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Iowa football head coach Kirk Ferentz talks about his offensive line during media day.
Brian Powers, bpowers@dmreg.com

IOWA CITY, Ia. — I’ll be posting a new regular item this year, hopefully within a minute or two after Iowa’s football games end, called “First Thoughts.” I’ll later update the file after postgame interviews to form my “Final Thoughts.”

That’s the plan, anyway. We’ll see how it goes.

EMMERT: Three rookies stand out on Iowa’s defense during Kids Day scrimmage

Since everyone’s still in preseason mode, let’s get some practice here, too.

After watching plenty of 11-on-11 action at Kinnick Stadium, here are my first round of thoughts on the Hawkeyes’ Kids Day open practice Saturday:

1. One of the biggest stories to follow during fall camp is who starts at tackle in Week 1 vs. Northern Illinois with the one-game suspensions of Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs.

Friday’s media day and Saturday’s scrimmage would certainly indicate that redshirt freshman Mark Kallenberger is the guy at left tackle. But almost as a warning-signal not to get too excited about this highly touted prospect’s debut, the 6-foot-6, 282-pound Kallenberger was flagged for a false start early in his 11-on-11 action. He later wasn’t ready to join his teammates on the field-goal protection unit.

On the other side of the line, it was good to Levi Paulsen healthy and practicing. I think the Pinstripe Bowl starter at right tackle (the first time Jackson was suspended) is more than capable to be a one-game stopgap on the right side, in Wirfs’ place. Dalton Ferguson was a little shaky in pass protection with the No. 2 unit.

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Highlights from Hawkeyes’ Kids Day practice
Dargan Southard, msouthard@gannett.com

2. But perhaps a more pressing matter, in Week 1, is how effectively Iowa can run the football.

Saturday showed me that there’s a lot to like in the Hawkeyes’ run-blocking against perhaps one of the more stout defensive lines in recent program memory. The first unit — on this day operating with 320-pound giants Jackson and Wirfs at tackle — generated a nice push, especially on straight-ahead runs to Ivory Kelly-Martin.

We’ll see how it works with the two tackles out against the favorites of the Mid-American Conference. But I took notice of offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz saying Friday he feels pretty good about the middle of Iowa’s offensive line that starts Ross Reynolds, Keegan Render and Cole Banwart. Maybe this will be a sneaky strength by late September.

3. Running backs Kelly-Martin and Mekhi Sargent were my offensive stars of the day, even ahead of the very crisp performance of quarterback Nate Stanley.

I really liked Kelly-Martin’s explosion and toughness between the tackles. And Brian Ferentz said Friday that Kelly-Martin is the team’s fastest running back in space.

Sargent looks like the real deal, too. It wasn’t too long ago that some Hawkeye fans were worked up that Jirehl Brock, a four-star recruit from just across the river in Quincy, Illinois, had his Iowa visit cancelled in June. Well, that was because Iowa had already secured the services of Sargent, from Iowa Western Community College, and a top Georgia prep in Tyler Goodson.

Brock wound up committing to Iowa State. He may be great in Ames someday, but right now the decision to go with Sargent instead seems like a smart choice.

RELATED: Mekhi Sargent almost chose Louisville. The Hawkeyes are glad he didn’t.

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4. Speaking of running backs … one is mysteriously absent.

Coach Kirk Ferentz delivered a surprising bit of news when he said redshirt freshman running back Kyshaun Bryan was not among those included on the Hawkeyes 110-man fall-camp roster. That doesn’t mean Bryan (5-10, 198) is off the team; but it is notable to leave a scholarship guy at an already-thin position out of such a key part of the developmental calendar.

The top three of Toren Young, Kelly-Martin and Sargent are backed up by true freshmen Samson Evans (who showed a nice burst Saturday) and Henry Geil. That’s all Iowa’s got, for now. 

LEISTIKOW: Play-makers emerging, lots to like in Iowa’s 2018 offense

5. The passing game was sharp, and Stanley’s mobility is underrated. 

The 6-4, 242-pound junior had a lot of time to throw. Even when he didn’t, he was elusive in the pocket. On one scramble, he connected with tight end Noah Fant (who was posting up against safety Amani Hooker) for an always-welcome third-down conversion. 

Stanley seemed to be locking into one or two targets a year ago, but he had plenty of options Saturday — especially out of the backfield. His first pass of the day went for 13 yards to fullback Brady Ross.

The backup QB race is too close to call between freshmen Peyton Mansell and Spencer Petras. Neither separated himself Saturday. Kirk Ferentz noted, “That’s an area we’re keenly interested in” solving.

MORE: Stanley has gone from pupil to teacher of young backups

6. Amani Jones is no doubt the leader of the brand-new linebacker unit. And Iowa seems to be giving him as many reps as possible to get him comfortable at middle linebacker.

Even as the Hawkeyes rotated in various linebackers, Jones stayed with the 1s to call the signals. Seth Benson, a true freshman from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was one of the young surprises. He got reps with the No. 1 unit at outside linebacker … and looked like he belonged.

7. Who looks good among the true freshmen?

I’ve got to put cornerback Julius Brents atop the list of guys that impressed me. He’s already impressed coaches. He had an eye-opening pass breakup in 7-on-7 drills. At 6-2, 180, the Indianapolis product not only has good length but closes quickly.

In 11-on-11, he crashed into the backfield on a run blitz and stuffed Sargent for a loss.

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8. Iowa has a No. 1 punt returner. And he’s a fifth-year senior walk-on.

One of the day’s newsy bits was divulged by Kirk Ferentz, who said Kyle Groeneweg is the “front-runner” to return punts.

A transfer from Division II Sioux Falls, Groeneweg (at 5-10, 186) has a knack for that special duty. This was a painful area for the Hawkeyes a year ago, as Josh Jackson and Matt VandeBerg collectively struggled to provide positives in the punt-return game.

In Groeneweg, Ferentz likes the “ease and fluidity he has catching the football. Some guys just do that better than others. Some guys do it, and some don’t.”

9. But Iowa doesn’t have a No. 1 punter. Special-teams coach LeVar Woods said Friday he’s still got two.

Obviously, there was no resolution one day later, but I was especially impressed with the hang time sophomore Ryan Gersonde was getting on his boots. Meanwhile, junior Colten Rastetter seemed to have better directional ability. Ferentz said it was a good day for the punters, but that they’re still way too inconsistent.

This is an important thing to get hammered out after an abysmal collection of punts in 2017.

“We’re going to let that one go for a while,” Ferentz said, “and let them compete more this week than we would in a normal year.”

10. The Hawkeyes are spending a lot of time on special teams, and that was reflected Saturday.

Miguel Recinos, no surprise, looks like he’s going to be the No. 1 kicker. The football explodes off the fifth-year senior’s foot, and he’s got plenty of distance from 50 yards. Two other notable observations from the field-goal units:

First, Matt Hankins has a heck of a speed rush. He blocked one of Recinos’ long attempts.

Second, the field-goal protect team was deploying speedy tight end Noah Fant to protect the left side of the line, speedy tight end Shaun Beyer on the right. I smell some field-goal fake opportunities in the future. Polecat Part II, perhaps?

LAST YEAR: Kluver enters Iowa lore with ‘polecat’ play that surprised everyone

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.