Before the start of the 2015 season, Iowa Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz made an uncharacteristically bold move by naming junior CJ Beathard the starting quarterback over the incumbent Jake Rudock, even after he posted decent numbers in 2014. Some of the Hawkeye faithful were baffled and thought Ferentz was losing his mind choosing an unproven, raw product over a proven commodity.
However, after 17 seasons, Ferentz was frankly getting sick and tired of settling for second place and wanted a taste of the winner’s champagne. Iowa could’ve settled with mediocrity and another appearance in a lackluster bowl game but the coach proved he knew best as Beathard produced stellar results, leading the Black-and-Yellow to a perfect regular season and a place in the Big Ten title game. Although they ultimately lost, the old adage of big risk big reward was once again proven right. With a season under Beathard’s belt and a roster still mainly intact, the Hawkeyes are poised to build upon last year’s success and make another title run.
As far as the schedule is concerned, it’s certainly not as easy as last year’s when the Hawkeyes ran the table and went 12-0. Although, there were some close calls like when they needed a game-winning field goal to beat Pittsburgh. Nonetheless, Iowa should get off to a solid start as it takes on lowly Miami (OH), followed by a home game versus in-state rival Iowa State, though the Cyclones could put up a fight even in a down year. The wildcard non-conference game is against FCS powerhouse North Dakota State. At 13-2, NDSU dominated the Missouri Valley conference but had Carson Wentz, arguably the top quarterback in this year’s NFL draft, so it’s going to be interesting to see what team the Bison are this season.
If they can clear those non-conference matchups unscathed, the Hawkeyes have three road games in the first four weeks of conference play. All of those are winnable matchups (Rutgers, Minnesota and Purdue) and their home game is versus Northwestern, the toughest out of the four. Then, the Hawkeyes will face the ferocious Wisconsin Badgers, hungry for payback after a frustrating 10-7 loss in Madison before a bye and a tough trip to Penn State. All of this is leading up to a potential Big Ten title game preview in a huge showdown at Iowa City versus the Wolverines. Closing out the year, Iowa visits Illinois and have their home finale taking on Nebraska. With most of their big games at home, there are some who believe they can go undefeated again but I see them dropping their game against Michigan and maybe against Wisconsin or Nebraska for a 10-2 record.
While other Big Ten teams are searching for quarterbacks, Iowa has stability at the position as Beathard returns for his senior season. Keep in mind he was not 100 percent during the 2015 season due to a lingering hip injury and still threw 3,046 total yards and 23 touchdowns. Yes, he had off-season hernia surgery and is still recovering but it’s not hard to see why Hawkeye fans are excited to see a potentially healthy Beathard with a sturdy set of legs. Remember, he scored six touchdowns on the ground. Named Second Team All-Conference and Iowa’s offensive MVP, he also proven he’s a strong, reliable leader who’s more than capable of taking a team to soaring heights. However, he will need a strong offensive line and a consistent receiving corps to exceed expectations.
All-Conference center Austin Blythe, who started 49 games over four years, has moved on as well as All-Conference guard Jordan Walsh. Losing those kinds of players hurts but the entire line is versatile and has starting experience. Arguably, Iowa’s best returning lineman Sean Welsh, who is a 23-game starter, including 12 games at left guard and two at right tackle last season as a sophomore, is playing center this spring and might stay there in the fall. Meanwhile, James Daniels, who started twice at left guard as a true freshman in 2015 and was injured this spring, will likely join Welsh and Boone Myers inside in the fall. The tackle position is in solid form with Ike Boettger and Cole Croston.
As for wide receiver, the Hawkeyes have lost three of their top five pass catchers, including top tight end Henry Krieger Coble and deep-threat Tevaun Smith, whose 17.6-yard average per catch ranked second in the Big Ten. One of the questions is who will replace them? The team has a good tight end in George Kittles and Matt VandeBerg, who led Iowa in receptions (65) and receiving yardage (703) last year, is the team’s top wideout. Besides those two, it remains to be seen who will step up. Jerminic Smith and Riley McCarron are both listed as starters but neither of them impressed in the spring game as McCarron had three receptions for 17 yards and Smith one for six yards.
Fortunately, even if there is a void in the passing game, Iowa’s rushing attack ranks near the top of the conference. Iowa rushed for 181.7 yards per game last season, ranking fifth in the Big Ten. At first glance, it may seem they’ll be in trouble as they lose leading back Jordan Canzeri, who accounted for 984 yards, and 12 touchdowns. Make no mistake, the Hawkeyes have a three-headed monster at running back that most Big Ten teams would be envious about. Leshun Daniels, a 225-pound workhorse, fought off injuries in 2015 to gain 646 yards while the speedy 185-pound Akrum Wadley added a season total of 496, and Derrick Mitchell rushed for 162 as a predominately third-down back.
It will definitely be interesting to see how the defensive line responds this season especially with the loss of Drew Ott, who was not granted an extra year of eligibility, and the undersized workhorse Nate Meier, who started every contest last year, registering a team-best seven sacks and 76 tackles. This season the ends will be bigger but also younger as the main contributors look like 6’8″ sophomore Matt Nelson, 6’7″ redshirt freshman Anthony Nelson as well as sophomores Parker Hesse, who filled in admirably last season when Ott went down with a knee injury in wee six and Sam Brincks. While the ends look like to be a work in progress, the interior of the defensive line will be a strength for the Hawkeyes with veteran tackles Jaleel Johnson (45 tackles and 5.5 for loss) and Nathan Bazata returning.
At linebacker, Iowa returns a good amount of talent and experience despite losing Cole Fisher, who started all 14 games and contributed 116 tackles, second on the team. Those returning include junior Josey Jewell, who was named second-team All-Big Ten for leading the Hawkeyes with 126 tackles and tallying four picks as well as juniors Bo Bower and Ben Niemann, who started 14 games last season with four sacks and sat out spring due to injury. Sophomores Aaron Mends and Jack Hockaday, both of whom had some experience as freshmen on special teams, are currently in a position battle for Fisher’s vacant OLB position in Iowa’s 4-3.
Last, the crown jewel of the stingy, Iowa defense is the lethal secondary led by one of the nation’s premier shutdown corners. Desmond King, who was awarded the Jim Thorpe Award for nation’s best defensive back last season, ranked second in the nation for his eight interceptions as well as contributing 72 tackles and 13 pass breakups. Greg Mabin, who missed the spring with injuries, will fill the other cornerback spot after tallying 54 tackles, eight pass breakups and two interceptions a year ago. Safety Miles Taylor also comes back after posting 69 tackles while sophomore Brandon Snyder will fill In the other safety spot after the departure of starter Jordan Lemux. If that wasn’t enough, freshman Michael Ojemudia made an impact by intercepting a pass for a touchdown in the annual spring game and his emergence is likely one of the reasons senior defensive back Maurice Fleming abruptly decided to transfer.
Even though they lose several key players from last year’s squad, the Hawkeyes are still very deep and talented at every level, especially at running back, in the secondary and in the trenches on both sides. Plus, with one of the top quarterbacks in the conference, a solid coaching staff and a manageable schedule, it’s easy to see why they are the early favorite to win the West. I’m not sure they can win every contest this year like they did last season but even if they drop two or three games, they should be in pretty good shape. I believe they’ll will win the West again with a 10-2 record.
*Featured image courtesy of Flickr/Phil Roeder