10 Questions Previewing Hawkeye Season with HN Staff
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Finally, it’s Iowa football game week. It seems like it’s taken forever. But August usually is a long month, right?
The Hawkeyes return some star power in Noah Fant, Nate Stanley and Anthony Nelson. They also must replace departed standouts like James Daniels, Josey Jewell and Josh Jackson.
Like every year, the campaign kicks off with some questions. There are three new starting linebackers and a punting situation that must improve. There’s the hope that the receivers will raise their level of play and that the team can overcome the suspension of four players on the depth chart in Week 1.
The HN staff is back trying to answer some of those questions and look into the crystal ball for predictions.
Here we go:
1. What player can Iowa least afford to lose to injury, suspension, etc. this season?
Rob Howe: This questions lines up with a series I wrote earlier this month counting down the most indispensable Hawkeyes for 2018. With all due respect to the other standouts on this team like Fant and Nelson, it had to be Stanley for me.
Iowa has two freshmen backing him up. Losing Fant and Nelson would hurt, but there is depth at their positions. They call it Armchair Quarterback for a reason. It’s the most important position on the field and the distance between Stanley and the rest of the group is sizable.
Sean Neugent: It is easy to say QB Nate Stanley. However, I’ll go with the TE position. The Iowa offense will go as far as Noah Fant and TJ Hockenson take them especially considering the lack of production they have received from the receiver position in recent years. They give Stanley two big weapons as well as the backup QB should something happen to QB1. Without these two players, defenses will stack the box.
David Schwartz: Nate Stanley. I know it’s cliché to pick the quarterback, but in this case it’s true. Stanley was so good last season, and his backups are so unproven, that losing him would likely wreck Iowa’s season.
Jon Miller: Nate Stanley, by a mile and I really can’t think of anyone else who is even close in the discussion. Sure, Noah Fant is a first team All American and if you wanted to pick him, you won’t get thrown out of the tavern, but I believe TJ Hockenson has first team All Big Ten potential. There might not be another TE in the nation with Fant’s skill set, but the drop off from Fant to his ‘back up’ is not as steep as the drop off from Nate Stanley to whomever Iowa’s #2 will be. And if Stanley goes down, Fant won’t be nearly as productive.
2. Who will be the breakout player on the Iowa offense (cannot have started a game in career)?
Rob Howe: This question becomes tougher when you require the answer to be someone who hasn’t started. That takes Ihmir Smith-Marsette and T.J. Hockenson out of the equation.
I’m torn here between receiver Brandon Smith and running back Ivory Kelly-Martin. Both guys will be sharing the load at their respective positions.
That said, I think Kelly-Martin shoulders more of the responsibilities at his spot. He’s an exciting all-around back that can impact the game by rushing the ball or catching it.
Sean Neugent: A toss up between three RBs: Toren Young, Ivory Kelly-Martin and Mekhi Sargent. All three should see their fair share of reps. Kelly-Martin and Young showed flashes of what damage they could do in their freshman seasons with six combined touchdowns. Add Sargent in the mix and they have strong depth at the position. Without knowing the workload, I can’t say which one will be the real breakout player. But, I can say out of all the positions, this should be the most exciting one to see develop in 2018.
David Schwartz: Ivory Kelly-Martin. He’s got the power that Kirk Ferentz likes out of his running backs. It could be a rough year for Iowa’s backfield, but if Kelly-Martin can show enough game to free up Stanley and the tight ends, that will be enough.
Jon Miller: Due to the parameters of the question, I will go with IKM. He has never started, but it sounds like he is going to be Iowa’s #1 back to start the year. He is the most versatile back Iowa has on the roster, with speed, wiggle and receiving skills.
3. Who will be the breakout player on the Iowa defense (cannot have started a game in career)?
Rob Howe: Here I’m torn between linebackers Amani Jones and Nick Niemann. I think both will be good, especially over time. I’m going to go with the former here because his role will be huge right off the bat in taking over for Josey Jewell in the middle of the defense.
Jones is a recking ball who can get sideline to sideline in the blink of an eye. It will come down to him playing assignment football. If he can do that, look out.
Sean Neugent: No doubt in my mind it is DE A.J. Epenesa. Despite no starts last year, Epenesa caused disruption with 4.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. The former 5-star recruit should get more playing time this year and will be a force to be reckoned with.
