10 questions that will define Iowa's 2020 football season: From quarterback to punter
IOWA CITY, Ia. — A Big Ten Conference football season that almost didn’t happen will kick off Oct. 23 in 40-degree weather in Madison, Wisconsin.
Iowa will open play the next day at Purdue, renewing a rivalry that has been contested during two world wars, amid civil unrest in the 1960s and now while the COVID-19 pandemic has touched every aspect of society, including organized sports.
The Hawkeyes, like all Big Ten teams, are hoping to safely contest nine games in the next nine weeks, with the goal of winning the title game Dec. 19 in Indianapolis. They will do so with a new quarterback, a defense that will lean on some young athletes and a 22nd-year head coach trying to pivot past a summer that revealed there were fissures in his program that hinged on race relations.
Kirk Ferentz, the dean of coaches at the FBS level, has always projected a calmness that suggests hard work and humility are the keys to success, on and off the football field. That buttoned-down approach has been tested this year like never before.
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Focusing solely on the on-field dimension of the 2020 Iowa football team, here are 10 questions that will be answered in the season to come:
1. Will Spencer Petras take command of the quarterback position?
Ferentz is handing the keys to what could be a high-powered offense to a redshirt sophomore with 11 collegiate pass attempts to his credit, all of them in mop-up duty. The coach clearly sees something special in Petras, a 6-foot-5, 231-pound native of California who beat out Peyton Mansell to be Nate Stanley’s primary backup a year ago.
Stanley showed as a sophomore that he was ready and held the starting job for three years that produced three bowl victories. So, if Ferentz is right about Petras, he could well be the next three-year starting quarterback at Iowa. And, unlike Stanley, Petras inherits a wide receiver group brimming with talent and experience in Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Brandon Smith, Tyrone Tracy Jr. and Nico Ragaini.
Petras is the quintessential pocket passer, and he should be well-protected by an outstanding offensive line anchored by senior tackles Coy Cronk and Alaric Jackson. Tyler Goodson gives him a tantalizing option at running back.
Now, it’s up to Petras, who arrived on campus in January 2018 to give himself a five-month head start on his Iowa career. But not having spring practices this year was certainly a setback for a new starting quarterback.
Petras will make his starting debut against Purdue, which allowed 31 points per game last year while generating only 15 turnovers. It will be a Big Ten Conference road game, but with no fans in attendance. It sounds like the perfect setting for a young quarterback to find some confidence. If Petras can get this Hawkeye offense humming early, look out, Big Ten West.
2. Can Tyler Goodson be an 800-yard rusher?
Yes, 1,000 yards is the typical standard, but this is not a typical year.
Goodson made Hawkeye history last year when he led the team in rushing as a true freshman. The sleek Georgia native surpassed Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young on the depth chart in the process, picking up 638 yards on his 134 carries for a 4.8-yard average. Sargent is still around to provide a steady senior backup. Ivory Kelly-Martin will try to work his way back into the tailback rotation. But Goodson is the potential star of this group, and he’ll be operating behind what should be a stellar offensive line.
At 5-10 and 200 pounds, Goodson will have to prove that he can withstand the pounding of nine Big Ten Conference games in nine weeks. But there’s no reason he can’t average 18 carries a game, which would put him at 162 for the season. At 5 yards a carry, that would be 810 yards. For a talent like Goodson, that’s certainly in reach, and would give the Hawkeyes a top backfield option that is both reliable and a potential game-breaker.
3. Who will be the leading receiver?
The Hawkeyes return their top seven reception leaders from a season ago, an amazing stat. Ragaini’s 46 catches topped the team, but Smith-Marsette was just behind with 44 and was the star of the Holiday Bowl victory. Smith caught 37 and tied Smith-Marsette for the team lead with five touchdown receptions despite missing nearly five full games with an injury. Tracy Jr. caught 36 passes.
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Clearly, any of the wide receivers is capable of coming out on top this season, depending on how defenses align and whether Petras settles in on one in particular as his most trusted target.
But then consider that Goodson caught 24 passes out of the backfield and Sam Laporta emerged at tight end late in the season and ended up with 15 receptions (Sargent’s 14 catches was next best on the team).
Goodson is likely to be more involved this year. Iowa has shown that it likes to use tight ends to move the ball through the air, so that bodes well for the talented Laporta.
