IOWA CITY, Iowa – Kirk Ferentz likes to joke that the last time he handed out grades he was teaching English at Worcester (MA) High. Needless to say, I could see the Iowa coach rolling his eyes at this exercise.
He’s probably right. It can be arbitrary and certainly is subjective. But it’s the bye week, I need material and it gives us something to talk about.
So, here we go. Iowa’s position-by-position report card for the first half of the 2017 season:
QUARTERBACK: Nate Stanley topped Tyler Wiegers during August’s competition and hasn’t looked back. The true sophomore from Wisconsin has completed 57.7 percent of his passes for 1,290 yards and 15 touchdowns against just two interceptions. He won the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week award for his performance against Iowa State. He endured tough games against Penn State and Michigan State, two of the tougher defenses in the league. He lost a big fumble in East Lansing and also fumbled twice in the opener. Overall, most people would have taken Stanley’s output to date if it was offered up before the season. He’s a work in progress, still learning to read defenses and get in sync with receivers down the field, but it’s tough to complain about much.
RUNNING BACK: Akrum Wadley is the most exciting offensive player in the 19 seasons under Ferentz. He delivered the game-saving play during an overtime win at Iowa State and almost led an upset of Penn State with a dynamic fourth quarter. He struggled at Michigan State and missed most of the North Texas game with an injury but still has rushed for 483 yards (4.1 per carry) and four touchdowns to go with 15 catches for 258 and three scores. His expected running partner, James Butler, went down with an elbow injury in Week 3. That’s hurt but freshmen Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin have filled in admirably when provided the opportunity. With all of that said, the Hawkeyes are averaging just 3.7 yards per carry. Tough to pin a lot of that on this position, however.
WIDE RECEIVER: Walk-on Nick Easley leads the team in receiving yardage (281), catches (27) and touchdowns (four). One couldn’t ask for more from the Iowa Western transfer from Newton. Matt VandeBerg has caught 15 balls for 186 yards and two scores. It’s taken time for him to round into form after missing most of last season and the spring with a broken foot. True freshman Ihmir Smith-Marsette delivered against Iowa State but has caught just four passes combined in the last four games. Iowa hasn’t taken advantage of his ability to get deep. After the top three, the only other receiver with a catch is true freshman Brandon Smith, who has two, and lost a crucial fumble after one of them. This position needs to be better.
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TIGHT END: Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, part of the ’16 recruiting class, have combined to catch 23 balls for 356 yards and four touchdowns. Not bad. The downside is that they’re still growing into their roles as blockers. They’re not terrible but lack consistency in that area. As a result, Nate Wieting, saw more action Saturday against Illinois. He’s only a sophomore and is a difference maker as a blocker. The future is bright at this position.
OFFENSIVE LINE: So, you’re wondering how three of the four positions graded so far garnered at least a B on a struggling offense. Well, we’ve come to the not-so-good area. Injuries to seniors Ike Boettger and Boone Myers shouldn’t be overlooked. They started on last year’s Joe Moore Award winning unit. As a result, Sean Welsh was forced off his natural position at guard to tackle. Inexperienced Ross Reynolds was pushed into extensive duty. The shuffling has stunted chemistry and continuity growth. And teams are loading the box, sending more defenders than Iowa has blockers. All that said, it was supposed to be a strength of this team and it hasn’t been. The hope is that it’s moving in the right direction and building depth.
KICKER: Miguel Recinos emerged from a pre-season competition to unseat incumbent Keith Duncan, last year’s hero in the Michigan upset. The walk-on from Mason City has been dynamite. He’s 5 of 6 on field goals with his only miss being blocked. He’s registered 18 touchbacks on 33 kickoffs with the opponent’s average field position being its own 22. He also delivered a perfect on-side kick for which he called. Good stuff.
PUNTER: Ron Coluzzi was a card. He also was a heck of a punter. Colten Rastetter struggled with his consistency in his first year starting, averaging just 39.7 yards on 25 attempts. He did have six of them downed inside the opponent 20. True freshman Ryan Gersonde took over Saturday against Illinois. He punted three times for a 37.7 average. Two of them were fair caught and one put the Illini inside the 20. With the graduation of Coluzzi, the bumps that some predicted have surfaced.
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DEFENSIVE LINE: The Hawkeyes lost two disruptive tackles in Jaleel Johnson and Faith Ekakitie. They replaced them with sophomores Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff along with converted end Matt Nelson. As you would expect, the waters have been rough at times. Illinois rushed for 200 yards. Without the threat of a pass rush coming from the inside, opponents dedicate extra blockers to Iowa’s outside guys. The team’s 12 sacks has it tied for 66th among 129 FBS teams. In the end, quarterbacks are too comfortable and running backs have too much room to operate. This unit really needs to be better in the second half.
LINEBACKERS: Josey Jewell plays like a machine. He leads the Big Ten with 70 tackles, which ranks fourth nationally. Ben Niemann is overshadowed by his superhero teammate but plays the LEO really well. He’s enjoying an excellent season. Bo Bower is having his best campaign as a Hawkeye. The three senior linebackers, as expected, are the strength of a pretty good defense.
SECONDARY: After he shined against Michigan last fall, Manny Rugamba was looked at as the heir apparent to all-American Desmond Kind. A suspension and an injury have kept him from realizing that potential. Luckily, Joshua Jackson has become a consistent playmaker. He’s picked off two passes and broken up eight others. Beyond the junior from Texas, there’s been trouble. Some of that can be attributed to a lack of a consistent pass rush but not all of it. The Hawkeyes are on their third starting free safety and replaced the starting strong safety against Illinois. The group received a boost with Brandon Snyder returning early from injury and the experience members received in the first half should help a unit with solid potential.