Leistikow: We may be underselling 2017 Hawkeyes' strengths
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Kirk Ferentz probably didn’t mean to do it, but he did it.
Toward the end of our 20-minute interview on this week's HawkCentral radio show, the head Iowa football coach uttered one sentence that served as a simple and perhaps quietly confident statement about the 2017 Hawkeyes.
“There’s a lot of talk about what we don’t have,” Ferentz said, “but there’s a lot of things that we do have right now.”
You got me, Coach.
I’ve spent a lot of this summer writing about the biggest flash-point areas of concern surrounding Hawkeye football.
Anyone who follows the team closely knows what they are: Quarterback. Wide receiver. The secondary.
Absolutely, the media should be scrutinizing those topics. If those question-mark positions — particularly quarterback — fail miserably, Iowa’s 2017 fortunes probably plummet against the program’s toughest schedule in four years.
But Ferentz touched on a great point.
This Iowa team is stronger than maybe we realize in some very important areas that haven’t gotten much preseason pub.
So, let’s take care of that now.
The front seven
Give credit where credit is due: Under Phil Parker (the sixth-year defensive coordinator who has been on Ferentz's staff since 1999), developing star-quality defensive backs at Iowa has rarely been an issue.
From Bob Sanders to Amari Spievey to Tyler Sash to Micah Hyde to Desmond King … yeah, the Hawkeyes are usually OK back there.
So it comes down to the front seven; minimizing damage at the point of attack.
The trio of linebackers figure to be the program’s best collection since 2013’s Hitchens-Morris-Kirksey. It’ll be hard for them to be better; but we’ll see.
Preseason first-team all-American Josey Jewell is an excellent focal point (guessing you'll read a lot about him this season), and he’s flanked by seniors Ben Niemann (27 starts) and Bo Bower (another 26).
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And then there’s the defensive line. Some concern about replacing two senior tackles was eased when Parker said this week, “I think it’s the best we’ve been up front as a whole since I’ve been defensive coordinator here.”
He went on to say the same about the pass rush — and that’s notable.
Under Ferentz, Iowa’s never been much of a blitzing team. Ten percent of the time, Parker said the stats show.
That’s part of the reason why the best season for sacks under Parker's bend-don't-break scheme was a modest 30 in 2015 (tied for 42nd nationally).
A bothersome four-man rush just might be the elixir to the conveyor belt of talented quarterbacks on Iowa's schedule: Wyoming’s Josh Allen, Iowa State’s Jacob Park, Penn State’s Trace McSorley, Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett among them.
So, if this pass rush is swarming … does that mean more of an attacking defense?
Depends how you define "attacking defense."
“Does that mean physical attack or aggressively trying to gamble?” Parker said. “To me, gambling — I don’t like to gamble. I want to make sure we play good, sound, fundamental defense.
“There’s definitely times you’ve got to pick and choose when you go. But I think the guys that we have understand our blitzes. So, I think it’ll be very easy to run our blitzes without any mental errors.”
Solid pass rush. Intelligent, experienced, physical linebackers.
Sign up Hawkeye fans for that starting point every September.
The offensive line
I’m still wary of how well this unit can protect the quarterback after allowing 30 sacks in each of the past two seasons — way too many for a run-first offense that prides itself on sound line play.
But, hey, we’re being positive here.
And the five returning starters that helped win the Joe Moore Award in 2016 as the nation’s top offensive line deserve mention. That unit is the primary reason I picked the Hawkeyes to go unblemished in the nonconference schedule.
Despite facing dangerous passing offenses in Wyoming, Iowa State and North Texas, the trenches in Weeks 1-3 should be certified as “Property of Iowa Football.”
Keep senior guard Sean Welsh (a second-team all-American by USA TODAY last year) and junior center James Daniels (billed as a legit Rimington Award candidate) healthy, and I like Iowa’s chances to have its most potent running game since Shonn Greene won the Doak Walker Award in 2008.
And that leads me to the other obvious power point …
The running backs
The 2015 assembly line of Jordan Canzeri, LeShun Daniels Jr., Derrick Mitchell Jr. and Akrum Wadley proved to be very good.
But I think this one could be better than the unit Canzeri dubbed the "Four Deadly Horsemen," and possibly the deepest stable of running backs Ferentz has had at Iowa, period.
Bulked-up, matured Wadley (5-foot-11, 195 pounds) is poised for an even bigger year after his 204 touches as a junior accounted for 1,396 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Graduate transfer James Butler is the real deal and in the plans, and why wouldn't he be? The strong senior (5-9, 210) had 3,754 yards from scrimmage in three years at Nevada, putting 5,000 for his college career within reach.
Redshirt freshman Toren Young continues to look like an impact power back (5-11, 220) every time we get a glimpse of scrimmage action.
Add perhaps rising-freshman Ivory Kelly-Martin to that group, and a stated philosophy of offensive coordinator (and running-backs coach) Brian Ferentz to put his best six skill-position guys on the field ... and there's a lot to be justifiably excited about.
Let's take 12-0 off the table and all agree that if it happens, rejoice.
The schedule is daunting. Three preseason top-10 opponents (Penn State, Ohio State, Wisconsin) plus four more tough road games (Iowa State, Michigan State, Northwestern, Nebraska) present a difficult path to top the .500 mark.
But if Iowa's best position groups dominate while, as Ferentz told us on the radio, "the other guys get caught up" ... a second Big Ten West title in three years is plausibly within reach.