Matthew Holst/Getty Images
Former Iowa players Faith Ekakitie (left) and Desmond King carry off the Heroes Trophy after Iowa beat Nebraska 40-10 last season.

Iowa football mailbag: Newcomers’ workloads, defensive issues, Black Friday thoughts

Have Iowa football questions? We’ve got answers. Join us every Thursday for the Land of 10 Iowa mailbag to discuss Hawkeyes football. This week, we’ll discuss workloads for newcomers, Iowa’s defensive issues and if Wisconsin is a good fit for the Hawkeyes’ season finale.

Question 1

ANSWER: I think it’s running back James Butler. He was a graduate transfer who arrived on campus in late July. He’s got all the ability to take over a game as a No. 1 running back, but he plays behind one of the nation’s best in Akrum Wadley. I think a heavy workload against North Texas, say 20-plus carries, would help Butler gain confidence in Iowa’s running scheme and remain more patient for blocks to develop. The footwork is different for running backs at Iowa than it was at Nevada, so some of his early issues  — albeit minor — are easily correctable with more carries.

I think A.J. Epenesa deserves more reps because he’s that good. He’s got a different trajectory than Butler, and I think Iowa can be more patient with Epenesa. Butler has only this season to apply a new technique while Epenesa has three or four seasons to grow from naturally good to NFL first-round talent.

Question 2

ANSWER: I wouldn’t go that far, but I think a combination of new scheme under offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, the return of Ken O’Keefe, Kelton Copeland’s coaching and an influx of new wide receivers have taken that position from the worst we’d seen in the spring to one that looks the part here in late summer.

To be fair, Iowa’s passing attack was solid early last season with C.J. Beathard throwing to Matt VandeBerg and Riley McCarron. Then when VandeBerg suffered a broken foot, it derailed the entire campaign. I will say that Greg Davis’ short-passing scheme never fit right with Kirk Ferentz’s running system. It was a disaster across the board. Iowa now runs downfield routes on almost every down, which gives receivers a chance to separate.

Here’s an unreal statistic: In Iowa’s final four games last season, receivers other than McCarron totaled 4 catches, including none in two games. Against Iowa State, two receivers met or exceeded that total by themselves.

Question 3

ANSWER: It’s still in the playbook but it appears disregarded — at least for now. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker thought before the season that his pass rushers were the best he’s had a chance to coach, at least since he took over the defense in 2012. But when you look at Iowa’s performance against Iowa State, the pass rush seemed like a liability with only 1 sack.

With the inability of the front four to generate much pressure on ISU’s quarterback, I wonder if the raider comes back next week for Penn State. If Iowa can’t get after Trace McSorley, he’ll pick apart the Hawkeyes defense, just like he did last season.

Question 4

ANSWER: I doubt that’s the case in this game. In the opener, there was some mutual trust to be built between Akrum Wadley and the coaching staff. When Iowa needed to run its 4-minute offense, Kirk Ferentz wanted to show Wadley he was their guy. Likewise, Wadley wanted to prove he was the right back for that situation.

If Iowa gets a sizable lead in the third or fourth quarter this week against North Texas, expect Wadley to sit early. Fellow running back James Butler could use the work, as could Toren Young, Ivory Kelly-Martin or Toks Akinribade. I wouldn’t be surprised if Wadley gets fewer than 15 touches if Iowa stays in control. The Hawkeyes face Penn State on Sept. 23 and Michigan State on Sept. 30, and Wadley needs to be fresh for those games.

Question 5

ANSWER: That was a major tactical backfire for defensive coordinator Phil Parker. The Hawkeyes went to six defensive backs on several possessions in the second half. The extra players were cornerback Michael Ojemudia (11) and safety Amani Hooker (27). Hooker has a big body and has potential to start at strong safety next season or even this season. But lining him up one-on-one against 6-foot-5 wide receiver Allen Lazard — the best receiver Iowa will face this season — was a mismatch.

Iowa should have put one of its three cornerbacks on the field to go against Lazard. Maybe it wouldn’t have many a difference, but at least you’re giving your defense a shot.

Question 6

The defense was supposed to be a strength. Sure didn’t look like it in Ames. Should we be concerned?

— Mike Barbacovi

ANSWER: The first two games defensively looked like last season’s opening two in reverse. If you recall, Miami of Ohio kind of rolled over Iowa’s defense in the opener despite a final score of 45-21. Then in the second game, the Hawkeyes crushed Iowa State in every facet, 42-3.

This is a different season, and what I’d say is Iowa’s defense isn’t as good as it showed in Week 1 or as bad as it played in Week 2. Many of the mistakes were correctable. That starts with the way it was gassed in the fourth quarter and its overall miscommunication. I expect conditioning and communication to improve rather quickly. The tackling was terrific in Week 1 and inconsistent the next week. I think that will get consistently better the rest of the season.

The limitations of which to be concerned begin with the defensive line. Can the defensive tackles remain stout at the point of attack against physical teams? Can the linebackers do a better job of tackling in space against quicker athletes? Will the secondary consistently be in a better position to disrupt passes? I still need answers to those questions, and that won’t happen this week against North Texas.

Question 7

What do you think ISU does this year? Will this be the season our win over them means something?

— Kent Christen

ANSWER: I was impressed with the Cyclones. I thought Iowa would overpower Iowa State up front on both sides of the line of scrimmage, which it did at times. But Iowa State’s offensive line held up against the Hawkeyes’ pass rush. Quarterback Jacob Park has a good arm, and the Cyclones are as talented as any team outside the top 15-20 at their skill positions. Allen Lazard and Hakeem Butler will be handfuls for any team, and that includes the good ones. David Montgomery is a terrific running back.

Barring anything unforeseen such as a major injury, I think Iowa State can get to a bowl game. Akron this weekend is winnable. So is Kansas. There are other beatable teams in the Big 12. The Cyclones just have to go do it.

Question 8

What are your thoughts about our new Thanksgiving opponent?

— Tom Noble

ANSWER: What’s not to like? Iowa-Wisconsin is a major Big Ten rivalry. The Badgers lead 45-43-2 and the visiting team has won six straight in the series. It’s about a 3-hour drive for both schools, and if they play on Black Friday it’s a quick jaunt home for the visitor. It’s must-see TV, although some fans might find it too boring because these teams like to block and tackle.

With that said, it’s incredible to me that Nebraska’s coach and athletics director willingly gave up Black Friday. Blows my mind. This was a tradition Nebraska wanted to maintain when it evacuated from the Big 12 to the Big Ten in 2011. It’s one that began in 1990 and went through the Big Eight with Oklahoma, the Big 12 with Colorado and what will be nine years with Iowa through 2019. It really was turning into a terrific rivalry between the Cornhuskers and Hawkeyes, which I expect will continue regardless of the game date. But it will lack the juice of a Black Friday date.

Overall, if Iowa had to play Wisconsin, Nebraska or Minnesota to close out the season, I don’t think anyone would mind. But the competitiveness of Badgers-Hawkeyes, the rivalry component and the collective strength of the teams make it a natural fit as an annual conclusion.