TAMPA, Fla. – As each day passes, the sting of Iowa’s 30-3 Outback Bowl loss to Florida will fade, and the 2017 football season will be that much closer.
For the next few weeks, as Hawkeye players allow their bodies to recover from the grind of an 8-5 season, coach Kirk Ferentz and his staff will assess where the program goes from here.
What changes need to be made after a fifth straight bowl loss – the last three coming via blowout margins?
“We really need to spend some time and reflect on what we need to do better,” said senior-to-be Sean Welsh, the team’s top offensive lineman, “and what works during bowl prep and during the game and what doesn’t.”
The biggest personnel challenges of 2017 will be replacing two first-team all-Big Ten Conference defenders in cornerback Desmond King and defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson and a successful two-year starting quarterback in C.J. Beathard.
If junior running back Akrum Wadley declares for the NFL Draft (it seems to be real possibility based on his postgame comments), that’ll add to the degree of difficulty.
But the good news is, there’s a lot of experience to build around. Five offensive linemen who made at least seven starts in 2016 return, as do six of the defense’s starters in the front seven.
Seventeen guys who regularly started games have more eligibility.
“The future is really bright for next season,” Beathard said. “I know these guys well, and I know they’re going to use this (bowl loss) as motivation for the offseason.”
Here’s our annual look at what the possible opening-day lineup will look like Sept. 2 when Iowa hosts Wyoming:
2017 projected starting lineup
SE – Jerminic Smith (jr.): Iowa’s best returning deep threat showed promise with a 118-yard game as a true freshman in 2015 but has struggled with drops and maintaining consistency. Went without a catch in each of his last two games. Excellent downfield blocker.
LT – Boone Myers (sr.): Began the season at left guard, but the former walk-on returned to preferred left-tackle role and kept it after Cole Croston’s injury. Will be Iowa’s second-most experienced returning lineman, with 22 career starts.
LG – Keegan Render (jr.): Injuries to teammates gave the Indianola native a chance to play, and by season’s end he had made seven starts and was one of the team’s most improved linemen. Needs to develop better pass protection.
C – James Daniels (jr.): Iowa likes to establish multi-year centers, and the younger brother of LeShun Daniels Jr. is the latest fixture. Emerged as the Hawkeyes’ second-best lineman after an early-season knee injury. His best is still to come.
RG – Sean Welsh (sr.): Has been compared by his coach to all-pro former Hawkeye Marshal Yanda, and the second-team all-American by USA TODAY will be the blocking rock of a veteran line. Enters 2017 with 36 career starts.
RT – Ike Boettger (sr.): Probably returns to his normal home after sliding inside to left guard for the Outback Bowl. Rapidly-improving Levi Paulsen, who started one game against Illinois, is probably “Next Man In” at most line positions except center.
TE – Noah Fant (soph.): Needs to add 15 pounds to his listed 6-5, 220 frame after seeing his role increase as a true freshman (nine catches, 70 yards). Outgoing tight end George Kittle raves about how Fant and fellow 6-5 freshman T.J. Hockenson make plays in practice. Walk-on Peter Pekar returns as the top blocking tight end.
WR – Matt VandeBerg (sr.): With approval in the bank on his medical-hardship waiver, the reliable target comes back for a fifth year with an outside chance at Iowa’s receiving record. Needs 68 catches in 2017 (he had 65 as a junior, then 19 this fall before breaking his foot) to tie Kevonte Martin-Manley’s career mark of 174.
WR – Jay Scheel (jr.): Iowa lists three receivers, so we will, too. Another year of nagging injuries held him back (five catches in 12 games), but the untapped promise is still here. Expect a wide-open competition that’ll also include Devonte Young and Adrian Falconer and three or four incoming true freshmen in the Class of 2017.
QB – Nathan Stanley (soph.): Coaches have said the competition will be “wide-open” to replace C.J. Beathard, but Stanley was given No. 2 reps as a true freshman over returnees Tyler Wiegers and Drew Cook. Showed poise in his only meaningful action vs. North Dakota State. A quick learner with a pro build (6-5, 230), big arm and potential to start for three seasons.
FB – Drake Kulick (sr.): The walk-on should be recovered in time for spring practice after breaking his leg on the first play of Iowa’s regular-season finale vs. Nebraska. Will share time again with Brady Ross.
