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The Hawkeye wide receiver says it happened the same way as the first, which has him searching for answers Mark Emmert/HawkCentral

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — It feels like college football is coming fast. Yet it's still a long way out, with 11 weeks until Iowa's Sept. 2 season opener against Wyoming.

Which is it? Maybe a little of both.

But there's no doubt that this is the season for speculation and curiosity about how good the Hawkeyes — and the other 129 FBS teams — will be in 2017.

For now, rather than try to overanalyze each of Iowa's 12 regular-season matchups in June (let's save that for another month), I thought it'd be fun and telling to try to project the personnel who will try to get Kirk Ferentz's Hawkeyes to their 15th bowl game in the past 17 seasons.

Below is my educated guess at who will adorn Iowa's Week 1 two-deep come late August. Read on, and you'll see a (much-debated) quarterback decision, uncertainty at wide receiver and special teams, and — surprise! — seven true freshmen. 

OFFENSE

Split end

Devonte Young (6-0, 200, Soph.): Welcome to the most uncertain Hawkeye position of 2017. Young doesn’t have a career catch, but he impressed coaches enough that they played him as a true freshman and listed him No. 1 here pre-spring.

Adrian Falconer (6-1, 192, Jr.): Had a similar freshman year as Young, but got even less action as a sophomore. With Jerminic Smith (transfer), Jay Scheel (injury) and Ronald Nash (focusing on school) gone, there is abundant opportunity.

Left tackle

Boone Myers (6-5, 310, RS Sr.): "30 and 30" isn't an ESPN documentary or the basketball line of ex-Purdue forward Caleb Swanigan. It's the number of sacks Iowa's offensive line has given up each of the last two seasons. Myers' pass blocking, in particular, will go under the microscope in 2017, considering he'll be tasked to protect the blind side of a first-time starting quarterback.

Alaric Jackson (6-7, 320, RS Fr.): The largest Hawkeye could use another year to groom, but the former basketball player has the athleticism for left tackle. Plus, there’s this four-word endorsement from line coach Tim Polasek: “I like his grit.”

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Tim Polasek says the Hawkeyes are looking for depth this spring.

Left guard

Keegan Render (6-4, 310, RS Jr.): The Indianola product was thrust into a regular role last year after Cole Croston (stress reaction/fracture) was sidelined, and he accounted well for himself. Now, he’s a starter in pen.

Ross Reynolds (6-4, 300, RS Jr.): The Waukee alum has minimal career experience (five games, all in blowouts), but after a strong spring, that could change. He got some first-team run in the spring game.

Center

James Daniels (6-4, 295, Jr.): By the time he’s a senior, Daniels could be every bit as good as Rimington Award finalist Austin Blythe was when his 49-start career ended in 2015. An athletic, powerful force.

Spencer Williams (6-3, 295, RS Fr.): The Cedar Falls prep took second-team reps in the spring game with Lucas LeGrand, Daniels' backup center last year, working at tackle.

Right guard

Sean Welsh (6-3, 295, RS Sr.): Welsh missed one game a year ago, against North Dakota State. You know what happened there. Also, Kirk Ferentz once compared him to Marshal Yanda. Should be a first-team all-Big Ten guard this year.

Levi Paulsen (6-5, 305, RS Soph.): He’s 1-0 as a starter, filling in at right guard in Iowa’s 28-0 win at Illinois in November. An enjoyable kid who could battle his twin brother, Landan, for playing time.

Right tackle

Ike Boettger (6-6, 307, RS Sr.): Entering his third year as a starter, the former tight end has become dependable on the right side. Iowa needs him to be dominant.

Tristan Wirfs (6-5, 315, Fr.): A stretch to have a true freshman at backup tackle in Week 1? Perhaps, but Iowa has a special talent in Wirfs and might be wise to fast-track the Mount Vernon product with four seniors starters in the front five.

Tight end

Peter Pekar (6-4, 252, RS Sr.): Will the former walk-on be listed No. 1 in Week 1, as he is now? Probably. Will he lead the team in tight-end targets? Very unlikely. He’s here for the blocking.

Noah Fant (6-5, 232, Soph.): Brian Ferentz wants to highlight his best playmakers. Fant, T.J. Hockeson and Shaun Beyer all qualify. Fant is the best bet to get the most usage of the bunch and could line up frequently at wide receiver. He's fast.

Slot receiver

Matt VandeBerg (6-1, 195, RS Sr.): Ultra-productive in 2015 with 65 receptions, mostly out of the slot. Why mess with success? Imperative that he stays healthy after a second “Jones” fracture in his foot. "To be honest with you," new receivers coach Kelton Copeland said on this week's Hawk Central radio show, "he looks really good."

Nick Easley (5-11, 203, Jr.): One of the breakout players in spring practice, the junior-college transfer quickly earned the trust of coaches seeking reliable options. Doesn’t have breakaway speed, but runs sharp routes.

