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College Football Preview 2023: 18. Iowa Hawkeyes

Kaleb Johnson, Iowa 

18. Iowa Hawkeyes

Even meager offensive improvements should put Iowa in the driver's seat in an underwhelming Big Ten West

2022 Review
Things got off to a less-than-stellar start in Iowa City last fall, with the Hawkeyes barely scraping by eventual FCS champion South Dakota State in the opener and giving away the Cy-Hawk to an Iowa State team that finished 4-8. A minor recovery was quickly overshadowed by three straight losses in Big Ten play, albeit to the likes of Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio State. Yet, Kirk Ferentz and staff recovered and despite a horrific offense, Iowa finished the year with four wins in their final five regular season games. Add in a 21-0 shutout of Kentucky in the Music City Bowl, an 8-5 record was a fairly impressive showing considering how things started. But considering just how brutal of a watch the Hawkeyes were for the majority of 2022, it feels like Ferentz and staff will have to deliver significantly more to satisfy the Iowa faithful this fall.

2023 Outlook
Offense: The Hawkeye offense set new records in 2022, but not in the way they would have hoped. Few offenses in FBS ball were as lethargic on this side of the ball as Iowa, who finished with their lowest points per game in over two decades and came in at 129th nationally in total offense. In fact, it was the worst offensive output from a Hawkeye offense since 1978.

Despite the well-known struggles, Ferentz chose to hold on to his son, Brian, as offensive coordinator. It's a move that has obviously frustrated Iowa fans, but the hope is that more playmakers on this side of the ball can signal some sort of change in Iowa City.

Spearheading that change will be a new quarterback, as Cade McNamara arrives from Michigan. McNamara threw for 2,576 yards with the Wolverines during their CFB Playoff run in 2021, but lost his job to rising star J.J. McCarthy a season ago. His arrival provides the Hawkeyes a proven, rock-solid option under center who can extend plays when necessary. Iowa doesn't need him to be a star, but fitting into the Nate Stanley mold as an accurate QB who doesn't turn the ball over should be more than enough.

Iowa has churned out productive tailbacks as well as anyone in the Big Ten, but it felt like they were missing something at this position in 2022. Gavin Williams was never 100 percent and didn't have the breakout campaign many expected, while Leshon Williams was little more than a serviceable option. That allowed Kaleb Johnson to break out down the stretch as a freshman, and he now looks like the clear feature guy entering this fall. 

Johnson notched 779 yards on six starts last season and his 200 yards against eventual Big Ten West Champion Purdue felt like a changing of the guard moment. Between him and McNamara, the Hawkeye backfield should take a major step forward in 2023, with Leshon Williams back to provide a steadying force behind him.

There is turnover among the pass-catchers, as reliable tight end Sam LaPorta moves on to the NFL and Arland Bruce transferred out. Veteran Nico Ragaini is the clear No. 1 wide out now and has proven to be a fine playmaker, despite anemic QB play. How quickly he's able to gel with McNamara will be crucial, as there isn't much proven options behind him at the position. Kaleb Brown arrives from Ohio State and could be a breakout candidate, but has just one career reception, while junior Diante Vines has made five career starts.

LaPorta is a big loss, but few programs anywhere in the country develop tight ends like the Hawkeyes. Junior Luke Lachey is now their top returner from last year in terms of yardage and looks to be the latest in a long line of star tight ends. Michigan transfer Erick All came along with McNamara from Ann Arbor and should also provide some pass-catching prowess. He's not quite as large as Lachey, but does provide an athletic specimen at the position. 

Ferentz has proven himself as an elite developer of offensive line talent, with 18 linemen drafted into the NFL over the course of his Iowa tenure. This year's group may lack a true headliner, but there's loads of experience throughout.

