IOWA CITY, Iowa — Perhaps no team nationally in 2017 was as perplexing as Iowa, and that was doubly so on offense.
The 8-5 Hawkeyes seemed to score at will in a 55-24 pasting of Ohio State that prevented the Buckeyes from reaching the College Football Playoff. The offense was unstoppable in a 44-41 overtime victory at 8-win Iowa State. But then there were games like the one at Wisconsin, when the offense gained just 66 yards, and the one against Purdue, when Iowa failed to execute on just about every possession.
Inconsistency was an issue on offense, which kept the Hawkeyes from challenging for the Big Ten West Division title. To compete with divisional favorite Wisconsin this fall, Iowa’s offense must replace NFL-bound players James Daniels and Akrum Wadley as well as Boone Myers and Ike Boettger, whose final seasons ended early last fall because of injury. Several younger players need to develop and improve for the offense to advance from average to good. Here are five players who can elevate the Hawkeyes concurrently with their own development.
QB Nate Stanley
On offense it always starts with quarterback, and Iowa’s route from average to good begins with junior quarterback Nate Stanley. As a sophomore starter, Stanley (6-foot-5, 235 pounds) was outstanding statistically. He passed for 26 touchdowns, one shy of the school record, and he threw just 6 interceptions. In the fourth quarter and overtime, Stanley completed 46 of 84 passes for 599 yards, 7 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. Stanley came up with clutch moments in big games against Iowa State, Ohio State and in the Pinstripe Bowl against Boston College.
That doesn’t mean Stanley can’t improve, however. Stanley completed just 55.8 percent of his passes. He bears responsibility for many of the overthrows that could have produced points. But with growth and more precision, Stanley has a chance to elevate the passing offense to a level not seen in almost a decade.
TE Noah Fant
Noah Fant (6-5, 232) might be the most dynamic pass-catching tight end coach Kirk Ferentz has had. That’s not hyperbole; that’s reality. As a sophomore, Fant led national tight ends with 11 touchdowns and a 16.5 yard-per-catch average. He finished the season with 30 receptions for 494 yards. Fant was 1 TD shy of tying Marvin McNutt for the single-season record.
Fant has grown as a blocker and has receiving skills to rival most wideouts. He will be given preseason All-America consideration, and defenses will see him as Iowa’s primary threat in the passing game. If Fant overcomes the attention and exceeds his 2017 numbers, he should win the John Mackey Award as the nation’s best tight end.
WR Ihmir Smith-Marsette
Iowa averaged 37 more passing yards per game in 2017 from 2016, but the Hawkeyes still ranked 93rd nationally at 190 yards per game. Receiver Nick Easley has become a solid performer, but sophomore Ihmir Smith-Marsette (6-2, 175) could determine the level of growth in the passing game. Smith-Marsette has game-breaking speed, which he displayed a few times on offense and special teams. But he also was inconsistent with dropped passes and imperfect routes. Smith-Marsette caught 18 passes for 187 yards and 2 touchdowns, ran 7 times for 41 yards and returned 4 kickoffs for 134 yards. He has the potential to be dynamic if he smooths out his game. If he can do that, the offense will elevate along with him.
RB Ivory Kelly-Martin
It appears Iowa will employ a running back tandem of Toren Young (5-11, 220) and Ivory Kelly-Martin (5-11, 195). Young is a bull and should pick up yards at a good clip. But the Hawkeyes will miss Wadley’s quickness, and that’s where Kelly-Martin comes in. As a freshman last season, Kelly-Martin ran 20 times for 184 yards and 3 TDs. He also caught 4 passes for 25 yards and a score and led the team in kickoff returns. This year, Kelly-Martin gets the chance to pick up 40 percent of the carries opposite Young. If Kelly-Martin routinely can provide the lightning to Young’s thunder, Iowa’s running game shouldn’t fall off.
C Keegan Render
Naturally, one could pick any offensive linemen for this category, and sophomores Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs are ascending players. But for Iowa to improve offensively, senior Keegan Render (6-4, 310) stepping in at center and competing at a high level is mandatory. Render doesn’t have former starter Daniels’ athletic ability, but nobody else at that position does, either. Render has 20 career starts, including 1 at center, and is the most experienced player on the offensive line. He needs to provide toughness and leadership to help Iowa run the football with more consistency this year. If Render struggles, the whole offense could sputter and unnecessarily lose a game or two.