David Schwartz: Amani Jones. He’s the middle linebacker. If he fails, Iowa’s defense fails. That’s a lot of pressure, but Jones can rise to the challenge.
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Jon Miller: Amani Jones. He looks the part, he talks like a leader, he is humble yet exhibits a ferocity in waiting…I am really looking forward to seeing what he can do.
4. Finish this sentence: In 2018, Iowa’s punting will be…?
Rob Howe: Hopefully, better? Then again, it can’t get much worse.
I do think it will take a significant step forward. Iowa has a full-time coach dedicated to special teams this year in LeVar Woods and there’s more attention to detail.
Sometimes it’s forgotten that college football players improve. It really does happen.
Sean Neugent: Meh. I think punters Colten Rastetter and Ryan Gersonde are capable, but I miss the days of Ryan Donahue – a punter I was actually excited to see come into a game. 2017 left much to be desired with this position.
David Schwartz: In 2018, Iowa’s punting will be up and down.
Jon Miller: Better…because it has to be. I believe statistical probabilities would also favor it being better, because last season, it was close to being one of the worst punting units in the Ferentz era. Iowa’s defense can play near its peak when the punting game is at least average…when punting is below average, the pressure on the defense rises.
5. Which of Iowa’s incoming freshmen are you most excited to see? Why?
Rob Howe: It’s probably wise to go with Julius Brents if you’re looking for the true freshman who could make the biggest impact. He’s being talked about the most this preseason.
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However, the question is which one I’m most excited to see. For me, it’s Samson Evans. He’s converting to running back from option quarterback he played in high school. He just has that something special when the ball is in his hands that I think Iowa can utilize, although it might not be this season.
Sean Neugent: I think the biggest chance of a freshman getting playing time will be on defense. One guy that stands out mostly because of what Phil Parker says about him, is CB Julius Brents. Parker says, “He’s long and strong. He’s a guy that pays attention to detail and gives great effort. He’s a very talented person and understands what he needs to do. I think he’ll be the next guy.” That is some high praise for the freshman in a position that has great history under Parker.
David Schwartz: Dallas Craddieth. He’s mature, he’s smart, and he can hit. Iowa fans are going to love this safety.
Jon Miller: At first, it was Tyrone Tracy, because I thought he could offer Iowa something it didn’t have in the slot and as a playmaker…but he may not see the field in a key role, at least early on. Julius Brents has worked his way up the defensive backfield depth chart and is likely to see as much or more playing time than anyone else, so I will go with him. But if Tracy can get up to speed, he’s the guy.
6. Who will lead Iowa in receptions and rushing yards in ’18? Why?
Rob Howe: I will go with Nick Easley to repeat as the receptions leader and Kelly-Martin to take the team rushing crown. It should be a good race for both, though, especially for catches, where Fant has a great chance.
I just think Fant is going to face defenses designed to stop him, opening things up for the sure-handed Easley. Kelly-Martin is the team’s most complete back and will get the most work, barring injury.
Sean Neugent: TE Noah Fant will get his receptions, but defense is going to key in on him. WR Nick Easley has a nice repertoire going with QB Nate Stanley and will again lead the way in receptions. However, I think Iowa has more weapons this year and without Easley being opposite of WR Matt Vandeberg, I see his receptions slightly declining (51 last year). Tough to say for rushing yards as RBs Toren Young, Ivory Kelly-Martin and Mekhi Sargent all have different attributes that will lead them to being on the field in different situations. If I knew the ratio of carries were even, I’d say Kelly-Martin, who nearly had the same exact yardage as Young in 2017 despite 25 less carries. Additionally, I think Sargent could pleasantly surprise.
David Schwartz: Ivory Kelly-Martin will lead the team in rushing by virtue of getting the most carries, but no Iowa runner will crack 1,000 yards. Although Noah Fant will make the biggest, most important plays, it will be the “other” tight end, T.J. Hockenson, who leads the team in receptions because he will be Stanley’s security blanket.
Jon Miller: IKM will lead in rushing yards, as he may get the most touches and I think his yards per carry stands to be better than anyone else. As far as receptions, Fant seems the easiest pick here. I think Fant will still get 45-50 receptions, even though the defense will be keying on him. I think three players could see 40+ catches.
7. Who will lead Iowa in tackles in ’18? Why?
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It’s usually a good idea to go with the middle linebacker here and I will with Jones, who should be a tackling machine. I wouldn’t count out strong safety Amani Hooker, though. He’s special.