Tackles Gennings Dunker and Mason Richman will reprise their roles once again, while Nick DeJong and Connor Colby are back at guards. Rusty Feith was also a nice pickup from Miami Ohio after starting 34 games for the Redhawks, but the name to watch has to be center Logan Jones. Jones made the transition from defensive line to center a season ago and had some well-documented struggles. Yet, more experience under his belt could be just what he needs to take a step forward this fall.

Rarely do we see an offensive coordinator receive as clear incentives as Brian Ferentz did this offseason, as he must score at least 25 points per game to retain his job. As unique of a situation as it is, there are reason to believe it can happen and for this offense to be at least capable in 2023. That isn't a ringing endorsement, but even being "capable" on this side of the ball will feel a lot better after what Iowa went through a year ago.

Defense: In my opinion, there is not a better defensive coordinator in college football right now than Phil Parker. The longtime Ferentz assistant consistently produces elite units, despite the fact the Hawkeyes rarely bring in blue-chip talent. That's a testament to the system they've built in Iowa City and how impressive this staff is at developing defensive talent. Even with some notable pieces moving on, it feels like this should once again be a top-notch group this fall.

The defensive line could be the strength of this defense, at least to begin the season. The only significant piece moving on is first-round NFL Draft selection Lukas Van Ness, with every other piece back in the fold. Expect veteran Joe Evans and Deontae Craig to terrorize opponents off the edge, while Noah Shannon and Logan Lee bully the ground game up the middle. Both Lee and Shannon earned All-Big Ten Honorable Mention in 2022 and could be the most fearsome tackle combo in the league.

There is some reason to be concerned about the linebacker corps, as Iowa loses two program staples in Jack Campbell and Seth Benson. Campbell is the type of player that will not be easily replaced, a thumper who recorded 128 tackles in 2022. However, the Hawkeyes have proven they can develop this position, and there are options waiting to step up.

Nick Jackson arrives from Virginia and looks likely to slide into the starting middle linebacker spot. He proved to be a productive piece over four seasons with the Cavaliers, making 33 starts, and should be able to acclimate quickly. Who starts alongside him will be the question, as a host of candidates vie for snaps, including Zach Twedt, Kyler Fisher, and Jay Higgins. Higgins and Fisher have seen a healthy dosage of snaps, with Fisher appearing in 33 games over the last several seasons.

Iowa loses a pair of impact defenders on the back-end in Riley Moss and Kaevon Merriweather, but retains one of the Big Ten's rising stars in Cooper DeJean. DeJean took advantage of injuries ahead of him on the depth chart to put together an All-Big Ten season, with 75 tackles and five interceptions. He should be one of the best not only in the league, but nationally, and is a legitimate Jim Thorpe candidate.

DeJean will start at one cornerback spot, with junior Jermari Harris set to take over for the departed Moss at the other. Harris was slated in as a starter a year ago before in injury in fall camp caused him to miss the entire season, but he's proven to be a reliable piece. 

At safety, I suspect sophomore Xavier Nwankpa is going to have a breakout campaign. One of the highest-rated recruits in program history, Nwankpa showed flashes last fall and will now slide into a starting spot. He was particularly impressive in the bowl win, likely an appetizer of what will come in 2023 and beyond. The other safety spot will be manned by junior Quinn Schulte, who was an under-appreciated piece on this team last fall. Schulte recorded 71 tackles and six pass deflections, proving he can make plays all over the field.

The fact the Hawkeyes lose several longtime contributors and this defense still looks like it will be among the best in the Big Ten speaks to the culture and system they've developed on this side of the ball. There's little doubt in my mind players will step up at need positions and the core Iowa has in place will make them a feared group once again.

Special Teams: One of the key ingredients for Iowa's consistent success is reliable special teams play, which feels like it will be the case again. Kicker Drew Stevens received All-Conference recognition as a true freshman last fall, while Tory Taylor was used early and often, also earning accolades. Taylor could be a Ray Guy frontrunner, even if the Hawkeyes hope they won't have to use him quite as much.