Smith-Marsette and Tracy are deep threats, each averaging 16.4 yards a catch with Stanley under center a year ago. Does Petras have the arm strength, and will he get the time needed in the pocket, to elevate that part of Iowa’s offense?
Ragaini, operating in the slot where Nick Easley was a reliable option before him, will certainly get plenty of looks over the middle if defenses focus too much attention to Smith-Marsette and Tracy.
The bet here, though, is that Smith will see the highest snap count of the group based on his superior blocking ability. Plus, he has two gifts his Hawkeye peers haven’t shown: large, sure hands and leaping ability that allows him to consistently win one-on-one battles. A healthy Smith would be Iowa’s most reliable receiver, invaluable to a first-year starting quarterback in the Big Ten. And that means Smith could equal Ragaini’s 46 catches from a year ago, even in a shortened season, to lead a very talented pack.
4. Will the Hawkeyes have three linemen rising up NFL Draft boards?
This is the value of the Big Ten having any semblance of a fall season for senior offensive tackles Jackson and Cronk.
Jackson is the homegrown Hawkeye, entering his fourth season as a starter on the left side because he was unhappy with his injury-hindered junior year. Jackson could have joined Tristan Wirfs in turning pro last winter, but he wouldn’t have been a first-round pick as Wirfs was. One final collegiate season gives him the chance to show scouts that he should be.
Cronk transferred from Indiana after making 40 starts there, and it wasn’t because he wanted to experience life in the Big Ten West. Iowa’s reputation of putting offensive linemen on NFL rosters is a selling point for good reason, and Cronk also must be thrilled to get the opportunity to prove that he can flourish as Wirfs’ replacement on the right side of what should be a terrific offensive line. If he does, there’s money to be made.
And Tyler Linderbaum needed only one season as Iowa’s starting center to display impressive physical skills and a firm grasp of what it takes to succeed in the middle of the offensive line. The redshirt sophomore from Solon is already appearing on mock NFL Drafts as a potential first-round pick. Nine more games as the captain of Iowa’s offensive line should only solidify Linderbaum’s reputation. Enjoy him while you can, Hawkeye fans.
5. What young linebackers will emerge?
Nick Niemann gives Iowa one veteran linebacker, but Djimon Colbert’s experience will be missed, even if the team increasingly uses a 4-2-5 alignment. Colbert, who has 22 starts under his belt, has decided to sit this fall out over concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, with the full support of his coaches. Niemann will replace him in the lineup.
That leaves a hole in the middle, and sophomore Jack Campbell will get the nod there. At 6-5 and 243 pounds, Campbell can quickly become a huge presence in Iowa’s defense, perhaps following the Josey Jewell path as a three-year starter.
But depth will be needed, and defensive coordinator Phil Parker will certainly turn to sophomore Seth Benson and redshirt freshman Jestin Jacobs at times to see what they can do. This will be a valuable learning year for the young trio of linebackers, but it can’t be just that. They will need to make a meaningful impact if Iowa’s defense is to remain among the Big Ten’s best.
6. Can Chauncey Golston be a one-man wrecking crew, or will someone rise up from an untested group?
Golston is the only returning starter on the defensive line, and the senior will be looking to at least double the three sacks he was credited with last season. He can be a dangerous pass-rusher, as he showed in Iowa’s Outback Bowl win over Mississippi State when he was a sophomore backup.
Golston will need help, though, with A.J. Epenesa’s departure to the NFL leaving a glaring hole on the other end of the line. Zach VanValkenburg, in his second season on campus after transferring from Division II Hillsdale College, will be the first choice. Joe Evans, undersized but ultra-quick, is also an intriguing option, particularly in obvious passing situations. And junior tackle Daviyon Nixon will certainly help things if he can apply consistent pressure up the middle.
Keep an eye on Logan Lee and John Waggoner as well. They may make a push for playing time based on their ability to get to the quarterback.
Parker is reluctant to rely on blitzes to pressure quarterbacks, knowing that increases the possibility of giving up a big play. So it’s imperative for Iowa’s front four to be a force. Or risk forcing Parker to gamble more than he’d like.
7. Is Matt Hankins ready for a send-off worthy of Josh Jackson?
Hankins, like Jackson, hails from Texas. He would love to join Jackson as recent Hawkeye cornerbacks to become high NFL Draft picks. Jackson did it with one all-American season in 2017 before going to the Green Bay Packers in the second round.
