IOWA CITY, Iowa — The 2017 season for Iowa ended barely one week ago, but it’s never too early to look ahead to 2018.
With that in mind, this seems like a good time to take a quick look at the Iowa depth chart and identify the five biggest position battles for the Hawkeyes with winter workouts approaching.
What’s unique here is the battle isn’t isolated to one specific linebacker position, such as middle linebacker. There are battles across the board. Iowa must replace all three starting linebackers, and the competition is as wide open as a position battle can get.
Any linebacker on the roster has a shot at landing one of the starting spots. It’s good news for an incoming freshman such as Dillon Doyle or Seth Benson and Iowa Western Community College walk-ons Nick Anderson and Colton Dinsdale.
It’s hard to handicap this race. The chance of Iowa playing more nickel and sub-packages going forward — something defensive coordinator Phil Parker hinted as a possibility in December — complicates things by removing one potential linebacker position from the equation.
Nick Niemann is the likely favorite at weakside linebacker. Amani Jones and Aaron Mends are likely in contention on the strongside.
The most pressing need here is finding a middle linebacker to replace All-American Josey Jewell. Middle linebacker is in a lot of ways the heart and soul of the defense, especially in the run game. Kristian Welch is the early leader.
The Hawkeyes not only lose Akrum Wadley, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher, but also primary backup James Butler.
There are several intriguing options, and it will be interesting to see which way Iowa goes. Freshmen Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin both saw limited playing time this season. Young is more of a north-south, bruising back. Kelly-Martin has some of the same wiggle and playmaking ability that Wadley possesses.
Running back signee Henry Geil and Kyshaun Bryan, coming off a redshirt, also could factor into the competition. Don’t be surprised if multiple backs play a role as Iowa isn’t afraid to utilize a running back by committee method. The Hawkeyes did so effectively in 2015 with LeShun Daniels and Wadley each topping the 1,000-yard mark.
Wide receiver is a lot like linebacker. Seemingly every starting spot is up for grabs. Unlike linebacker, however, it’s not all because of departures. Matt VandeBerg’s eligibility is up, however.
The Hawkeyes are in desperate need of playmakers on the outside and anyone showing the ability to do so will receive a chance at playing time. That’s good news for players buried down the depth chart and incoming freshmen.
Still, the expectation is the names who filled out the top of the depth chart this year will do so again in 2018. Nick Easley led Iowa with 51 receptions as a junior and freshmen Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Brandon Smith and Max Cooper could work their way into a full-time starting role.
The best bet for progress at wide receiver is for it to come through the development of someone already on the roster.
One of Iowa’s biggest priorities this offseason must be to improve its punting game. The Hawkeyes were second to last in the Big Ten, averaging 36.9 yards per punt. That number must improve.
Unless Iowa pulls a Ron Coluzzi and brings in another graduate transfer, improved punting will be a lot like the wide receiver improvement. It will come from the individual development of Colten Rastetter or Ryan Gersonde.
Losing key contributors is why several positions are on this list. That’s not the case at defensive line. It’s arguably the deepest position on the roster, and both starters are returning. It’s that depth that makes the position so intriguing. Two-year starter Anthony Nelson is back and showed why he is an All-Big Ten type of performer in the Pinstripe Bowl. Parker Hesse started 20 games the last two seasons and is coming off his best campaign.
But the duo will need to hold off former 5-star prospect A.J. Epenesa, who flashed plenty of promise while displaying a unique combination of size, strength and athleticism in a limited role as a freshman. Also, the coaching staff is very high on junior Sam Brincks.
All will play, but it will be interesting to see which two the coaches decide are the top two.