school, Hall and Nwankpe had to adjust to a more complicated way of taking calls than in high school.
“It’s not just a sideways glance, one call,” Hall said. “You have to look at the formation, get the challenge to see what you have to do in the game.”
Hall also pointed to body control as an adjustment. He entered January at around 166 pounds, and a few months later he was up to 187 pounds. Bostick has put on nearly 10 pounds since arriving in June.
Freshmen to watch for Iowa’s defense
There are several players on offense who can crack the game rotation. Injuries to both running back and wide receiver opened the door for Bostic, Johnson and Patterson.
Running back was especially important at the Kids Day Scrimmage last Saturday. Both Johnson and Patterson impressed, combining (unofficially) for 21 carries and getting snaps with the first team. First-team reps for both players continued this week. Johnson scored a touchdown against the first-team defense during Tuesday’s practice.
More about running backs:What is the status in Iowa? Saturday’s clash brought some clarity
Sophomore and presumptive starter Gavin Williams is back at practice, so the Hawkeyes have a full complement of running backs. Williams and fellow sophomore LeShon Williams are the favorites, but both freshmen could find themselves in line if they continue their momentum.
Because of the small numbers, Bostick is playing all three receiving positions at Iowa during camp. wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland told Bostick has shown promise over the last few workouts, and he worked intensively with the team’s second and third units in Saturday’s scrimmage. When healthy, the Hawkeyes feel good about their top three options. But if injuries persist, the speedy Bostick could be counted on to play sooner.
Another pass catcher to keep an eye on is tight end Addison Ostrengo. A native of Wisconsin excelled in Saturday’s scrimmage, which was highlighted by a touchdown reception at the end of practice. He received the most reps behind Sam LaPorta and Luke Lachey, indicating that Ostrenga is a serious contender for the third tight end position. Ferenc later confirmed that he was in a positional battle.
“He’s right now,” Ferentz said. “We’ll see what he looks like in two weeks, but getting injured creates opportunities or a lack of depth or both. But (Addison) handled things pretty well. He doesn’t seem overwhelmed, so he’s in the mix.”
Freshmen to watch for Iowa’s defense
Defensively, Iowa returns an impressive collection of talent, but there are opportunities up front and on the other side.
On the D-line, Graves lives up to his four-star recruiting hype. Ferentz said Graves “played hard” several times last weekend and was another standout performer in the scrimmage.
“He has the advantage of being a coach’s kid,” defensive line coach Kelvin Bell said. “His football knowledge is very good, but probably the most impressive thing is his instinct. He does some things that I haven’t coached, but he does it naturally, which is good. Football is natural for him.”
With nearly 10 starters last season, it wasn’t out of the question that Graves could redshirt this season. With fall camp coming to a close, a redshirt is out of the question, and it looks like Graves will spend his first year as a member of the rotation/depth.
“I think we’d be crazy to say we’re redshirting him. It would be stupid on our part,” said Ferenc. “He’s got a lot to learn, but boy, his pace … he belongs on the field with the older guys. He goes hard and makes them work. This allows us to have best practices.”
Hall and Nwankpa’s early enrollments had the two-fold benefit of getting a head start on learning the system and arriving at a time when the high school was plagued with injuries, allowing for more reps during spring practice. Both feel that they are much more comfortable in the fall camp.
Hall got some first-team reps during Iowa’s final spring practice and is firmly in the second group of cornerbacks. During the scrimmage, Hall played hard on Iowa’s No. 2 defense while also getting first-team scoring reps. Iowa’s top cornerbacks are Jermary Harris, Riley Moss and Terry Roberts, with Cooper DeJean likely to play corner. After them, Hall and sophomore Branden Deofernandez appear to be next in line.
Nwankpa’s development plan has remained the same since his arrival: learn safety first, then learn other positions such as Cash. Now, one of his biggest adjustments is what is a hallmark of Iowa’s great free safety: communication on the field.
“You have to be on the same page with the other safeties, corners and linebackers,” Nwankpa said. “We all have to play the same defense at the same time, so having the whole defense together, not little spurts during practices and games, is really important.
“I did it a little bit in high school. But definitely when I go to college, there’s a lot more calling, a lot more socializing. I’ve had to grow up a little bit in that aspect, but I think I’m making progress.”
Nwankpa had two signature plays that led to turnovers in the scrimmage: a dropped pass that led to Carson Sharar’s pick-six and an interception of his own. He currently works behind veterans Quinn Schulte and Reggie Bracey, but Ferentz expects Nwankpa to continue to push.
“He’s had all summer to digest things,” Ferentz said. “Now he has (fall camp) practices behind him. So I guess we’ll see him start to gain ground every day.”
Like some of his fellow freshmen, Nwankpa will be heavily involved on special teams this season.
“Hopefully he’ll help us on special teams,” defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. “We’re going to push him a little bit every day. A little more repetition here and there. He has a lot of potential and I like his work ethic and I like his attitude.”
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men’s basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can contact Kennington at Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at email@example.com.
Who are the freshmen to watch for the 2022 Iowa football season?
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