RB – Akrum Wadley (sr.) or Toks Akinribade (soph.): Wadley’s stay-or-go-pro decision is likely coming soon. It would be a tough blow if Iowa loses its most dynamic offensive player. Wadley led the team in rushing, touchdowns and was second in receptions. Coaches liked the combination of speed and strength that Akinribade showed as a true freshman. Perhaps Derrick Mitchell regains his third-down role as a senior.
PK – Keith Duncan (soph.): His calm-under-pressure demeanor won a four-way kicking derby in 2016, but it’s no lock that the walk-off hero of Iowa’s 14-13 Michigan win will keep the job. Miguel Recinos has a bigger leg and might be the leading candidate to handle kickoffs.
LE – Anthony Nelson (soph.): Even though Matt Nelson started all 13 games in 2016 and is returning, it’s going to be hard to keep Anthony (no relation) off the field after a six-sack campaign as a freshman. The Waukee product has the frame (6-7, 253) to put on more poundage. Hasn’t been ruled out that Matt (6-8, 282) would move inside to tackle with end becoming a deep position.
LT – Cedrick Lattimore (soph.): Being groomed to replace first-team all-Big Ten space-eater Jaleel Johnson. Quickly grew to interior-lineman size as true freshman (6-5, 280-plus pounds), and defensive coordinator Phil Parker noted his significant progress during bowl prep. Played quite a bit against Florida.
RT – Nathan Bazata (sr.): Slowed by injuries this year. Not a dominant defensive presence but plays solid assignment football. Look for sophomore-to-be Brady Reiff to crack the rotation and possibly be Bazata’s heir apparent in 2018.
RE – Parker Hesse (jr.): A solid, hard-working contributor (eight TFLs in 2016) who quietly has racked up 20 career starts. Many young defensive ends are coming down the pipeline: Freshmen Chauncey Golston, Romeo McKnight and Brandon Simon took redshirts, and heralded prospect A.J. Epenesa arrives in June.
WLB – Bo Bower (sr.): Will likely for the first time enter fall camp as an undisputed starter. Has improved in run support; still must get better in pass coverage. A smart, tough player who registered a career-high 91 tackles. Junior-to-be Jack Hockaday is the fourth linebacker.
MLB – Josey Jewell (sr.): Butkus Award finalist is already one of the Big Ten’s best defenders. A tireless film-study guy that seems to make every tackle (had 124, by far a team high, despite missing most of the opener after a targeting penalty). Has a chance to go down as one of the Hawkeyes’ all-time linebacker greats.
OLB – Ben Niemann (sr.): Has the potential to make a big jump if he can stay healthy this offseason. Was a solid, steady contributor (69 tackles) but needs to make more impact plays in space at one of Iowa’s most important positions.
LC – Joshua Jackson (jr.): Now has extensive film to evaluate after making his first career start in the Outback Bowl. Was one of the bright spots in spring practice, showing speed and instincts in pass coverage. Likely will be pushed by Michael Ojemudia for the job previously held by three-year starter Greg Mabin.
SS – Miles Taylor (sr.): Struggled at times in pass coverage. Got hurt early against Michigan and lost his starting job to Anthony Gair, but in 2017 will bring a veteran presence (23 career starts) to an otherwise inexperienced secondary. Behind Taylor, coaches liked what Amani Hooker showed in his first year.
FS – Brandon Snyder (jr.): One of the most improved 2016 starters wound up leading the team in interceptions (three), forced fumbles (three) and fumble recoveries (two) while developing a reputation as a physical presence. Was at the center of communication issues at times, but that should improve with experience.
RC – Manny Rugamba (soph.): Turned heads in August camp and became just the third true freshman to start at cornerback under Kirk Ferentz (joining Benny Sapp and Desmond King). Started three times and had two interceptions before a season-ending shoulder/collarbone injury vs. Nebraska. A potential star.
P – Colten Rastetter (soph.): Lost competitive battle with grad-transfer Ron Coluzzi in fall camp. The left-footer likely has the inside track now, but there’s not much data to tell how good he is (his lone 2016 punt traveled 42 yards). Walk-on freshman Jackson Terry should contend, too.
Returns – Devonte Young (soph.): A major hole entering 2017 is replacing King’s elite kick-returning prowess. Young remains an unknown quantity after not touching the ball as a true freshman, but he was listed as the No. 2 return man. Probably a wide-open competition through August.