IOWA CITY, Iowa — As with any major college football program, questions remain for the Iowa football program entering this offseason.
Iowa’s strengths are obvious and its deficiencies are just as clear. The Hawkeyes offensive line won the Joe Moore Award as the nation’s best unit last year and it returns all but eight starts. Running back Akrum Wadley, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last year and has designs on 1,400, flirted briefly with the NFL before coming back. All three linebackers are seniors and bring at least two seasons of starting experience. The defensive ends are as gifted collectively as any group at the position since 2010.
But there are some troubling spots. The Hawkeyes’ top two returning receivers are out because of either injury (Matt VandeBerg) or academics (Jerminic Smith). The remaining holdovers have a combined 2 career catches at Iowa, and those are from walk-on Ronald Nash. Neither quarterback won the job this spring. Injuries prevented Iowa of getting a good read at defensive tackle. The secondary showed some growth, but it’s largely inexperienced.
Health aside, here is where Iowa stands at each position after the spring, and what needs to happen before training camp begins in three months.
There needs to be some separation between junior Tyler Wiegers and sophomore Nathan Stanley. Both looked rough in their primetime appearance Friday at Iowa’s spring game. Wiegers (12 of 23, 99 yards) tossed a pair of interceptions — including a pick-6 — and Stanley (6 of 17, 13 yards) also threw one. All three interceptions went to free safety Jake Gervase.
It’s clear Iowa wants to go downfield with its passing game, and both quarterbacks need to work on their accuracy. There were too many overthrows and even their touch passes on screens missed their mark or were too hard. With a better grasp of Brian Ferentz’s offense, both quarterbacks need to master the intricacies and get timing down with pass catchers in late-spring and summer workouts. That might be a difficult proposition with the wide receiver situation.
Iowa’s wide receiver group is at rock bottom until VandeBerg can start catching passes again. In 2015, VandeBerg hauled in 65 passes for 703 yards. Last year he caught 19 passes for 284 yards through four games before suffering a season-ending broken foot. He was awarded a medical redshirt, and now is a fifth-year senior. He participated in offseason drills, but just as spring practice opened he re-injured his foot. If he’s healthy, Iowa can take a step or two forward.
Junior Jerminic Smith caught 23 passes for 314 yards and two scores last year. He’s missed this spring because of academics and his future is unclear. Sophomore Devonte Young and junior Adrian Falconer were the first-team receivers this spring, alongside junior-college walk-on Nick Easley.
In a perfect world for Iowa, VandeBerg returns healthy, Smith comes back matured and determined, two of the spring holdovers (including Easley) emerge as viable options along with one of the incoming freshmen. Otherwise, this position could drag down the whole offense and the team.
There’s plenty of competition at tight end with eight scholarship players. Based on what we saw Friday, true sophomore Noah Fant and redshirt freshman T.J. Hockenson worked primarily with the first unit. Senior Peter Pekar, who started eight games last year, did not compete. It’s possible redshirt freshman Shaun Beyer and sophomore Drew Cook — who just shifted from quarterback — could see time as well.
This unit might be a year away from truly threatening defenses, but it has a chance to be special like the Hawkeyes were in 2013. That tight end room included NFL draft picks C.J. Fiedorowicz and George Kittle (who will get drafted this week), plus free-agent signings Henry Krieger Coble (Denver) and Ray Hamilton (Dallas). Jake Duzey should also get signed by an NFL club within the next week. In 2018, this current collection could rival that one.
Last year there were questions in the spring and that extended throughout much of the fall. Now the line is a veteran unit that competed at a high level in November. The most inexperienced member is junior guard Keegan Render, who started seven games last year.
The charge for this year is to prepare two or three linemen to make seamless transitions when injuries arise. Junior Lucas LeGrand opened two games at center last year but he’s working more at right tackle. Sophomore Levi Paulsen started a game at guard a year ago. Making sure those two and freshman left tackle Alaric Jackson are ready in case of emergency is vital because all three have a chance to start in 2018 when the Hawkeyes lose three starters up front.
