Howe: Iowa Football ’20 Position-By-Position Outlook 2.0
IOWA CITY, Iowa – I published the first installment of this offseason series on Dec. 4. As you would expect, the roster has changed via early NFL Draft entries, transfers, injuries, additions, etc. Some we expected. Others we did not.
Coach Kirk Ferentz has spoken publicly a few times since the New Year as well, shedding some light on position battles. We definitely have collected more information in the last few months.
So, it’s a good time for another position-by-position look at the 2020 Hawkeyes. Here’s version 2.0:
Credit Iowa with transparency and decisiveness at this spot since the C.J. Beathard-Jake Rudock debacle back in ’14. The coaches aren’t dealing in smoke and mirrors to keep players around.
They named true freshman Nate Stanley the backup in ’16 ahead of veteran Tyler Wiegers. Last season, Spencer Petras was tabbed the No. 2 ahead of the older Peyton Mansell. Wiegers and Mansell ended up transferring, the latter one doing so last month.
Mansell’s departure leaves the Hawkeyes with two scholarship signal callers this spring. Petras is a redshirt sophomore and Alex Padilla is a year behind him. Deuce Hogan, a four-star from Texas, arrives as a true freshman in June.
In keeping with the (almost) full disclosure approach here, Ferentz pegged Petras as the clear leader for the starting position heading into the offseason. He indicated that it would take some significant upward movement from Padilla or Hogan to overtake him this fall.
In one of the more surprising winter developments, power running back Toren Young announced he would be foregoing this final year of eligibility and pursuing a professional career. The Wisconsin product has been steady if unspectacular as a rotational piece the last two seasons and certainly was a leader in the room.
True sophomore-to-be Tyler Goodson sits atop the depth chart after winning the starting job in November. Mekhi Sargent, who began ’19 No. 1, slots in on the second line right now.
Ivory Kelly-Martin ranks as the only other experienced back on the roster. He’s a wildcard after showing enough to win the starting job coming out of training camp in ’18 only to suffer a series of injuries.
Behind the top three, we have redshirt sophomore Samson Evans, redshirt freshman Shadrick Byrd, and incoming freshmen Leshon Williams and Gavin Williams, the latter having enrolled last month making himself available for spring ball.
I see the staff sticking to a committee approach with Goodson leading the way and Sargent seeing his fair share of the workload. After that, it depends on what the other guys show before the opener. It’s wide open.
The Hawkeyes say goodbye to accomplished blocker Nate Wieting. Everybody else returns and they add a pair of high-end recruits.
True freshman Sam LaPorta emerged midway through the season, catching his first pass in Week 8 at Northwestern en route to leading the position in ’19 with 15 receptions for 188 yards. He and the coaches will be looking for more in the fall.
Fifth-year senior Shaun Beyer could be ready for a breakout after battling injuries throughout his career, which stunted his growth. He’ll need to hold off redshirt freshman Josiah Miamen, and true freshman Elijah Yelverton and Luke Lachey. Yelverton is in town for spring ball after enrolling last month.
Iowa features four proven commodities at this position. When’s the last time we could say that?
Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Brandon Smith, Tyrone Tracy and Nico Ragaini combined for 2,189 yards on 163 receptions, an average of 12.5 per game. Add in the six combined grabs by Oliver Martin and Max Cooper, and those numbers bump to 169 and 13.0. The position was responsible for 113 catches in ’18 with 15 of those coming in the Outback Bowl win against Mississippi State.
The ’19 Hawkeye wideouts tied the ’11 corps (169) for the most receptions in the decade. And they accomplished it with more balance, as Ragaini’s team-leading 46 catches were well behind the 82 put up by Marvin McNutt in ’11.
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The cupboard isn’t bare after the top four. Martin and Cooper saw the field this season as did redshirt freshman-to-be Desmond Huston. Redshirt sophomore-to-be Calvin Lockett appeared on the two-deep at times this fall.
The Hawkeyes will add transfers Jack Combs (Central Michigan) and Charlie Jones (Buffalo) to the mix as well as incoming freshmen Diante Vines and Quavon Matthews. It’s hard to remember a time when the position has been this deep and talented.
Yes, Iowa lost right tackle Tristan Wirfs, the Big Ten’s Offensive Lineman of the Year, to the NFL. But three-year starting left tackle Alaric Jackson chose to return for his senior season. That was huge.
Jackson and center Tyler Linderbaum form a solid foundation up front. Guards Kyler Schott and Cole Banwart have starting experience. Mark Kallenberger has played tackle and guard, starting the Holiday Bowl inside.
The staff also pulled off a coup in adding Indiana graduate transfer Coy Cronk, who started 40 games at left tackle for the Hoosiers. Ferentz said the newcomer, who missed all but four games last season with a serious foot injury, should be ready for spring practice.