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Nick Easley, a walk-on and Newton native, grew up a Hawkeye fan.

Wide receiver

Brandon Smith (6-3, 205, Fr.): Predicting a newcomer atop the depth chart is bold, but the amazing find from Lake Cormorant, Miss., has all the physical tools — size, genetics (both parents were D-1 athletes), bounce (he’s a state-champ high jumper) and hands (size XXXL gloves) — to contribute immediately.

Max Cooper (6-0, 175, Fr.): ... There’s going to be some educated guessing at receiver. Ferentz said he hopes at least two freshmen play. I’ll go with the guy that Copeland this week called “the sleeper of the bunch." And speaking of Wisconsinites ...

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The sophomore-to-be is vying to become the starting quarterback.

Quarterback

Nathan Stanley (6-5, 235, Soph.): ... The coin-flip quarterback situation is unresolved. But I'm here to make a prediction, and the educated guess is the Menomonie, native who rose to No. 2 on the depth chart as a true freshman gets the first snap against Wyoming. He has the stronger arm in the two-man race and the potential to be Iowa's first three-year starter since Ricky Stanzi.

Tyler Wiegers (6-4, 225, RS Jr.): New quarterbacks coach Ken O'Keefe says the former four-star recruit has "more touch" than Stanley. It's also notable that Wiegers got the first snap of the spring game. He's no slouch, and the competition should benefit both guys' development.

Running back

Akrum Wadley (5-11, 195, RS Sr.): Cue the Michigan film. Wadley is one of the more electric offensive players of the Kirk Ferentz era. Keep him healthy, give him 20-25 touches a game, and watch him gain about 150 yards every Saturday.

Toren Young (5-11, 220, RS Fr.): The bulldozer from near Madison, Wis., sold me in the spring. Once he gets rolling, he’s tough to tackle. A perfect power complement to Wadley’s explosiveness.

Fullback

Brady Ross (6-1, 245, RS Soph.): Iowa remains a college football anomaly with its fullback usage. It’ll be interesting to see how prominent this grit position remains in new offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz’s offense.

Drake Kulick (6-1, 240, RS Sr.): The Muscatine native is a bit of a forgotten man after missing spring ball; yet, how dare we forget that indelible, tough-guy image of him being carted off with a broken leg against Nebraska?

Placekicker

Keith Duncan (5-11, 173, Soph.): Special-teams coordinator LeVar Woods is looking for someone to show consistency on field goals and said in May: “I don’t think anyone’s done that yet.” That assessment includes Duncan, the hero of Iowa’s 14-13 win against Michigan.

Miguel Recinos (6-1, 192, RS Jr.): Even if the Mason City product doesn’t beat out Duncan and Caleb Shudak for the place-kicking job, he could succeed Ron Coluzzi on kickoffs.

DEFENSE

Left end

Anthony Nelson (6-7, 260, RS Soph.): Has the potential to be an all-Big Ten defensive end ... this year. Tall, fast and getting stronger. Had six sacks (second on the team) despite just one start in 2016.

Matt Nelson (6-8, 282, RS Jr.): Slowed by injury in the spring, the even-taller Nelson might be a possibility to move inside to tackle. Registered 5½ sacks in 13 starts last fall.

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The sophomore defensive tackle talks about preparing to be a starter this season.

Left tackle

Cedrick Lattimore (6-5, 295, Soph.): Will be asked to up his snaps from about 90 as a true freshman to perhaps 500-plus after the departures of Jaleel Johnson (Minnesota Vikings) and Faith Ekakitie (No. 1 overall pick in the Canadian Football League).

A.J. Epenesa (6-5, 270, Fr.): Boom goes the hype dynamite. The plan seems to be for Iowa to find the five-star prospect about 15 snaps a game as a rookie. You might see him outside, too, but Iowa’s biggest need is inside. No matter what, he’ll be fun to watch.

Right tackle

Nathan Bazata (6-2, 287, RS Sr.): Hurt his ankle in October, missed all of spring ball and emerged from physical therapy to begin his comeback in June conditioning. A technically sound, undersized defender with 24 career starts.

Brady Reiff (6-3, 260, RS So.): Like Bazata, the younger brother of first-round NFL Draft pick Riley Reiff lacks size but not determination. Coaches have raved about his ascent since they moved him inside late last season. The next Mitch King, perhaps?

Right end

Parker Hesse (6-3, 257, RS Jr.): Once an emergency replacement for Drew Ott, the Waukon native has become a fixture on Iowa’s defensive line (21 starts). Had eight tackles for loss, four sacks in 2016.

Chauncey Golston (6-5, 255, RS Fr.): I liked the explosion he and fellow redshirted rookie Brandon Simon showed in the spring game. Senior walk-on Jake Hulett shouldn’t be discounted here, either. Defensive end has become one of Iowa's deepest positions.