Even with the loss of 1,000-yard back LeShun Daniels, this position is well-stocked. Wadley, a senior, could be the Big Ten’s best running back. Redshirt freshman Toren Young has a power game similar to Marcus Coker, who rushed for nearly 1,400 yards in 2011. Sophomore Toks Akinribade combines traits of Wadley’s elusiveness with more power.
But we’ve also seen this unit take a beating over the years, and with the passing game issues that’s definitely going to happen this fall. So it wouldn’t hurt if one of Iowa’s incoming freshmen backs (Kyshaun Bryan or Kelly Ivory-Martin) were ready to go if the injury bug bites.
Iowa has a wealth of depth at defensive end. It’s an overflowing oil well right now. Junior Parker Hesse has started for two years. Sophomore Anthony Nelson and junior Matt Nelson joined Hesse in a full rotation last year. Redshirt freshman Brandon Simon looks too good to sit this fall. This summer, 5-star true freshman defensive end A.J. Epenesa enters the fray and he’ll play.
Then you look at defensive tackle and it’s scorched earth. An NFL club will draft Iowa’s best tackle from last year — Jaleel Johnson — in the first few rounds. Faith Ekakitie, who was the third tackle last year, is projected as a first-round pick in Canada. The other starter, senior Nathan Bazata, is wearing a walking boot after an ankle injury last October. Projected rotational tackle sophomore Brady Reiff injured his ankle last week and missed the spring game. That leaves only true sophomore Cedrick Lattimore, who played sparingly last year.
It’s likely Matt Nelson (who missed the spring game because of an ankle injury) will play several snaps at defensive tackle, which would be a positive for Iowa if he can stay low enough with his 6-foot-8 frame. Getting healthy and developing depth at defensive tackle will amplify Iowa’s positives at defensive end and linebacker.
Iowa returns three senior starters with a combined 84 starts. Middle linebacker Josey Jewell was a Butkus Award finalist last year, while Bo Bower and Ben Niemann enter their third year as starters. If it’s not the Big Ten’s best linebacker unit, it certainly is the most experienced.
The key for Iowa is establishing solid depth at all three spots with an eye on 2018. It appears that sophomore Amani Jones has moved into prime territory as an inside backup. Junior Jack Hockaday was the top reserve but has missed spring practices with an injury. Sophomore Kristian Welch, sophomore Angelo Garbutt and junior Aaron Mends all are in contention inside. Outside, senior Kevin Ward is the primary backup with redshirt freshman Barrington Wade in reserve. Figuring out the second unit will help the team transition more easily to 2018.
Losing two-time All-American cornerback Desmond King and 35-game starter Greg Mabin presents a challenge. King’s loss is significant, but that doesn’t mean this year’s likely starters Manny Rugamba (a sophomore) and Josh Jackson (a junior) aren’t Big Ten-caliber players. King set a school record with 51 career starts and had 14 interceptions (three returned for touchdowns). Rugamba played in Iowa’s nickel set last year and was dynamic in replacing an injured Mabin against Michigan. Jackson had a good game against Florida in the Outback Bowl. Sophomore Michael Ojemudia is the nickel now, but don’t be surprised if a couple of newcomers compete for playing time at corner or nickel.
Safety took a hit when junior Brandon Snyder suffered an ACL tear earlier this month. Junior Jake Gervase stepped in nicely at free safety, but Snyder was an ascending player. Senior Miles Taylor has 23 career starts at strong safety, but sophomore Amani Hooker is bigger and more athletic. That might be an interesting competition. Like at cornerback, a few newcomers could push for reserve roles. Iowa brought in six defensive backs in this recruiting class.
Sophomore Keith Duncan proved capable of making big kicks last year as a true freshman. Iowa must replace punter Ron Coluzzi. Either sophomore Colten Rastetter or true freshman Ryan Gersonde will battle for the job this summer. Consistency will be huge at both spots because Iowa tends to play a lot of close games.