True freshman Justin Britt impressed the coaches this season before shutting it down to preserve his redshirt. Redshirt sophomores-to-be Cody Ince and Jack Plumb sat in the two-deep this fall and saw game reps.
Noah Fenske and Tyler Endres red shirted in ’19, their first on campus, but came in highly regarded. Their classmate, walk-on Nick DeJong, played in a game. Another classmate, Ezra Miller, suffered a career-ending injury.
Here’s my best guess on the starters to begin spring ball:
(From L-R) – Jackson, Kallenberger, Linderbaum, Schott, Cronk.
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Not unexpected, but Iowa learned definitely that standout defensive end A.J. Epenesa was leaving for the NFL. It created an enormous hole on what might be the position group with the most unknowns this offseason.
In addition to Epenesa, the Hawkeyes lose starting defensive tackles Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff. Seven starters from the last two seasons have moved on.
Daviyon Nixon, Austin Schutle and Noah Shannon will return on the inside after playing back-up roles in ’19. Redshirt freshman-to-be Logan Lee also could crack that rotation or perhaps kick outside.
Chauncey Golston could have tested the NFL waters, but he chose to come back for his senior year. That locks up one starting defensive end spot, but finding a replacement for Epenesa looms large.
It could be a committee approach starting with John Waggoner, Zach VanValkenburg and Joe Evans, all of whom saw reps on the outside last year. Ends Taajhir McCall and Chris Reames red shirted this season as true freshmen.
Incoming freshmen Deontae Craig, Lukas Van Ness, Yahya Black, Logan Jones and Isaiah Bruce all are viewed as potential help on the outside. Craig, Jones and Black might be the most ready for early contributions.
Iowa still could add someone here this offseason.
Kristian Welch’s departure creates a void in the middle after he anchored the second level when healthy in ’19. Iowa needs offseason progression from sophomores-to-be Dillon Doyle and Jack Campbell there.
Djimon Colbert returns for his third season starting on the weak-side. Nick Niemann does the same at LEO.
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Seth Benson and Barrington Wade have produced on special teams. They also have been used in sub-packages. Jestin Jacobs and Yahweh Jeudy red shirted as true freshmen last fall, and could make a move with a strong offseason.
Iowa signed Jay Higgins and Ethan Hurkett later this month, but the latter could end up on the line.
Barring injury, expect Colbert and Niemann to start in base defense. Doyle and Campbell have a lead at middle linebacker having gained experience this fall but failure to advance could lead to Niemann moving to the middle. The rest of the guys will be working during the offseason to break through.
Secondary stalwart Geno Stone decided to exit for the NFL, opening up the starting strong safety spot. Iowa also lost all-conference cornerback Michael Ojemudia. Both guys played key roles in the stingy ’19 defense.
Matt Hankins returns to the other starting corner, and Jack Koerner comes back at free safety. Dane Belton could remain at Cash, where he emerged last season as a true freshman, or perhaps slide to strong safety.
Riley Moss and Julius Brents look like the leading candidates for replacing Ojemudia with D.J. Johnson and Terry Roberts also returning with experience. There’s a chance one or more in that group could slide to safety.
Cornerback Jermari Harris saw special teams’ action as a true freshman. Kaevon Merriweather started the first game of the season at free safety before sustaining an injury and losing the job to Koerner. Safety Dallas Craddieth played in one game.
Daraun McKinney and Sebastian Castro red shirted this fall. Reginald Bracy, Brenden Deasfernandes and AJ Lawson signed as recruits in Iowa’s ’20 Class.
It’s fair to wonder if we’ll see attrition here with so many guys and so few openings. That could occur after spring ball when they get a better picture of where they stand.
Keith Duncan returns after being named the Big Ten’s best at the position and a Lou Groza finalist. Caleb Shudak, who handled kickoffs in ’19, is in the transfer portal but the coaches are trying to convince him to stay.
Lucas Amaya is red shirting as a first-year player. Oksaloosa’s Aaron Blom is walking on in the ’20 class.
Graduate transfer Michael Sleep-Dalton upgraded the position in ’19. However, he had just the one season, and his predecessor, Colton Rastetter, also exhausted his eligibility.
Ryan Gersonde, who is on scholarship, still is recovering from an ACL injury that wiped out his season. He’ll be a fourth-year junior.
Iowa added North Dakota State transfer Nick Phelps and Australian Tory Taylor, who will be a freshman, this offseason. They’ll compete with Gersonde for the top spot.
HawkeyeNation.com’s Rob Howe has covered Iowa Hawkeye sports for 23 years and began working at HawkeyeNation.com in 2003. Please follow @RobHoweHN, @hawkeyenation and @HawkeyeNationHQ on Twitter.