Breaking news, rankings, predictions and analysis all in one place.

College Football Preview 2021: 13. Iowa Hawkeyes

Tyler Goodson, Iowa

 13. Iowa Hawkeyes

The skill positions are extremely talented and the defense will be stingy enough to deliver a Big Ten West Title

2020 Review
Following a tumultuous off-season, Iowa's 0-2 start in 2020 could have spiraled into disaster. However, the Hawkeyes responded in a big way, winning their next three games by 20 or more points. They capped off their regular season with a 28-7 dismantling of Wisconsin, and they would've had a shot to play for a Big Ten Title if not for the one-point loss to Northwestern in the second week of the year. Cancellations against Michigan and then Missouri in the bowl game was an abrupt finish to the season but considering the start, a 6-2 record was an incredible accomplishment. With a normal off-season and plenty of talent returning, even greater things could be ahead in '21.

2021 Outlook
Offense: The Hawkeyes were forced to replace a three-year starter in Nate Stanley prior to 2020 and naturally, had a difficult job in doing so. Spencer Petras won the job out of camp and ended up starting all eight, but never looked completely comfortable in the role. He finished with 1,569 yards and nine touchdowns but also threw five interceptions with a 57% completion percentage. Further experience should help, but he missed some routine throws last fall that raised eyebrows.

It will be interesting to see whether any of the other quarterbacks on the roster can push Petras. Alex Padilla saw action in two games last fall, while Deuce Hogan was the quarterback they brought in during the 2020 cycle. The edge in experience for Petras is important and he doesn't have to be an All-League QB for this offense to be successful. Iowa would be just fine with him cutting down on the interceptions and throwing for a higher completion percentage.

After two productive years, it's about time for Tyler Goodson to evolve into a true superstar. He became the first Iowa true freshman to lead the team in rushing back in 2019 and then built on it with a 762-yard 2020 season. Goodson put up those numbers splitting time with a pair of veterans in Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young, but both are now gone, clearing the path for huge numbers from Goodson. His vision and patience is something we've seen from past Hawkeye backs, but the explosiveness in the open field is truly special. 

The Hawkeyes are still likely to rotate in a change-of-pace back or two, even though Goodson has shown he can be a workhorse. Junior Ivory Kelly-Martin gained 54 yards buried on the depth chart last fall, but appears ready for a larger role. This is also a program that isn't afraid to use their fullbacks, so keep an eye on sophomore Monte Pottebaum.

Iowa's receiver group last fall might have been their best in school history, with several headliners and plenty of depth. Ihmir Smith-Marsette was the type of game-breaker this offense has often lacked, but he is off to the NFL. Even so, the Hawkeyes have quality options waiting in the wings, including Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy. Tracy is the type of dynamic playmaker that could help open things up, while Ragaini has flashed serious upside, but was unable to build on a strong 2019. True freshmen Arland Bruce and Keagan Johnson both enrolled for the spring and could be counted on to make an immediate impact.

Few schools in the nation have as proven of a pedigree at producing elite tight ends as Iowa. In just the past half-decade, they've sent names like George Kittle, T.J. Hockenson, and Noah Fant all to the NFL. Sophomore Sam LaPorta is looking to become the next great weapon at the position and he has shown promise in his young career. With that being said, LaPorta did have struggles with drops in 2020, which will have to be solved.

Head coach Kirk Ferentz specializes on the offensive line, and has sent 17 offensive linemen to the pros during his time in Iowa City. This particular O-Line group isn't as experienced as past editions, but it should still be a strength. Center Tyler Lindebaum is likely to dot preseason All-American and Outland Trophy watchlists. He will be the anchor of the unit, but the tackle spots will have to be figured out. Sophomore Jack Plumb made two starts at right tackle last fall and is the early favorite to start at left tackle, while redshirt freshman Nick DeJong is the favorite on the right side. Even with some question marks, this is always a unit you feel comfortable with at Iowa.

Don't expect this Iowa offense to look much different than past editions. They'll play ball control, run the ball, and be very physical in the trenches. Having a weapon like Tyler Goodson is likely to make it more exciting, but this offense really needs Petras to take a step forward. Again, he doesn't need to put up gaudy numbers for them to be successful, but has to be more consistent than he was in 2020. 

Defense: Iowa's defense remains among the most consistently strong anywhere in the country. They currently are riding a 22 game streak  allowing less than 25 points to opponents. With plenty of familiar faces returning, expect that streak to continue deep into 2021.