Bottom Line
For all the criticism that Kirk Ferentz receives, it's hard to argue with his results. The Hawkeyes remain one of the most consistent programs in college football, one that has won eight games or more each season since 2014 (with the exception of the shortened 2020 COVID year). It's a program with a high floor, one that should be a factor in the Big Ten West race each season, at least before the league goes division-less with the additions of USC and UCLA. That makes him a safe pick to take the division this fall, especially considering there doesn't appear to be a clear frontrunner aside from them. If they're able to make even meager improvements on offense and remain as stingy as ever defensively, it feels like they should be able to hover around 8-9 wins and potentially find themselves in the Big Ten Championship Game come December.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Kirk Ferentz is the longest-tenure coach in FBS ball, set to enter his 25th year in 2023. He has a long list of accolades dotting his resume, including a pair of Big Ten Titles, two West Division Titles, and four Big Ten Coach of the Year Awards. His son, Brian, will reprise his role as offensive coordinator, but with an extra sense of pressure. The Iowa alum has coached with the program since 2012, taking over as offensive coordinator in 2017. He received a $50,000 pay cut over the offseason and it's well-known that he will need to average at least 25 points per game to return as offensive coordinator. On defense, longtime Ferentz disciple Phil Parker is back, also back for his 25th year as DC. Parker served as DB coach from 1999-2011 before taking over as coordinator and engineering some of the most productive defenses anywhere in college football.

Recruiting Breakdown
Iowa is rarely a program that is going to finish high up in the recruiting rankings, instead finding players that fit their system and culture. That's the case again for the 2023 Class, which comes in ranked 40th nationally. The headliner is Ben Kueter, an Iowa City native who looks like the next future star linebacker for the Hawkeyes. The 6'3", 220-pound physical specimen was also an accomplished wrestler and will bring that attitude to the gridiron. JUCO transfer Anterio Thompson is another defender who could provide an instant impact after arriving from Iowa Western Community College, while safety Kahlil Tate is a high-upside defensive back. Tate, a long, athletic defender, played both corner and receiver in high school, but looks like he could play safety at the next level. Another name to watch is Leighton Jones, an offensive linemen who played both ways in high school and should develop quickly in this system.

2023 Schedule Analysis
A soft non-conference slate should be a prime opportunity for the Hawkeyes to gain some much-needed momentum early on, with Utah State, Iowa State, and Western Michigan. The Cy-Hawk game with ISU is always a battle, but Ferentz and staff have traditionally owned this rivalry, although the game is in Ames this year. Opening up Big Ten play with a road game against Penn State is brutal, but the Hawkeyes are fortunate that their other two East Division crossover games are winnable, with Michigan State and Rutgers. After a tough October slate, things clear up significantly for Iowa down the stretch, with Northwestern, Rutgers, Illinois, and the annual Black Friday tilt with rival Nebraska. Overall, the schedule is fairly manageable, although this is one of the toughest road schedules Iowa has played in a long time, not just traveling to Iowa State and Penn State, but also Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Nebraska.

2023 X-Factor: Cade McNamara, QB
We've seen Iowa win with some lacking quarterback play, but no team could have succeeded with the production the Hawkeyes received from that position a season ago. Nobody had any reason to respect the aerial attack, leading to stacked boxes and an extremely one-dimensional group. The addition of Michigan transfer Cade McNamara feels like it could signal a change for the Hawkeyes and bring some much-needed playmaking to this offense. That doesn't mean Iowa is going to have McNamara be chucking the ball all over the field, but he's proven he can move the ball down the field and also create with his legs. Again, just meager improvements from this position could make this team a much tougher foe and set them up nicely to take the West Division and considering McNamara's track record, that seems well within play.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 9-4 (6-3 Big Ten, Lose Big Ten Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: RB Kaleb Johnson
Defensive MVP: CB Cooper DeJean
Impact Freshman: LB Ben Kueter
Impact Transfer: QB Cade McNamara
Breakout Player of the Year: S Xavier Nwankpa

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