The future of Iowa Hawkeye football: Here are 10 'building blocks'
IOWA CITY, Ia. — There is a serious youth movement underway on the Iowa football team.
Not only are there 26 underclassmen listed on the team’s preseason depth chart, and 74 on the roster as a whole, but many are poised to play pivotal roles this season.
Make no mistake, seniors such as middle linebacker Josey Jewell and guard Sean Welsh will still lead the way in 2017. But beside them will be the “building blocks” for the Hawkeyes' future, earning valuable playing time instead of just biding their time.
Here is our annual look at 10 future contributors at Iowa, each athlete with at least two years of eligibility remaining after this season. There are five offensive and five defensive players, three sophomores and seven freshmen — and that doesn’t include sophomores Cedrick Lattimore, Anthony Nelson and Nathan Stanley, all of whom made this list a year ago. You can only be a “building block” once; then you’re cemented into the building.
Noah Fant, tight end
Background: Basketball skills often translate to success at tight end, and the Omaha native has those and more. He played in 11 games as a rookie, catching nine passes for 70 yards and a touchdown.
2017 outlook: Fant (6-foot-5, 232 pounds) enters the season as a starter and one of the Hawkeyes’ most established passing threats after the graduation of George Kittle. He has the speed to get downfield, but may be most valuable as a sturdy target eight to 10 yards from the line of scrimmage. When Iowa needs to pick up a key first down through the air, Fant will be a primary option. A 40-catch season is within reason.
2018 and beyond: Fant needs to supplement his receiving ability with better blocking, but there’s no question he can join a long line of stellar Hawkeyes at his position. He can be an every-down tight end, and a potential game-breaker.
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Manny Rugamba, cornerback
Background: Does anyone remember the Michigan game last year? (Just kidding, of course you do.) And you remember that Rugamba’s interception was as big of a play as Iowa had during that upset, and maybe during the season. Pressed into action as a true freshman, he didn’t back down. And that’s why he has sparked so much excitement.
2017 outlook: Unfortunately for Rugamba (6-0, 185), his 2017 debut will be delayed a week, the result of a suspension for a violation of team policy in the off-season. But he’s slotted in as a starter, and will try to pick up where his mentor Desmond King left off. He does not have blazing speed, but shifts direction so quickly and effortlessly that he can operate effectively in tight windows. Plus, he has a nose for the ball. Opposing teams may test him at their peril.
2018 and beyond: Rugamba has had NFL aspirations since his high school days in Illinois. The only thing that may stop him is his own inability to reach his potential. He’ll start at Iowa as long as he keeps his head on straight.
Kristian Welch, linebacker
Background: The bruiser from small-town Iola, Wis., got into all 13 games as a true freshman, registering three tackles while trying to position himself for some playing time in a post-Josey Jewell world.
2017 outlook: Jewell, Iowa’s senior star linebacker, won’t get to take many plays off this season, either. But Welch (6-2, 232) has moved up the depth chart to be his primary backup. And during spring and summer practices, it was Welch who was getting the bulk of the work while coaches saved some wear and tear on Jewell.
2018 and beyond: Welch is being groomed for two years of starting in the middle of the Iowa defense. He has the physical skills to succeed there. It’s the mental part of being a defensive leader that he must grasp. Expect him to do that, and for the Hawkeye defense to be in fine hands.
Alaric Jackson, offensive tackle
Background: Jackson was a latecomer to the gridiron, but an all-state performer by his senior year at Renaissance High School in Detroit. His size (6-7, 320) draws your initial attention. But he has the footwork and strength to go with it.
2017 outlook: Jackson is the backup at left tackle, and the heir apparent at that vital position. But Iowa’s coaches will find playing time for him on a veteran offensive line this year. He’s too good to keep off the field.
2018 and beyond: A three-year starter on the Hawkeye offensive line? It sure looks like it. Jackson will be a massive and surprisingly nimble force for Big Ten opponents to contend with.
Toren Young, running back
Background: Young grew up minutes from Camp Randall Stadium, then left Wisconsin for Iowa. His rugged running style would be at home in either place, but the Hawkeyes will get to unleash him behind a big offensive line.
2017 outlook: Young (5-11, 220) redshirted last year while Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels Jr. ripped through opposing defenses for 1,000 yards apiece. In the spring, he emerged as the Hawkeyes’ best complement to Wadley, plowing through defenders while showing surprising speed. The arrival or graduate transfer James Butler clouds things, but Young still figures to be Iowa’s third option in the running game. And that’s still a pretty hefty workload.
