Brown: Iowa Football Players to Watch Heading into ’20 Season
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Just 32 seconds hung on the Memorial Stadium clock when Iowa got the football at its own 26 in a 24-24 game with Nebraska last November 29th.
Two incompletions later, Nate Stanley connected with Ihmir Smith-Marsette for 22 yards. No surprise. Smith-Marsette was one of the Hawkeyes’ top playmakers all season.
But the very next play was a bit of a surprise. Freshman tight end Sam LaPorta didn’t make his first reception of the season until the eighth game, at Northwestern. He had eight career catches when he found space in the Nebraska secondary and Stanley hit him in stride for 22 more crucial yards. Winning yards.
Because Keith Duncan came in to boot a game-winning 48-yard field goal and Iowa had its fifth consecutive victory over the Cornhuskers.
“We got it down there,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz told Lisa Byington of the Big Ten Network moments after the kick. “Great shot to LaPorta or whatever his name is. The freshman kid.”
LaPorta would have one more shining moment as a rookie. He had a team-best six catches for 44 yards in Iowa’s 49-24 romp past USC in the Holiday Bowl. Everyone knew his name when that game was over.
The emergence of “that freshman kid” in the second half of the season is one of many compelling stories to come out of 2019.
LaPorta is clearly a player to keep your eyes on. The 6-foot-4, 242 pounder, a wide receiver at Highland High School in Highland, Ill., looks to have all the tools to polish Iowa’s sterling reputation for recruiting and developing top-flight tight ends.
The first freshman to ever start at game at tight end under Ferentz, LaPorta is one of several returning players and newcomers hoping to emerge as 2020 unfolds.
Kaevon Merriweather, free safety
When he signed with Iowa, Ferentz said that football probably wasn’t the 6-2, 195-pound Merriweather’s best sport.
“He’s probably a better prospect on the basketball court than the football field, but we feel he can do both,” Ferentz said. “An impressive young man.”
Offered basketball scholarships by Western Michigan and Ferris State, Merriweather was an under-the-radar prospect on the gridiron. Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker was tipped off about Merriweather by Jermain Crowell, his coach at Belleville High School in Bellville, Mich. It was Crowell who also told the Iowa staff about future Thorpe Award winner and all-American cornerback Desmond King.
Merriweather saw action in nine games as a true freshman in 2018, and made a tackle in the first game of his college career against Northern Illinois.
He won the job as Jake Gervase’s successor at free safety during spring camp in 2019. He started the season opener against Miami of Ohio, making two solo tackles, assisting on three more and breaking up a pass. But Merriweather was injured and replaced by Jack Koerner in the starting lineup. Merriweather played in just one more game, against Purdue. It will be interesting to follow the competition at free safety heading into the 2020 season.
Jack Campbell, linebacker
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An assistant coach at Iowa told me before last season that the former Cedar Falls all-stater had the potential to become one of the best linebackers of the Ferentz era.
A lot of players have reached their potential the past 21 seasons, and Campbell has the frame (6-4, 218) and athleticism to join them. One of eight true freshmen to see the field in 2019, mostly on special teams, Campbell was a tackling machine at Cedar Falls High. He was also a multi-sport standout for the Tigers, something the coaching staff looks for in recruits.
Campbell and Dillon Doyle are the leading candidates for playing time at middle linebacker, where Kristian Welch graduated. Doyle started two games (Purdue, at Northwestern) and Campbell one (at Wisconsin) last season when Welch was out with an injury.
John Waggoner, defensive end
A four-star recruit, Waggoner worked his way into the rotation as a 6-5, 270-pound redshirt freshman in 2019.
Waggoner, who had offers from schools like Michigan, Ohio State, Florida, UCLA and Oregon as a senior at West Des Moines Dowling, played behind Chauncey Golston last season. He saw action in 10 games and recorded his first career sack against Purdue. With one defensive end, A.J. Epenesa, already gone to the Buffalo Bills of the NFL, and Golston entering his final season at Iowa, Waggoner will have every opportunity to solidify himself in the rotation and become an important piece of the defense moving forward.
Tory Taylor, punter
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Australian punters are all the rage in college football these days. Iowa is no exception.
“We got our Punter from Down Under!” proclaimed @HawkeyeFootball on Twitter after Taylor signed his letter of intent.
Taylor will try to keep it in the family for the second year in a row. Australian Michael Sleep-Dalton punted for the Hawkeyes last season (41.7-yard average on 58 punts) after coming from Arizona State as a graduate transfer.
Taylor, a 22-year-old freshman from Haileybury College in Melbourne, Australia, was recruited by special teams coordinator LeVar Woods.
Sleep-Dalton recommended Taylor. Both are ProKick Australia alums. ProKick Australia was developed in 2007, with the mission of helping Australians perform at the college and NFL level.
Woods visited ProKick Australia, located in Melbourne, during the recruiting process. ProKick has produced 17 all-Americans and five Ray Guy Award winners.
Taylor, who stands 6-4, has never played football.
Coy Cronk, offensive tackle
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With right tackle Tristian Wirfs off to the NFL, Cronk has an opportunity in front of him. The graduate transfer from Indiana started 40 games at left tackle for the Hoosiers. He never redshirted there. His senior season ended after four games because of an injury that required surgery.
A 6-5, 325-pounder from Lafayette, Ind., Cronk started 11 games in 2018. The only game he missed was Iowa’s 42-16 victory in Bloomington.
With Alaric Jackson returning at left tackle, Cronk may have to switch positions to see significant playing time in his one season at Iowa. But it’s not hard to image that his wealth of Big Ten experience will get him on the field.
Joe Evans, defensive end
Undefeated and eighth-ranked Minnesota was trailing Iowa last season, 23-19, when it got possession on its own 20 with less than 2 minutes to play. On the first play from scrimmage, quarterback Tanner Morgan was sacked by Evans, a former quarterback himself.
Evans, who also shared a sack with Epenesa earlier in the fourth quarter of that game, started at quarterback for three seasons at Ames High School. He threw 55 touchdown passes, and ran for 26 more, but his future in college was on defense.
Iowa offered him a walk-on opportunity that Evans accepted. Iowa recruited him as a linebacker, but moved him to defensive end during spring drills in 2019.
The 6-2, 238-pound Evans played in five games last season as a redshirt freshman, and logged four sacks.
Jack Heflin, defensive tackle
This 6-4, 319-pounder figured to play in Kinnick Stadium this season. His Northern Illinois team plays at Iowa Sept. 26.
But now Heflin will get a steady dose of Kinnick football after joining the Hawkeyes as a graduate transfer.
He was a captain and the Huskies’ defensive player of the year in 2019 after he led the team in tackles for a loss (8.5). He also sacked the quarterback three times. Iowa lost tackles Brady Reiff and Cedrick Lattimore after the 2019 season.