Leistikow: Stories that need to emerge for 2016 Hawkeyes

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — C.J. Beathard, Matt VandeBerg, Josey Jewell and Desmond King — the four captains for Iowa’s football season opener Saturday against Miami of Ohio — are important, to be sure.

Receiver Riley McCarron (83) and fullback Drake Kulick (45) are the types of stories that need to emerge for the 2016 Hawkeyes to succeed.

But the fate of the 2016 Hawkeyes lies within the dozens of players you’ve not seen in many headlines in the eight months since the Rose Bowl.

That was clear Tuesday in listening to Kirk Ferentz’s first game-week news conference of the season. Forget what the pundits have told you about the Hawkeyes’ boat-load of returning experience.

A dive into the two-deep debunks that assertion. There are 16 players on Iowa’s depth chart with zero snaps of college experience. And that doesn’t count a few true freshmen Ferentz indicated Tuesday would play in Saturday’s 2:30 p.m., ESPNU-televised contest.

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Beyond that group, another eight players on the two deep have what I’d call extremely limited experience — guys like sophomore starting receiver Jay Scheel, who has been on the field for all of three mop-up snaps.

The eight true freshmen on the depth chart represents a mix of need (11 known scholarship players have departed the program since January) and talent in the Class of 2016.

“How they're going to play Saturday or beyond, who knows,” Ferentz said. “How many will play Saturday or beyond, who knows that, either.”

With that backdrop, here is a non-exhaustive list of the players you don’t see in the headlines but who will determine whether Iowa can repeat as champions of the Big Ten Conference’s West Division:

Meet senior Riley McCarron, a former walk-on who has one reception in Iowa’s last 10 games. We know he’s 5-foot-9, 186 pounds and winner of a 2015 Coaches Appreciation award. We don’t know if he can be a go-to guy in the receiver group.

Sticking with former walk-ons, how about Bo Bower? If the junior from West Branch can be this year’s Cole Fisher, he’ll be a classic story of perseverance. Bower has replaced Aaron Mends at weak-side linebacker, much like Fisher replaced him last August. His first start in 20 months comes Saturday, a long journey since he was benched in the 2015 TaxSlayer Bowl. “His attitude never changed,” Ferentz said.

Iowa’s offensive line has five guys with starting experience, but Ike Boettger is emblematic that four of them have limited starting experience. The junior right tackle from Cedar Falls hasn’t played a meaningful snap since suffering a high-ankle sprain against Illinois, 10 months ago. If Boettger and Co. can’t protect Beathard (see: seven sacks in the Rose Bowl), it’ll be a long season.

Another offensive lineman you haven’t heard much about is Keegan Render, but the sophomore from Indianola is important. Ferentz brought up Render’s name Tuesday as an emerging story, saying “he’s really improved.” Render is the Sixth Man of the offensive line, should anyone get hurt. Last year’s Sixth Man? Cole Croston, now the starting left tackle (aka, No. 6 is important).

Iowa’s search for a pass rush may land in the lap of redshirt freshman Anthony Nelson. The Waukee High School product is among those who have never played a college snap, but there he is, on the co-No. 1 line with Matt Nelson, at defensive end. He’s now 6-7, 253 — 33 pounds heavier than when he arrived (“A lot of eating,” he said). Iowa doesn't have its next Drew Ott — at least not yet — but the younger Nelson seems to be the best candidate to apply quarterback pressure.

At the other defensive end spot, you might see redshirt sophomore Parker Hesse take a big jump. Teammates report the Waukon native has been surging into the offensive backfield in practice. “He's really poised to have a good year,” Ferentz said.

Lost in King’s star power in the secondary is Miles Taylor, the second-year starter at strong safety. Taylor “is a better player than he was last January, and that's good news,” Ferentz said.

Let’s put Akrum Wadley on the list, too. The junior is the listed No. 2 running back, but he has the explosiveness to be Iowa’s No. 1 rusher. The Hawkeyes need that type of game-changer in the backfield, and if it’s not Wadley, maybe it’s true freshman Toks Akinribade.

About those true freshmen: Bring a program Saturday. Devonte Young is in the rotation (probably as the No. 5 receiver), and tight end Noah Fant seems to be, too. Both play positions of limited depth. Keeping opponents from kick-return runbacks will be, in part, up to newcomers like Amani Jones and Manny Rugamba. And if Beathard gets hurt, there’s a chance Nathan Stanley will be thrust into a role of extreme importance.

Lastly, there’s a chance Iowa’s leading scorer this season could be a walk-on from North Carolina. Ferentz cracked, in seriousness, about new No. 1 placekicker Keith Duncan: “I'm not sure how he ended up here.”

There are a lot more gently-used names I could mention: Offensive linemen James Daniels and Boone Myers, fullbacks Drake Kulick and Brady Ross, safeties Brandon Snyder and Anthony Gair.

Ferentz, entering his 18th opener as Iowa’s coach, historically likes to talk about good “stories” in his program. That's because the Hawkeyes' annual success relies upon them.

Most of these stories are in their emerging stages, early in the process of being written.

An eight-month offseason is coming to a close. Let’s call that Chapter 1.

Chapter 2 begins Saturday.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

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