Outside linebacker ("Leo")

Ben Niemann (6-3, 233, Sr.): I’m predicting a breakout senior year from the son of Rutgers’ defensive coordinator. Injuries slowed his early-season 2016 performance, but Niemann was a beast against Michigan and tight end Jake Butt.

Kevin Ward (6-1, 217, RS Sr.): The converted defensive back has been put on scholarship and played key snaps a year ago when Niemann was dinged. A good story.

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The Iowa linebacker talks of the summer program headed by strength coach Chris Doyle. Chad Leistikow/HawkCentral

Middle linebacker ("Mike")

Josey Jewell (6-2, 236, RS Sr.): The Butkus Award finalist from last year needs no introduction, except maybe to all-Big Ten voters (he was a second-teamer in 2016). Needs to avoid injury and targeting penalties.

Jack Hockaday (6-1, 232, Jr.): Didn’t play much in 2016 after serving as a Week 1 stop-gap when Jewell got ejected for targeting. There could be an important backup battle here with sophomore Kristian Welch.

Weak-side linebacker ("Will")

Bo Bower (6-1, 235, RS Sr.): It’s probably time to stop discounting Bower’s contributions. He had some rough moments early last year but was stout late in the season. A dependable cog.

Amani Jones (6-0, 235, Soph.): I know what you're thinking: Where’s Aaron Mends? Mends was once the No. 1 weak-side linebacker, but he can't seem to break through beyond specialty usage. By all indications, Jones is a physical, on-the-rise defender.

Left cornerback

Josh Jackson (6-1, 192, RS Jr.): The way he stepped in as an injury replacement against Nebraska showed the moment wasn’t too big for him. Athleticism has never been in question, and now he’s understanding the schemes more. Could be a key playmaker in Iowa’s secondary.

Michael Ojemudia (6-2, 200, RS Soph.): I like the engineering major’s potential, smarts and size. If nothing else, he should battle several incoming freshmen and Cedric Boswell for a nickelback role.

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Kirk Ferentz is down to three healthy corners for the Outback Bowl: Desmond King, Josh Jackson and Michael Ojemudia.

Strong safety

Miles Taylor (5-10, 203, Sr.): Taylor would probably be the first to tell you his junior year didn’t meet expectations. But now as a third-year starter, he’s the veteran of the secondary. He must not only improve drastically but also assert himself a leader.

Amani Hooker (6-0, 210, Soph.): Defensive coordinator Phil Parker has liked the Minneapolis product since he arrived on campus. Could be the heir apparent to Taylor, and may even push him for the starting job.

Free safety

Jake Gervase (6-1, 210, RS Jr.): With three interceptions in the spring game — no matter how routine they may have looked — the former walk-on from Davenport Assumption is in the catbird’s seat to take over the job vacated when Brandon Snyder tore his ACL.

Noah Clayberg (5-11, 209, Fr.): The grayshirt from Pella got substantial spring-game action. A talented athlete and quick learner, he should contribute on special teams at a minimum. (P.S. Don't discount a late-season Snyder return.)

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The Iowa cornerback started three games as a true freshman after Greg Mabin hurt his foot during Michigan week.

Right cornerback

Manny Rugamba (6-0, 185, Soph.): His name was gaining buzz in August, so it was no wonder come November that he took over the starting job as a true freshman after Greg Mabin’s injury. Probably Iowa’s best bet as a lockdown corner.

Matt Hankins (6-1, 175, Fr.): Kirk Ferentz said last week he anticipated two true freshman corners seeing action. I think Hankins, who stuck with Iowa despite a Michigan offer, has the best shot at an immediate impact. Camron Harrell, who long-jumped 23 feet and runs 10.64 seconds in the 100, is also on my radar.

Punter

Colten Rastetter (6-2, 210, RS Soph.): Iowa signed a scholarship punter (see below), but I like what I’ve seen from the left-footed walk-on. Special-teams coach LeVar Woods said Rastetter “had his best day in the spring game.”

Ryan Gersonde (6-4, 185, Fr.): A unique prospect who grew up in Australia, where he developed different kicking styles. If he wins the job and can parallel what Ron Coluzzi did last year for Iowa, the scholarship was well worth it.

Return specialists

Kickoffs — Devonte Young: His name keeps coming up, and he was back there with Desmond King a year ago. Don’t count out cornerbacks Josh Jackson or Manny Rugamba, either. I could see multiple guys getting chances early in the season.

Punts — Matt VandeBerg: What’s a great way to support a young QB and unsure offense? With defensive or special-teams touchdowns. That’s why I think Akrum Wadley would be the game-breaking choice. BUT, the prediction is — at least at first — the Hawkeyes go with the safe one.

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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