Players and coaches come and go every year in the Big Ten, but oftentimes trends continue on offense even with the new faces. This week at Land Of 10, we are going to take a look at every offense in the league and compare it to a year ago, making a determination if they should be better or worse in 2016. We will do a team a day in each division, kicking off the Big Ten West with the Iowa Hawkeyes …
IOWA CITY, Iowa — C.J. Beathard feels great. Or says he does.
And that’s more or less where projections for the Iowa Hawkeyes’ 2016 start and end, at least on the offensive side of the equation.
Beathard scared the living snot out of Iowa fans when it was revealed that he’d dinged his right (throwing) shoulder on a hit during the last week of April drills, a knock that forced him out of the spring game.
Why the long faces? Consider Beathard’s passing line in 2015 when …
- In the fourth quarter: 44-for-63, 69.8 completion percentage, six touchdowns, zero picks;
- Faced with 3rd down and 10 or more to go: 17-for-27, 63 percent, one touchdown, zero picks;
- Iowa was trailing: 44-for-76, 57.9 percent, seven touchdowns, one pick.
And that was with a creaky hip for most of the year. When the dude on the trigger is that clutch in crunch situations, you’ve got a pretty good frame on which to build a 12-2 house.
In a lot of ways, the 6-foot-2 Nashville native — son of country music royalty and grandson of NFL royalty (former scout/exec Bobby Beathard) — is the perfect Kirk Ferentz quarterback: Strong (enough) arm, smart, a chains-mover, light (enough) on his feet to create time or yardage (2.4 per carry, six touchdowns), and — at least lately — a good decision-maker (just five interceptions in 362 attempts).
Whether it was Ken O’Keefe pushing buttons then and Greg Davis now, the best Iowa offenses under Ferentz featured a signal-caller who can keep the ball in the offense’s hands and complement a pounding run game, and supplant that mantra only when down/distance/deficit dictate.
With a deep tailback core and nearly 1,200 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns back in the combo of LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley; an offensive line that returns three starters; and an attack that brings back 70.7 percent of its total yards off last year’s tally, the Hawkeyes figure to go as far as Beathard — even a half-healthy Beathard — can take them.
Here’s what you need to know about the rest of the Hawkeyes’ offense:
Iowa by the numbers
Total yards per game: 386.1 (5th in Big Ten/No. 69 nationally)
Rushing yards per game: 181.7 (5th in Big Ten/No. 47 nationally)
Passing yards per game: 204.4 (11th in Big Ten/No. 84 nationally)
Key players lost: RB Jordan Canzeri, C Austin Blythe, G Jordan Walsh
Key returning players: RB LeShun Daniels, RB Akrum Wadley, G Boone Myers
The skinny: After leaning toward one featured back for nearly a decade, Ferentz hasn’t produced a 1,000-yard rusher since Marcus Coker in 2011. Although that’s as much by accident/karma/crappy luck as by design. Since 2009, Iowa’s running back groups have featured enough injuries or defections to become a running dark joke — and even a stinking meme — among the Hawkeye social-media crowd.
Iowa has become a more of a volume buyer as of late in the backfield, and to solid returns. When Jordan Canzeri was knocked out of the contest at Northwestern this past October with a left leg injury and with Daniels on the mend, Wadley came off the bench to carry it 26 times for 204 yards and four touchdowns. Against the Wildcats, Maryland and Indiana, the 5-foot-11 back put the offense on his back with a combined 391 rushing yards and six rushing scores.
So compared to a 13-month span from 2010-2011 in which at least five running backs either left the program or were tossed off the wagon, things are probably fine. And if they’re not, well, it’s just one more victim on the pyre. Or three.
Key players lost: WR Tevaun Smith, TE Henry Krieger Coble
Key returning players: QB C.J. Beathard, TE George Kittle, T Cole Croston
The skinny: Beathard feels groovy, and see above for why that matters. The next trick for Ferentz and offensive coordinator Davis is figuring out a perimeter target to complement wideout Matt VandeBerg, who recorded team highs in catches (65) and receiving yards (703) last fall.
A body who can stretch the field is probably the first and most important criterion for the candidates lining up to replace the departed Smith, who averaged 17.6 yards per grab in 2015. The head of the list at the start of camp could well be 6-1 Jerminic Smith, a big target with wheels to burn (23.0 yards per catch last autumn). Senior George Kittle is the latest in a line of big (6-4), sure-handed, do-anything tight ends who can crush it on seams and crossing routes (14.5 yards per catch in ’15), make hay in the red zone (six receiving touchdowns) or seal off the edge in the run scheme. Backups Peter Pekar (6-4, 250) and Jon Wisnieski (6-5, 250), meanwhile, are cut from the same giant mold.
One stat that must improve
8.02 percent — That’s the ratio of times Beathard was sacked last season per dropback, which ranked 103rd out of 128 programs last fall.
So, yeah, that’s too much. Ferentz can fake it at tailback if he has to this fall. But not under center.
1. Beathard (see above)
2. Beathard (see No. 1)
3. Beathard (see No. 2)
4. Can the ball security continue? Ferentz prefers living close to the vest than he does living dangerously, and Iowa committed only 1.2 giveaways per contest last fall, good for 15th nationally, and had only 1.45 percent of all pass attempts picked off, good for fifth. Turnover ratio can be a cyclical, fickle beast. Nobody plays keep-away like a good Ferentz offense with a lead in the fourth quarter, and if the Hawkeyes are to indeed fulfill their goal of “unfinished business” — as in, returning to Indianapolis and the league title game — they’ll have to continue to be one of the best in the country at not beating themselves.
5. Beathard (see No. 3)
Better or worse in 2016?
BETTER. By at least three feet. And if we learned anything from the end of the 2015 Big Ten Championship game, three feet just might mean the difference between a season that’s great (again), and one that’s downright epic.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler