IOWA CITY, Iowa — Thick, metal coins with a gold-colored tint and Bobby Dodd’s likeness found their way to Kinnick Stadium this April to commemorate Kirk Ferentz’s national coaching award in 2015.
Picked by most to languish in the middle of the Big Ten West last year, Ferentz’s Hawkeyes instead opened last season 12-0 for the first time in school history. Whether they were underrated or a product of fortunate Big Ten scheduling, the Hawkeyes kept winning. Only Michigan State’s epic fourth-quarter scoring drive prevented Iowa from winning the Big Ten and reaching the College Football Playoff.
Ferentz brings back a team most consider the division favorite. Iowa returns a quarterback in C.J. Beathard whose playmaking ability on the field is challenged only by his team-building prowess off it. Jim Thorpe Award winner Desmond King is back, as is unquestioned defensive leader Josey Jewell. Iowa has veteran players at nearly every other pivotal position, save for special teams.
Armed with the potential for another special season, Ferentz arrives at college football’s metaphorical poker table with those Bobby Dodd coaching coins clanging in his pocket. While they symbolize Ferentz’s 2015 success, they matter little in 2016. In a possible legacy-defining season, Ferentz will toss those chips toward the table center and go all in.
This year, those chips are true freshmen. Iowa typically inserts a couple of rookies at a skill position, such as wide receiver, or a linebacker to fill gaps on special teams. Ferentz has played 10 true freshmen combined the last three seasons and only one — center James Daniels — competes along the line of scrimmage. But with the Hawkeyes’ first game just five days away, it’s possible a dozen true freshmen might debut for Iowa this year.
“The best I can see is maybe six to 10 guys maybe getting their feet in the water this year,” Ferentz said. “That is where we stand right now.”
Ferentz lists eight true freshmen on his depth chart. A few, like cornerback Manny Rugamba, wide receiver Devonte Young and defensive tackle Cedrick Lattimore, are likely to become heavy contributors or starters in 2017, so their on-field development is necessary. Others like linebackers Kristian Welch and Amani Jones and safety Amani Hooker play at deeper positions but impressed coaches in training camp and can play special teams right away. Kicker Keith Duncan won a three-way battle in camp.
Perhaps the most surprising true freshman on the depth chart is quarterback Nathan Stanley. Iowa returned all of its quarterbacks from 2015, and Beathard is the unquestioned starter. But Stanley’s camp performance, uncommon maturity and big arm has won over Iowa coaches.
“Backup quarterback is being contested, I think, pretty strong right now,” Ferentz said. “I don’t think we are ready to make a decision. In a perfect world, we would love to redshirt (Stanley), but we will let it play out.”
Offensive coordinator Greg Davis has left his options open with regard to Stanley and sophomore Tyler Wiegers. Both players are working with the second and third units.
“I think you would like to redshirt every quarterback,” Davis said. “But at that same time, if he becomes the No. 2 guy, then we will play him. We will make a decision on what is the best thing for him as well as what is the best thing for the team, obviously.”
Some of Davis and Ferentz’s thoughts center on Beathard and his health. If Beathard, who had offseason surgery for a sports hernia, had to leave the game, the circumstance provides the context for any movement.
“Part of the decision is, does C.J.’s helmet come off?” Davis said. “Is Nate ready to — are we ready to — burn a year? All that will kind of play out as the season goes on. But needless to say Nate has done a really nice job in camp.”
Iowa also could pull redshirts on tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, as well as running backs Toks Akinribade or Toren Young. Ferentz’s estimate of 10 true freshmen seeing action could be a conservative estimate. For a coach who unfairly has earned a reputation as bland as a plowed-over cornfield, that’s as risky of a move as it gets.