IOWA CITY, Iowa - Much to the dismay of Iowa Head Coach Kirk Ferentz and the Kids Day crowd at Kinnick Stadium Saturday, one of the main topics of conversation was who wasn't on the field instead of who was.
Key players spanning across what seemed like most positions on the team sat out all or at least portions of the open practice. Adam Cox missed the event after suffering an ACL injury this week and then having surgery on Thursday, knocking him out for the season.
Good friend, roommate and fellow fullback Macon Plewa said Cox went down when he planted his leg on the ground. It wasn't an out-of-the-ordinary maneuver.
Cox received a scholarship from Iowa on Monday, a day before the injury. He had walked on from Stillman Valley High (Chana, IL) and would be a fifth-year senior in 2015.
"We've just had way too many camp injuries, which is three days (out of practice), four days, all that kind of stuff," Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. "It's hard to establish continuity. It's hard for us to move forward when you get that many guys out. I'm sure we're like every team in America. It just seems like we have a few more than we need. It'd be better for the team if we could kind of clean that up."
Receiver Riley McCarron went down hard after making a catch Saturday. He did not return to practice.
"That's concerning," Ferentz said. "I'm waiting for a report. I know (the trainers are) concerned about it. He hit the ground pretty hard. Hopefully it's nothing major. We'll see."
Noticeably out of practice on Saturday were potential key contributors in tight ends Ray Hamilton and Jake Duzey, wide receivers Damond Powell (hernia surgery) and Derrick Willies, defensive linemen Darian Cooper and Riley McMinn and cornerback Greg Mabin. Linebacker Chad Gilson was limited Saturday and wideout Jacob Hillyer left the workout early after suffering an apparent leg injury while blocking on a screen pass.
Young players Jay Scheel, Terrance Harris, Jalen Embry and Andre Harris were among others out for the day, at least. Ferentz didn't offer up much for a prognosis for specific injuries outside of a few players.
Mabin, who Ferentz said is having a good camp, is expected back by Monday. Willies played well in Tuesday's scrimmage before suffering a minor leg injury on Friday, the coach added.
TRUE FRESHMEN: Matt Nelson (DE), Miles Taylor (S) and Ben Niemann (LB) saw a lot of second-team action on Saturday. Ferentz stopped short of saying it meant they were in line for playing time this season.
"Part of that is due to injury and some of that has been merited by their performance. We're not ruling anything out right now. We'll have that discussion this week if there's anybody we're going to use on special teams or to improve depth. I don't see anybody (true freshmen) starting right now. Just like everything, we have to keep an open mind, especially with younger guys. Week 3 they might stride more than other guys that have been around so we'll give them a chance," Ferentz said.
FULLBACK: With Cox missing the season, Plewa projects as the starting fullback. Beyond that, it's anyone's guess.
Since the last roster was released at the beginning of camp walk-on red-shirt freshmen linebackers Drake Kulick and Steve Manders were moved to fullback. True freshman Austin Kelly also was listed at that position.
Another possibility is starting tailback Mark Weisman, who walked on at Iowa as a fullback.
"Hopefully not, but if we had to we could use Mark as a fullback," Ferentz said. "But hopefully we can keep him where he is and keep him fresh. The good news is that he's still capable."
Eric Simmons, Ryan Ward, Mitch Keppy, Cole Croston, Boone Myers, Tommy Gaul, Reid Sealby, Ike Boettger and others are in the mix for back-up spots at a position that Iowa's neglected druing recruiting in recent years.
"We've made progress but we're not there," Ferentz said. "The next question is who goes in if something happens (to a starter). We probably have three candidates for the next-guy in type deal. I think that's a group that overall has improved but that's a battle we'll be fighting all year."
"(The Kids Day performance) was not representative of what we've seen. Hopefully it's not representative of what we do in Kinnick (during games) because we don't play any games out on the practice field. I think we're making progress and can see some hope there," the coach said.
"Punting has almost been dead even. It's interesting if you look at the numbers. They have some differences but the numbers are almost identical," Ferentz said.
The coach said he might use multiple specialists situationally but it hadn't been discussed by the staff.
LINEBACKER: Saturday saw a lot of movement at linebacker. Quinton Alston appeared locked in at No. 1 MLB and Reggie Spearman received most of the reps at WILL. But Travis Perry, Josey Jewell and Bo Bower split time at LEO with John Kenny and Cole Fisher also shuffling in and out quite a bit.
"Outside of Quinton, I don't think we're really established with anything. I feel really good about Q. Chad Gilson was doing well and then he got an injury Tuesday so he has been out since then," Ferentz said.
The staff expects to settle on starters at all positions by next weekend.
"We have a lot of decisions to make this coming week. Even in the next 24 hours we have to start zeroing in on what our combinations are going to be so we can work them and make they are what we think they are," Ferentz.
SCHEDULE: Wisconsin opens this season with a game against LSU in Dallas. Michigan played Alabama there two years back. Don't expect the Hawkeyes to line up against SEC power at a neutral site in the regular season anytime soon, however.
"Not to sound like a party pooper but if I was coaching at Alabama I might be more interested in those games," Ferentz said. "But for us, we're just trying to build something in September. I'm not sure it'd be the smartest thing for us to do unless we timed it up right. It's not something I'm really worried about."
Ferentz is referring to most of his teams working out the kinks in the early season and peaking in November. If he knew he had a strong squad out of the gate, like in '02, he might take the challenge but schedules are made years in advance and that would be tough to predict.
QUICK-HITTERS: Ferentz said that tight end Henry Krieger Coble and Nate Meier, a defensive end, are two of the most improved players on the team…The competition between Mabin, Sean Draper and Maurice Fleming at left cornerback is still "up for grabs right now", Ferentz said…Iowa players signed autographs for kids for about a half hour before practice started…The Hawkeyes have one more week of camp. Ferentz said he didn't anticipate the team scrimmaging anymore, at least not the starters.