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By RICK BROWN
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Nate Stanley completed his final spring practice Friday night.
“It’s something that you look back on and say, ‘Man, this went faster than I thought it would,'” the University of Iowa quarterback said.
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz has a hard time believing that Stanley is heading into his senior season already.
“It does go fast,” Ferentz said. “It’s scary.”
Had the rules been like they are now, Stanley could have played up to four games his freshman season and not lost a year of eligibility. He saw limited duty in seven games in 2016 as a backup to C.J. Beathard, completing 5-of-9 passes.
“Too bad we didn’t have the four-game rule when he was a true freshman, but that’s the way it goes,” Ferentz said. “The big thing is we’ve had two good years with him, and we’re excited about next year.”
Stanley has started all 26 games over the last two seasons, throwing 52 touchdown passes. But two of his favorite targets last season, tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, went in the first round of Thursday’s NFL Draft. And slot receiver Nick Easley, who led the team in receiving yards each of the past two seasons, has graduated.
That means Stanley will have to find someone else to catch his passes on a consistent basis.
“Brandon (Smith), Ihmir (Smith-Marsette), Nico (Ragani), they’ve all done a great job of stepping in and doing what they need to do,” Stanley said. “Tyrone (Tracy, Jr.) as well. Nate Wieting and some of those young guys at tight end, they’re battling to compete every day.”
Ferentz said that Smith, who had 28 catches last season, and Smith-Marsette, who had 23, made strides this spring.
“Brandon had a good spring,” Ferentz said. “Ihmir was in-and-out a little bit, but he did some good things.”
The 2019 season will be a big year for both of them, Ferentz said. Consistency will be expected from juniors.
“That’s a big part of becoming a better football player,” Ferentz said.
Ferentz said that the emergence of Ragani and Tracy comes at a perfect time with Easley’s departure. The coach also said that Wieting, a senior, has shown promise as the next man in at tight end.
“Realistically we’re not going to have a first-round pick come out of our skill positions next fall,” Ferentz said. “Collectively I think we have a chance to be OK, and that’s what it all gets down to as long as everybody takes care of their roles.”
Ferentz is optimistic that the running game can be improved in 2019.
“Some days it looks good, some days not so good,” Ferentz said. “A big part of that is getting the line settled in a little bit. We have a lot of unknowns in the there in the line. A lot of variables that could take place. We will have to let those guys compete.”
Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs are solid at the two tackles. One of the biggest storylines of the fall was the emergence of redshirt freshman Tyler Linderbaum at center.
The 6-foot-3, 285-pounder from Solon joined the program as a defensive lineman. Recently retired defensive line coach Reese Morgan thought that Linderbaum had the potential to play on either side of the ball.
Linderbaum was switched to offense in December during practices for the Outback Bowl and he has earned the starting spot right now through his play this spring.
“It’s going to be tough to beat him out,” Ferentz said.
The coach said running backs Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young made the most of their opportunities during the spring.
“That’s a good place to start,” Ferentz said. “If you’ve got backs who can make good reads, that gives you a chance. Hopefully we’ll be better as we go along in the offensive line, and the blocking from tight end and on the perimeter.”
Iowa has lost six players early to the NFL over the last two seasons — Josh Jackson and James Daniels after the 2017 season and Hockenson, Fant, defensive back Amani Hooker and defensive end Anthony Nelson after 2018.
Defensive end A.J. Epenesa, who will be a junior, has had a pro buzz about his game since he enrolled at Iowa. If Epenesa is thinking of the NFL, he gave no clues to that Friday.
“I have a standard for myself to be the best I can be, and play the best I can play,” Epenesa said. “If I don’t play to my potential, I’m letting the team down. I’m not looking for the accolades. I’m just trying to be the best Hawkeye I can be.”