2018 and beyond: Wadley and Butler are gone after this year, and Young will be the most muscular option in Iowa’s backfield. He’ll split time with someone (freshman Ivory Kelly-Martin is making a case to be that guy), but don’t be surprised if Young gets the bulk of the carries for the next three seasons. He looks like a player who won’t wear down.
A.J. Epenesa, defensive end
Background: You probably have this memorized already, but Epenesa is a five-star recruit out of Edwardsville, Ill., the son of former Hawkeye defensive lineman Eppy Epenesa, one of the most talented recruits in Iowa history.
2017 outlook: And that means Epenesa (6-5, 270) will play. Right away and often. His initial impact figures to come on the pass rush, where his strength and speed make him difficult to contain. But Epenesa will earn his share of first- and second-down snaps as well.
2018 and beyond: The question isn’t whether Epenesa will become a starter, it’s where his long-term future is. As he puts on weight, it will be tempting to move him inside. But his speed off the edge will remain tantalizing as well. Look for the Hawkeyes to move Epenesa around in search of mismatches, the way offenses do with their skilled playmakers. He is the biggest difference-maker in this class for the Hawkeyes.
Matt Hankins, cornerback
Background: A two-year, all-district performer at Marcus High School in Lewisville, Texas, Hankins has quickly filled a void at cornerback for Iowa, rising to second on the depth chart within weeks of his arrival.
2017 outlook: Hankins (6-1, 175) will be pressed into action right away, and not just because of Rugamba’s opening-game suspension. He’ll be needed on special teams. And he’ll be needed whenever the team’s top three corners require a break. The experience will be invaluable.
2018 and beyond: Rugamba and junior Josh Jackson figure to remain as starters next year, but Hankins will push for more playing time. He needs to put on a little weight (just like Rugamba a year ago), but he’ll be a big part of Iowa’s secondary for four years.
Ihmir Smith-Marsette, wide receiver
Background: The New Jersey native had trouble deciding on a Big Ten school – pledging to Rutgers and then Minnesota before ultimately choosing Iowa – but has landed in a great spot. Wide receiver is a thin position for Iowa, and Smith-Marsette has already been praised as the team’s best deep threat.
2017 outlook: A star hurdler in high school, Smith-Marsette (6-2, 175) has breakaway potential whenever he touches the ball. Beyond the passing game, look for Iowa to get him involved as a kick returner, or a running option on reverse plays. There is plenty of opportunity for a young wide receiver to make his mark quickly, and Smith-Marsette seems to be first in line to do so.
2018 and beyond: A year of early playing time should boost Smith-Marsette’s confidence, and Iowa’s coaches seem intent on feeding him the football. With Smith-Marsette on the outside and fellow freshman Brandon Smith providing a big-handed option over the middle, Iowa could have the makings of a standout receiving duo to usher in the Brian Ferentz era as offensive coordinator.
Geno Stone, safety
Background: Stone played wide receiver, quarterback and defensive back at New Castle (Pa.) High School. When he arrived at Iowa, it was quickly evident to defensive coordinator Phil Parker that Stone is just a football player, period. He has already moved up to second-string strong safety.
2017 outlook: Stone (6-0, 195) will play special teams for sure. But he’ll also get thrown into action as Miles Taylor’s backup. That will serve him well once Taylor graduates.
2018 and beyond: Stone seems to be positioned to be a three-year starter at strong safety, much like Taylor. He is a big hitter with terrific natural instincts who doesn’t act overwhelmed by the level of play. Look for him to be quietly effective, and occasionally turn in a play that shifts momentum.
Tristan Wirfs, offensive tackle
Background: The Register’s choice for top male athlete in Iowa last year, Wirfs looks less like a freshman than any newcomer in recent memory. At 6-5, 315 pounds, the Mount Vernon product is already capable of standing up to older defensive linemen. He’s also one of the top track athletes to come out of the state, and plans to compete in the throwing events at Iowa as well.
2017 outlook: Wirfs missed a little time this summer with an injury, but does factor into Iowa’s plans. Coaches seem eager to get him accustomed to life as a major-college offensive lineman, even though playing time might not be abundant with two senior starters (Ike Boettger and Boone Myers) at offensive tackle.
2018 and beyond: Jackson and Wirfs should bookend Iowa’s offensive line for three seasons. And if that doesn’t excite a fan base accustomed to O-line success, nothing will.