Leistikow: If Hawkeyes want a bigger 2018 (and '19), they're on right track
IOWA CITY, Ia. — To those of you ready to give up on Iowa’s football season — and I know you’re out there, if your tweets and e-mails to me were truthful — consider, for a moment, the big picture.
If you’ve read my columns since Saturday, you know I’m with you on this smaller-picture point: The 2017 Hawkeyes could be and should be better than 4-3 overall, 1-3 in the Big Ten Conference. While losing to No. 2 Penn State is understandable (even if it was on the last play), they coughed up a bevy of chances in winnable, one-possession road games at Michigan State and Northwestern.
But enough about that.
Let's peek ahead, just for a few minutes.
Look toward 2018. Even 2019, if you dare.
Those Hawkeyes rosters could be loaded. Those seasons are brimming with potential.
Coaches won't discuss how much they're strategizing for next year and beyond. The next game is all that matters, they'll say.
This week, head coach Kirk Ferentz said the goal is to “win out” in a five-week finish to the regular season that begins with Saturday’s 5:30 p.m. home game against Minnesota (4-3, 1-3).
Players aren’t openly looking ahead to a less treacherous 2018 schedule, either — with three trophy games at home and trading Big Ten East crossovers Ohio State and Michigan State off this year's slate for Indiana and Maryland.
“We’re not worried about next year,” true sophomore strong safety Amani Hooker said. “We’re trying to improve week by week, get better and win games.”
But you can tell Ferentz and his staff have been thinking big picture for a while.
When it’s come to personnel, their actions have spoken louder than words.
They had a tough choice at quarterback in fall camp. They went with the sophomore with more upside, Nate Stanley, over the fourth-year program veteran, Tyler Wiegers.
They know they’ve got enormous potential in enormous freshman offensive tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs. Both are now starters.
They’ve welcomed three true freshmen — Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Brandon Smith and now Max Cooper — into the wide receiver rotation, ahead of older players Adrian Falconer, Devonte Young and even New Mexico grad transfer Matt Quarells.
Second-year players Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson are getting almost every tight end snap, having jumped past two more proven blockers in Peter Pekar and Nate Wieting. That pair soaked up a ton of November 2016 snaps with George Kittle ailing.
Coaches have benched a senior strong safety, three-year starter Miles Taylor, in favor of raw but promising Hooker.
They’ve asked two veteran starters at defensive end, Matt Nelson (full-time) and Parker Hesse (part-time), to take more snaps at defensive tackle — a move that’s opened playing time for talented true freshman A.J. Epenesa.
Every young player I just mentioned? He's a cornerstone in the 2018 and 2019 plan.
At every position except linebacker and arguably running back, key trust has been thrown younger players’ way in 2017.
If you were to devise a “Build for 2018 and 2019 Without Trashing 2017” blueprint, this is almost exactly how you'd draw it up.
And as with any football team, a successful strategy starts at quarterback.
Stanley has made mistakes, yeah. He’s missed receivers at times. He’s lost key fumbles. But he’s quietly averaging 216.1 passing yards a game while throwing 16 touchdowns compared with three interceptions.
The key to keeping things on track for continued growth, Stanley said, is “just being optimistic with it. Just say, 'Yeah, we had those mistakes, but this is how close we are to being able to score two more touchdowns here, or run for 50 more yards in this game. Or even have a 20-yard run go for a 70-yard touchdown maybe.'
“Just being able to point out those little things and encourage people is something important to do. It’s always tough when people get discouraged.”
The key to ramping up for 2018 and 2019 is positive development.
Every defense Stanley gets to read is a valuable learning tool.
Every blitz Jackson and Wirfs face produces more film to study, more experience to perfect technique.
Recruiting is big, too.
This is the third cycle in which the Hawkeyes have been able to sell the impressive Iowa Football Performance Center to prospects. Based on the personnel that has filed into the building, the first two years have been a success.
Ten players in the Class of 2016 played as true freshmen; 10 more in the Class of 2017 have seen the field this fall. Iowa's classes of 2018 and 2019 are off to good starts.
On the field, there's importance in winning now.
Remember this: If Iowa can win at least two more games against a finishing schedule that has three games at home (Minnesota, No. 6 Ohio State, Purdue) and two on the road (No. 5 Wisconsin, Nebraska), it’ll become bowl eligible.
A bowl game means another three weeks or so of NCAA-approved practices, a vital block of development for 19- and 20-year-olds entering spring ball.
So whether you’ve thrown in the towel on Hawkeye football in 2017 or remain all-in, you should watch these next five weeks with high interest.
There’s a lot to play for.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.
A possible starting lineup for the Hawkeyes in 2018, with notable backups having 2019 eligibility in parentheses. (Classifications are as of the 2018 season.)
SE: Ihmir Smith-Marsette, soph. (Brandon Smith, soph.)
TE: Noah Fant, jr. (Nate Wieting, jr.)
LT: Tristan Wirfs, soph. (Mark Kallenberger, fr.)
LG: Ross Reynolds, sr. (Jeff Jenkins, fr.)
C: James Daniels, sr. (Cole Banwart, soph.)
RG: Keegan Render, sr. (Levi Paulsen, jr.)
RT: Alaric Jackson, soph. (Levi Paulsen, jr.)
TE: T.J. Hockenson, soph. (Shaun Beyer, soph.)
WR: Nick Easley, sr. (Max Cooper, soph.)
QB: Nate Stanley, jr. (Peyton Mansell, fr.)
RB: Ivory Kelly-Martin, soph. (Toren Young, soph.)
FB: Brady Ross, jr.
PK: Miguel Recinos, sr. (Keith Duncan, soph.)
LE: Anthony Nelson, jr. (Sam Brincks, sr.)
LT: Cedrick Lattimore, jr. (Garret Jansen, jr.)
RT: Matt Nelson, sr. (Brady Reiff, jr.)
RE: Parker Hesse, sr. (A.J. Epenesa, soph.)
OLB: Kristian Welch, jr. (Nick Niemann, soph.)
MLB: Jack Hockaday, sr. (Kristian Welch, jr.)
WLB: Aaron Mends, sr. (Amani Jones, jr.)
LCB: Joshua Jackson, sr. (Matt Hankins, soph.)
SS: Amani Hooker, jr. (Noah Clayberg, soph.)
FS: Brandon Snyder, sr. (Geno Stone, soph.)
RCB: Manny Rugamba, jr. (Michael Ojemudia, jr.)
P: Ryan Gersonde, soph. (Colten Rastetter, jr.)