Sean Neugent: Hawkeyes lose all three leading tacklers from a year ago. That group of Josey Jewell, Bo Bower and Ben Niemann accounted for 306 tackles. So far, the LB depth chart is not set in stone. Amani Jones was named the starter at MLB, while Nick Niemann will likely start, just not sure of position quite yet. Odds are an LB will lead the team in tackles, so I will say Jones will be the leader this year.
David Schwartz: Parker Hesse, but I don’t feel good about this pick. My brain is telling me Amani Jones, but Hesse is an intuitive tackler and one of the most experienced defenders in the Big Ten.
Jon Miller: Amani Jones. Like Rob said, Iowa’s MLB typically leads the way and given how Iowa plays assignment defense and such a focus on protecting the edge, plays are funneled to the inside.
8. Who will be Iowa’s most valuable player in ’18? Why?
Rob Howe: I think if Iowa is going to have a season to remember, it’s got to be Stanley. The Hawkeye offense needs to be much more consistent than it was last year and that starts with him. If he can improve his accuracy, particularly on long balls, he’ll be very, very dangerous.
Sean Neugent: For this, I’m going with ‘most value’ and that is a particular unit, not a single player. I’ll take the defensive line. With inexperience at LB and in the defensive backfield, the D-line will be key to getting pressure on the QB and stuffing the run. The success of this season hinges on how well they play. As far as an actual MVP, I think TE Noah Fant leads this team. His numbers from a year ago may decline, but he will be instrumental in opening up the field for QB Nate Stanley and the WRs. Defenses will be game planning for the junior TE.
David Schwartz: Nate Stanley. If he can consistently land the deep ball, it will be the difference between a mediocre offensive season and a very good one.
Jon Miller: I will go with same answer I did with the most indispensable, and that is Stanley. I don’t think his TD to INT ratio will be as favorable this year, but I believe his ball placement will be better and Iowa may not find itself behind the chains as much on third down as it did one year ago. Iowa’s average third down distance against Iowa State was something like eight yards…it’s really a minor miracle Iowa won that game. A more accurate Stanley will help make the offense more manageable and being able to have two full-service tight ends on the field all the time will make the offense less predictable.
9. Iowa’s regular-season record in ’18 will be? Why?
Rob Howe: I think this team is a year away from the breakout season but it could arrive this fall if things come together. I’m going with 8-4. The Hawkeyes have five Big Ten road games ’18 and a much-improved Iowa State team in the nonconference. And, the Big Ten is a bear this year.
Sean Neugent: 9-3 (7-2 B1G). Losses: Iowa State, at Indiana, at Penn State. Did the Hawks lose a lot of big pieces in the offseason? Yes. But, I think this team brings back a ton of talent and some great potential among underclassmen. Also, I like the way the schedule lines up. I believe Iowa is better than ISU and Indiana, but a total gut feeling has me thinking the Cyclones are due for a win in the series and Indiana will be a game we should win, but lose.
David Schwartz: 8-4. Penn State and Wisconsin are losses. There will be one loss to a team that is better than anyone thought during the preseason—Purdue, maybe?—and one inexplicable loss that shouldn’t have happened.
Jon Miller: I will go 8-4. I think they can win nine or ten and would not be shocked if they did, but given the uncertainty along the offensive line and defensive interior, I don’t feel comfortable going there.
10. What two teams will meet in the Big Ten Championship game this season?
Rob Howe: I’ll take Wisconsin over Penn State for the title.
Sean Neugent: Overall, Wisconsin is a better team than Iowa and despite being the first B1G game on the slate, it is going to be monumental. I believe Iowa will beat Wisconsin this year (especially if its a night game) in similar fashion to 2015. It will be key because I see the Badgers owning a better overall record than Iowa at 10-2, but will be 7-2 in the B1G so the Hawks would own the tiebreaker, dethroning the B1G West champs. The East is always tough to call, but especially in the wake of the mess at Ohio State. The Buckeyes are the most talented, but have a ton of distraction. So, I will go with the Hawkeyes facing Michigan State in a rematch of the B1G Championship from 2015.
David Schwartz: Wisconsin vs. Ohio State.
Jon Miller: Wisconsin vs Ohio State, and I will take Wisconsin to win the league title.