Dienhart: 5 things I learned at Iowa football practice

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Dienhart: 5 things I learned at Iowa football practice

IOWA CITY, Iowa — What will Iowa do for an encore to its stunningly successful 2015 season that saw the Hawkeyes start a school-record 12-0 before finishing 12-2 with losses in the Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl?

Well, Iowa could very well repeat as Big Ten West champs. And maybe this season, the Hawkeyes can finish the deal and win the conference title. No doubt, Iowa is soaring as 2016 dawns. Long story short: This Iowa team may be better than last year’s squad.

Here is what I learned at Iowa practice.

1. C.J. Beathard could be the best QB in the Big Ten. He looked good Wednesday morning. Beathard battled through injury most of last season, but he’s healthy (he was dinged a few days ago but is OK) and is moving and throwing well. And it goes without saying that the confidence he gained last season in leading the Hawkeyes to a 12-0 start is tangible. This is his team. And his teammates respond in kind. Now, will the receiving corps step up?

2. The defensive line has something to prove. Drew Ott and Nate Meier are gone, leaving some big holes at the end slots. They combined for 12 of the Hawkeyes’ 30 sacks last year. Into the void at end steps sophomores Parker Hesse and Matt Nelson. Hesse got some playing time last year and showed a burst off the edge. He was active today. Nelson was out today with injury. But he’s a 6-8, 280-pound monster who could be special. And keep an eye on redshirt freshman Anthony Nelson (not related to Matt), who is another rangy force at 6-7. They need to be able to get a push up the field and generate a rush without the defense needing to rely on blitzing to get pressure. While the ends are a work in progress, the tackles are solid with Jaleel Johnson, Faith Ekakitie and Nathan Bazata. Johnson will be one of the Big Ten’s best.

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3. This will be another vintage Hawkeye offensive line. What else is new, right? Line coach Brian Ferentz always does a good job with this group, which could be among the Big Ten’s best. The line projects to start Cole Croston at tackle and Boone Myers at guard on the left side. Sean Welsh is slotted at right guard, with Ike Boetter at right tackle. Ferentz is high on James Daniels, who he says will play center. Daniels could be a very special player. Keegan Render is the top sub who Ferentz wants to get involved early. Depth? It’s a concern.

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4. Iowa has a strong linebacking corps. Josey Jewell is a rising star who is on his way to being an all-time great in Iowa City. He is a beast in the middle who shows speed and strength. And you can see his leadership. Jewell is flanked by Ben Niemann and Aaron Mends. Each is strong and quick, able to protect the edge. Bo Bowers is the top option off the bench. Keep an eye on sophomore Jack Hockaday and redshirt freshman Angelo Garbutt.

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5. There is potential at wideout. WR coach Bobby Kennedy has vets in Matt VandeBerg and Riley McCarron. Who else will contribute? Kennedy really likes sophomore Jay Scheel, a big, athletic target who has had a good camp. And Kennedy says true freshman Devonte Young will contribute, but he missed today’s practice. And don’t forget about TE George Kittle, the next standout Hawkeye tight end.

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Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

About Tom Dienhart: BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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