The defensive line will undergo a transition after losing key cogs Chauncey Golston and Daviyon Nixon, but five of the top eight return. The ends should still be in a very good spot, with veteran Zach VanValkenburg manning one spot and sophomore John Waggoner the favorite on the other. VanValkenburg finished with 3.5 sacks and five tackles for loss in 2020 and should have no issues stepping into a leading role. Waggoner has played in 14 games over the last two seasons, but don't be surprised if he's pushed by freshman Deontae Craig, who arrived on campus prior to last season. The larger concern is on the interior, where Nixon played such a huge role. Expect names like Yahya Black, Noah Shannon, and Logan Lee to rotate into the mix. Lee is a converted tight end who saw limited action last fall but gets a full off-season to acclimate to defensive tackle.

Nick Niemann is a notable loss at linebacker, as the long-time linebacker finished first on the team with 77 tackles last year. However, the 2021 group may actually be more talented, with a pair of sophomores set to lead the charge. Seth Benson finished just behind Niemann with 47 tackles in '20 and is back to start at outside linebacker. Jack Campbell is slated to take over Niemann's spot at MLB after making a big leap last year. After just five tackles the year prior, Campbell totaled 29 tackles and 4.5 TFL in 2020. At 6'5", 243 pounds, Campbell is the type of physical linebacker that fits the Iowa mold.

The real strength of the defense lies in the secondary. Although it may not be as naturally talented as some other groups in the Big Ten, expect it to challenge as the league's best. Both corners, veterans Riley Moss and Matt Hankins, return. They're both similar builds as well-rounded, instinctive defenders that don't shy away from the opposing team's best players. Behind them are a pair of stud safeties in Jack Koerner and Kaevon Merriweather. Koerner is a former walk-on who has emerged as a real leader on the back-end of the Hawkeye defense. He led the team with 81 tackles in 2019 and then added 45 more last fall, while showcasing playmaking potential, with three interceptions. Merriweather is another lightly recruited defensive back who has quickly adjusted to life in the Big Ten. He redshirted in 2019 but made five starts last season and is slated to be the starting strong safety this fall. 

Defensive coordinator Phil Parker enters his tenth season in the role equipped with yet another veteran-laden and well-coached defense. There may not be as much NFL talent as past Hawkeye groups but there's little question it should be an elite group. It will once again challenge as one of the best in the Big Ten.

Special Teams: Ultra-reliable kicker Keith Duncan moves on after going 14-18 on field goals last season. That leave senior Caleb Shudak as the default starter after spending most of his previous time with Iowa as their kickoff specialist. Punter is certainly a strength, with Tory Taylor coming back after earning All-Big Ten honors in 2020. The return game will need to reload, as Smith-Marsette was always a threat to take it to the house.

Bottom Line: The job that this staff and entire program did following a rocky 2020 off-season was extremely impressive, even without considering all the other major complications caused by COVID-19. The momentum this team earned at the conclusion of 2020 should serve them well as they push into this fall. Nearly all the trademarks of past successful Hawkeye teams are in place, from a stud tailback, to a strong offensive line, to an experienced, loaded defense. The key for this particular group will be handling a tough slate to begin the year that includes a home tilt with Indiana and the Cy-Hawk rivalry in Ames. They'll also have to finish off close games better than they have other the last two seasons. In 2020, their two losses were by a combined five points. In 2019, their three losses were by a combined 14 points. If they can do that, they are my pick to win the Big Ten West and challenge Ohio State for the conference crown.

Further Breakdown
Team Projections
Projected Record: 10-3 (8-1 Big Ten, Lose Big Ten Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: RB Tyler Goodson
Defensive MVP: S Jack Koerner
Breakout Player of the Year: TE Sam LaPorta
Impact Freshman: WR Keagan Johnson

Recruiting Breakdown
The Hawkeyes finished with a strong 2021 Class, finishing 24th nationally and highlighted by seven four-stars. Unsurprisingly, this group is especially strong along the trenches, but there's also nice skill position talent sprinkled in. Offensive tackle David Davidkov and interior linemen Connor Colby are two guys that are built to play right away, but will likely have to wait their turn. Davidkov could factor into the left tackle position battle that should be an interesting watch through fall camp. Keagan Johnson and Arland Bruce IV are important gets, adding much-needed athleticism to this roster. Johnson is technically an athlete who could play several different roles, but he's most natural at wide out. The quarterback the Hawkeyes took in this cycle was three-star Joey Labas, a former Ball State commit. It will be interesting to see whether he can eventually factor into the quarterback competition in the long-term, but with three current signal-callers on the roster all in their first or second years on the roster, it won't be in 2021.

Five-Year Trend

No comments:

Theme images by LUGO. Powered by Blogger.