Hankins was a freshman then, but was already earning playing time. He’s been in the lineup ever since, showing great promise but with only two interceptions to his name. He’s the lone senior starter in the secondary now, with the Hawkeyes set to face some sophisticated passing attacks in Purdue, Minnesota and Penn State.
Hankins will get ample opportunity to show off his coverage skills, and Iowa needs him to be up to the task. This is his NFL audition, and it will be fascinating to watch.
8. Is this the year Brian Ferentz’s offense supplants Phil Parker’s defense as the key to winning games?
The Kirk Ferentz formula for winning has long relied on a defense that yields ground grudgingly, forcing opponents into long drives that result in field goals instead of touchdowns. That approach takes the pressure off of the offense, which can succeed by being more functional than flashy.
But the talent and experience this season is firmly on the offensive side of the ball for Iowa. Kirk’s son, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, has wide receivers and running backs that are good enough to slice through Big Ten defenses, as was apparent in a 49-24 pasting of USC in the Holiday Bowl to end last season.
The trend in college football in this pandemic-altered year has been high-scoring games across the country. Defenses are struggling to keep pace. Parker must replace seven starters and is lacking the depth usually associated with a Hawkeye defense. That arrangement will become especially troublesome if COVID-19 takes an additional toll on that side of the ball.
Parker will no doubt find a way to keep his defense competitive. It will get better as the year goes on.
But Brian Ferentz has much more to work with in 2020. Nothing is normal this season, anyway. No one is operating in a “comfort zone.” It may be time for the Hawkeyes to turn their offense loose and see how far it can take them.
9. Will an Australian punter become a Hawkeye folk hero?
Iowa has brought in Ron Coluzzi and Michael Sleep-Dalton in recent years, looking for experienced players to handle punting duties for a single season. Sleep-Dalton is from Australia, which is exporting punters to America at a high volume these days.
Now, Tory Taylor comes to the Hawkeye program, carrying a freshman designation even though he is 23 years old. The Aussie is getting his first taste of both America and its version of football.
Iowa special teams coordinator LeVar Woods made a 27-hour trek just to see Taylor, and obviously came away impressed. So it’s a safe bet that Taylor isn’t here to be a backup.
Woods has spoken of how naturally gifted Australian punters seem to be, how precise they can be with the direction of their kicks and the tricky spins they can make a football take. Unlike the graduate transfer Sleep-Dalton, Woods could have Taylor under his tutelage for four years.
Admit it: Hawkeye fans love their punters. This could be a special union.
10. Can the Hawkeyes actually play nine games?
The coronavirus pandemic was the reason the Big Ten originally scrapped plans for a fall football season, and that threat hasn’t gone away. Iowa isn’t alone in believing that it is taking all the proper precautions to protect the safety of its athletes and coaches. There is a renowned hospital, with plenty of expertise, to draw on. The league has required daily testing of up to 170 team members per week.
The Hawkeye football team shut down voluntary workouts for more than a week this summer after 93 positive COVID-19 tests in one week in the entire athletic department, 11 of them in football. That was before the announcement that the Big Ten would proceed with a season after all. But it certainly underscores how perilous this undertaking is.
The good news for Iowa is that COVID-19 tests in the athletic department are revealing fewer positives as the weeks go on. In the four weeks since the Big Ten revealed its new football schedule, Iowa has reported 26 positive tests total; it’s unclear how many of those involved the football team. That’s the level it will take to get through this season.
Examples of how quickly things can change are everywhere. Alabama coach Nick Saban tested positive for the coronavirus Wednesday, saying he must have been exposed on his team’s road trip to Mississippi. Baylor and Vanderbilt both reported outbreaks among their football teams this week, forcing games to be postponed.
In the Big Ten, there is no possibility of postponement, only cancellation. The league scheduled nine games in nine weeks, and if one team can’t muster a healthy squad for a particular Saturday, then two teams will be left with an empty date. It’s a reality Iowa must face head-on.
The Hawkeyes have good reason to believe they can win the Big Ten West. That’s pressure they’re used to. What’s new this year is entering each week hoping the coronavirus hasn’t infiltrated your locker room, or that of your opponent.
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.
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